24 – 02 – 2019
The last weeks were colored in winter’s tonality – bare trees let the valley appear naked while mosses and lichen strive in rich textures and smells. Life seems to happen closer to the ground; or even beneath it. Every leaf or thought that has been high up in the air has fallen down by now. Winter sheds, brings back to the roots and the essence. As my ally Titiane has been deepening her knowledge of wild herbs and plants in the last weeks, I noticed new questions to my cooking. The plants and roots Titiane brings home from her wanderings pose me with the challenge of cooking (with the) wild. One afternoon she comes home with a tray of wonky, bleak roots, covered in a thick layer of earth. Oh dear, is it parsnips?
My grandma speaks of parsnips in the same sentence she speaks of World War II and when I imagine the taste of parsnip I actually think of ‘no taste’. The roots are wrinkly and lanky, their flesh seems fibrous and wiry. What to do with these creatures? I read that their leaves can cause rashes and that its best to remove them from the land. They grow invasively where the soil has been exhausted by monoculture and a lack of biodiversity creates gaps for these sturdy roots to spread. The only recipes I find are recipes to extinct them. But how to cook with them?
Meeting and eating the land
As much as I enjoy experimenting with these new ingredients for our own household, I am even more curious to invite our neighbors into these explorations. Titiane and I invite people from the area for a “dejeuner sauvage”, a wild lunch.
During a herb walk with a neighbor who makes maps of the local forest we discover a plateau high above the Lot valley. The plateau of the “Peyrecoutelle” used to be the place where the villagers sharpened their knifes on one of the big granite rocks. [‘Peyre’ comes from ‘Pèira’ which means stone in Occitanie, the language of this region. Coutelle resembles the word ‘couteau’, the French word for ‘knife’]. The ground here is hard, rocky, the air fresh and clear, one can graze with the eyes over the river Lot, the naked hills and the sleeping fields. What appeals to me up here is that the lightness of this place balances the earthy qualities of winter. The dense root vegetables that winter provides are harmonizing with the clarity and lightness of this place. I am reminded of something I learned in India through Ayurvedic cooking: a meal is wholesome when it balances the qualities of all tastes and textures. Usually this is a way of looking at the different dishes on one plate. On an indian Tali sweet and spicy chutney meets cooling yoghurt, soft chapatis lie next to crunchy pakora. I wonder how to ‘look in that way’ on the whole eating experience – including the place one eats in. Isn’t the scenery as much a part of the dish as the food on the plate? In the preparation our kitchen transforms into an experiential, chaotic and alive playground. Dandelion roots are macerating in sweet wine on our window sill and I am experimenting with many ways of softening parsnips.
After a week of glazing, brewing, cooking, filtering, fermenting and roasting, we set a menu:
Apéro: Cleaver lemon lemonade Nombril de Venus with a cream of avocado and primrose
Entrée: Broth of wild parsnip and rosemary
Entre les deux: Nettle ravioli
Plat de résistance: Cumin roasted beetroot on bittercress Wild salad Soft sheep’s cheese from a neighbor’s farm
Dessert: Honey glazed parsnips with salt and butter roasted hazelnuts Dandelion root coffee and digestive
On the day of the lunch we are blessed with warmth and sun – making my worries of freezing guests obsolete. We begin the lunch with a small walk through the village during which we meet all the plans that will reappear on the plates: Venus Bellybutton’s, Dandelion, Nettle, Cleaver, The walls of the village are literally growing our salad!
As we arrive on the plateau, one of our guests admits that she lives in the village, 400m away from the spot for years but has never been up there. I suspect that it is not only the place that is unfamiliar but also the ingredients on the plate. While cooking and preparing plates I am looking into faces that are showing curiosity and delight as well as carefulness. We confirm our guests that everything on the plates is edible – from nettle to dandelion – somehow I recognize this mixture of emotions from embarking on walks in the wild. As much as hiking into the unknown is compelling, it comes with a prickly excitement and awake alertness that sharpens the senses. During the lunch I feel like taking our guests into a journey of encountering what they see growing around them since years and just never appeared to be delicious food.
In many moments this lunch felt like a performance and as to every stage, there was a backstage that has been adventurous. Non of us had experience of cooking outdoors before and fire has its very own temperament, unlike a tame oven. The set up of the space, the careful crafting of the food came about as a collaboration with Titiane, who dove deep into the dialogue with herbs and foraging, Hanne and Thijs who tasted and helped to shape food creations with eagerness and willingness for honest feedback and Jana who brought out her talent for creating and seeing beauty in photographing. I feel great eagerness to continue the explorations to cook and eat in dialogue with landscapes and to invite people as harvesters, eaters, cooks and collaborators in and with the wild in front of their door.