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“Your average Frenchman intuitively knows the growing calendar”

Since moving to France from the UK in 2004, my only contact with the British media is satellite tv, which I try to restrict myself to watching for no more than a few hours a week. Enfin bref, let’s not get into a comparison of the merits or otherwise of UK versus French TV. The point is that I have been following the media response to the recent publication of the Stern Report on global warming. It got me to thinking about all the millions of tonnes per year of food produce that is flown into the UK from every corner of the world in order to satisfy Brits’ irrational desire to eat foods that are out of season, and thereby exotic. This must, surely, be contributing to the effects of global warming by virtue of the increase in air traffic. In one of my previous lives before I moved to France, I was a marketing manager for an exotic fruit and vegetable company who supplied the leading UK supermarkets and food processors with just such out-of-season products – 12 month a year baby corn, fine beans, extra sweet tiny peas, dwarf aubergines, uniformly sized strawberries, etc. We couldn’t grow the stuff fast enough to meet the UK’s ever-increasing demand, despite the ridiculously high cost - £1 for barely a portion of mange tout, I ask you! Part of my brief was to try to convince French supermarkets and wholesalers of the benefits of buying such imported produce, but it was mostly a frustratingly fruitless exercise and I got nowhere. At the time, I just couldn’t figure out why.

“As soon as they know the local griottes were exhausted, their palates moved on to the next –”

Gone are the days of business suits, expense accounts and a company Mercedes. Now I own a little bar/restaurant in a Burgundy village where my husband and I whip up a four course menu every day for our loyal and discriminating customers. I quickly came to realise that your average Frenchman intuitively knows the growing calendar of fruits and vegetables, and expects to eat wholesome, local produce that’s freshly harvested and at its peak of flavour and freshness. A restaurateur’s job is to use these ingredients to their best advantage whilst they’re in season. What a fool I was to think it should ever have been otherwise! Who cares if the leeks are large, if the apples are irregular, if the brussel sprouts are knobbly, if the pears are mottled? What matters is the flavour. How pure and simple is that?

A Frenchman will glut himself on a seasonal delicacy whilst it’s available, to the exclusion of other choices, because he knows he’ll have to wait a whole year to enjoy it again. A case in point is the famous clafoutis, - a sort of sweet “toad in the hole” made with cherries. Admittedly, the cherries (known in this area as griottes) were exceptionally plump, black, sweet and abundant this year due to the fantastic early summer weather. Even before cherries were available at our wholesalers, my customers were urging me to make clafoutis. I’d never made it before, but from my first careful attempt at this classic pudding, our customers clamoured for it. For about six weeks, I made tons of the stuff, getting through literally hundreds of eggs, gallons of cream and sacks of vanilla sugar in an attempt to keep up with demand. And then “poof”, (as the French would say) it all came to an end. As soon as they knew the local griottes were exhausted, their palates moved on to the next – melons and apricots, as it happens. I could have continued to buy cherries from Italy or Morocco but that would have defeated the object, and would have only invited long, heated and technical discussions comparing these with the far-superior local varieties.

“The tough bit is to fulfill the potential of the magnificent produce as it falls from the bushes and trees...”

The beauty of this breadth of customer knowledge is that much of the mystery and flim-flam associated with putting together a varied and interesting menu is taken away – they know ahead of you what should be on the menu next month. The tough bit is to be able to fulfil the potential of the magnificent produce as it falls from the bushes and trees, and erupts succulent and unctuous from this rich French earth.

Will the UK ever get back to the love of real food that we had in the days before the development chefs of Marks & Spencer and Waitrose made the decisions of what’s “good food” or not? Think of how much aviation fuel we’d save. As for me, I’m now elbow-deep in the tarte au pomme season – and therein lies another tale……

© Sian Duval

Sian Duval is a food writer living in a small Burgundy Village. Previously she was a lecturer in English for most of her professional life, whilst dabbling in marketing, interior design and property development. But throughout her 26 years of married life she’s always taken an active role in numerous restaurants, pubs and hotels in Burgundy and the East Midlands area.