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A salad made of wild plants from the French countryside - photos by Michelle Rogers

Eating the French Countryside: Collecting and Cooking Wild Herbs and Plants

By Michelle Rogers
Owner of Sejours in Flora N Fauna

"I’ll have some hedge woundwort sauce on that stinging nettle pasta please, and a side of hogweed au gratin."

What menu is that? Where is this restaurant?

Why it’s just outside in your local French countryside. I recently did a study retreat on cooking French cuisine with wild edible plants with a French ethnobotanist called Francois Couplan, and that was our menu.

I went into this retreat thinking I was going to do an intensive study of wild edible plant collection and preparation. What I got was an amazing experience in French cuisine, culture and language.

Collecting Wild Plants

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The reality is that many of the plants growing on the sides of the road and in pastures are edible. We drive by them all the time without a clue as to their nature, properties or cultural history.

Our ancestors used to collect them and use them for medicines, rituals and general sustenance. Today, though, with your local supermarket and easy access to mass-produced foods, we’ve forgotten this amazing cultural heritage.

Ethnobotanist Francois Couplan

As I sit during the first hour of this study retreat Dr. Couplan talks about the importance of connection to nature, and explained that we would spend our weekend learning to identify and use plants based on sight, touch, smell and taste.

As we step out the Auberge’s (Inn’s) door he stops us immediately. This little weed is growing on the ground very inconspicuously. Picking a leaf to show us he says this plant is from the Malvaceae plant family and is edible.

Commercially we’ve seen drinks from the flowers of this family, such as hibiscus juice, or fruit from this family, such as okra. (Sorry, it’s not a vegetable. If you look inside it’s got seeds and that’s a fruit, botanically speaking.) But little do we know that tons of species from this family grow all over the countryside and they’re also edible.

Then we move on, stopping every so often for Dr. Couplan to point out yet a new plant and discuss its properties both medicinally and gastronomically.

Collecting plants

At each stop I’m trying to get a plant specimen for pressing in my book and straining to understand his rapid French. I’m madly writing things down in my nature journal that are half English and half French as I hurry to obtain as much info as I can before he moves on to the next subject.

Looking back in my nature journal today I laugh at some of the hurried concoctions I wrote, such as this entry, “Eglantier – Rosa Canina – Pas des roses sans épines (No roses without thorns) – Rose hips long used to ease coughs and sore throats – can also ferment to make wine – fruit often used to make jams - good in pizza???”

Cooking with Wild Plants

At the end of the day, after hiking around the woods and countryside, we return to the Auberge with our collections. I’m rubbing the little welts on my fingers obtained during the collection of the stinging nettle plants while looking over the massive mounds of plants we have laid on the long table before us. There are near 20 of us in this course, so we’ve collected a LOT of items during the day.

Meal planning

Sitting around everyone starts to discuss what we’ll cook. Some mention a new idea to make a dessert of ground ivy leaves coated in honey and crystallized sugar. Others talk about the stinging nettle pasta we could make, or the mixed salad of various greens we’ve collected, or hogweed au gratin, or an appetizer of toasted bread with plantain pesto on it. The list is never ending. Luckily Dr. Couplan has also come with a list of recipes he and a famous gourmet French chef designed, and everyone also picks from that.

Once the group has agreed on a plan of action and menu for the night, everyone starts moving. It’s an amazing experience for me to watch these French in the kitchen. I’m your typical American who doesn’t find cooking second nature. I’ve had to work at learning it over the years. For these people it is indeed a second nature.

True they are all between the ages of 30-60 and so come from the cooking culture of France. The young French today do not exhibit these skills so readily anymore and are starting to fill up your local French McDonalds, a sad but real effect of globalization I’m afraid.

Making dishes

Yet, in this group, they just instinctively know how to make a plant extract, or soufflé, or whipped pancakes from scratch, or a special aperitif. I stand by in awe.

They know because they grew up seeing it, doing it, and living it. I spent most of my time in the kitchen watching as they quickly and easily whip things together, keep tasting everything and discussing it, and then add a bit of this or a bit of that until it reaches their expectations. For them it is the experience of making it that matters; where the actual process is as important as the outcome.

Finally we put all the creations onto the dishes in an appetizing manner and the food is served. Not just one dish, but several courses of appetizers and apéritifs followed by the salad, then the main entree and then the dessert. I was stuffed, and it was all completely delicious.

Getting by in a foreign language

I’m sure anyone who’s traveled anywhere has a few stories to share about language blunders. I’m no exception to this group. Because this study retreat was in French, I spent the entire time doing my very best to follow as much detail as I could.

In the evening after we were done eating our gourmet wild plant meal I sat around going back through my nature journal notes and trying to look up the plants in my botanical books. I wanted to sort out the information I had received throughout the day.

Primivere mousse

At one point, prior to heading up to his room for the night, Dr. Couplan came over and was looking through my botanical book with me and we discussed some of the plants we had collected that day, then he retired for the evening and I kept working.

The next morning we were back out in the field collecting and he was discussing a new plant we’d found when someone in the group asked him what plant family it was from. I was busy writing other things in my nature journal at this point and not paying attention. So we all know what happens when that’s the case: The teacher calls on you! Dr. Couplan calls out my name and asks me something. I look up. I give him the deer-in-the-head-lights look, and then say “Comment?” (Come again?) He repeats himself by asking me to identify the family of this plant.

Twenty pairs of eyes turn to me. He goes on to say, “You know, the plant family we were discussing yesterday.” Then I remember the plants we were talking about the previous evening while looking in my botanical books and I say in French “Ah, hier soir dans le livre?” (Ah, Last night in the book?)

Plant collections

But, I didn’t pronounce the last word correctly. In fact I completely blundered it and instead it sounded like I said, “Hier soir dans le lit?” (Last night in the bed?).

Needless to say everyone’s mouths dropped open wide as they looked from Dr. Couplan to me. Dr. Couplan laughed and said, “Non, ce n’était pas un tête-à-tête.” (No, it wasn’t a private moment (in a bed)).

Then I realized what I had said and corrected myself quickly at which time the entire group started to laugh at me non-stop; but in a fun, jesting way.

Ah the joys of speaking a foreign language! Yet, a little embarrassment is part of the experience of learning a new language, and I’m certainly now sure to never mispronounce “livre” again, and I can make wild plant pesto sauce and hogweed au gratin.

Reference:

Scientific Name English Common French Common Name
Glechoma hederacea Ground Ivy Lierre Terrestre
Heracleum sphondylium Hogweed Berce Spondyle
Urtica dioica Stinging Nettle Ortie
Rosa canina Dog Rose Églantier
Stachys sylvatica Hedge Woundwort Épiaire des Bois
Plantago lanceolata Ribwort Plantain Plantain lancéolé

Note: DO NOT try to collect and eat wild plants on your own without a trained person to show you how, when, what parts of the plant to use and the methods of preparation. Otherwise you might find yourself very sick, or worse.

Michelle Rogers owns Sejours in Flora N Fauna (SFF) which offers active eco-adventures and study expeditions abroad on the cultural and natural history of France.





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