The enigma of the vanishing vegetables

How they do it has always been a mystery. We have every tool, fertiliser and deterrent known to man and yet are unable to produce more than three sunburnt tomatoes and a few sticks of rhubarb. Mr Nextdoor only used three things – an ancient hoe, a handful of fertilizer pellets, and a watering  can. As well as his vines, fruit trees and strawberries, onions, garlic, varieties of lettuce, berms of asparagus, peas, beans, broccoli, tomatoes, courgettes, peppers, aubergines, cabbages, leeks, spinach, potatoes and carrots all grew obediently, in perfect rows and uniform height. Never was there a weed to be seen or a vegetable out of line, except for the coloquintes rambling over the fence, laden with their colourful decorative gourds.

Coloquintes au marché d'Orange

By jean-louis zimmermann [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Lastly, there was the vibrant row of chrysanthemums in shades of yellow, purple, rust and white, ready to be potted up and taken to the cemetery to decorate the resting places of departed family on Toussaint – All Hallows, the Day of the Dead in France. Which happens to be today. Chrysanthemums are almost exclusively used in France to celebrate this day – never offer them as a gift!

Mr Nextdoor had been the man of the family since his father died when he was 8 years old. His mother scraped a living dressmaking, and he went off to the fields at daybreak and worked until dusk on the family farm to grow the food to feed her, his two younger sisters, and himself. So he had all the experience he needed to defeat the forces of nature – disease, insects, drought and flood and apparently did so effortlessly. In a strange twist, Mr Nextdoor didn’t actually like or eat vegetables. He was an unusual Frenchman in that he had no interest in food, nor in wine, although he produced sufficient of both to supply a small town. His wife lamented the fact that he was impossible to feed as there was nothing he enjoyed eating. Given that he was as thin as a straw, active 7 days a week during every daylight hour, and had never smoked, it was unjust that his heart let him down. He had to have a 5-way bypass, and although it kept him going for a few years his health was never satisfactory after that.

To return to the enigma of the vanishing vegetables. While Mr Nextdoor was in some ways untypically French, he was far from unique in his vegetable growing. Every garden around (apart from ours) boasts similarly regimented and abundant vegetables, year after year. If all the locally-grown produce was put into a heap, it would probably smother the Eiffel Tower.

637px-Cornucopia_of_fruit_and_vegetables_wedding_banquet_(cropped)

By Jina Lee [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Why do they grow all these vegetables? Presumably to eat. So presumably they like eating them. Which leads to the enigma.

Why don’t the restaurants serve vegetables? With rare exceptions, main courses are accompanied by a small castle of white rice and a sad floppy dollop of once-green beans reduced by a process, it appears, of flagellation to within a millimetre of their lives followed by lengthy boiling to death until they assume a cadaverous greyness. A rare fragment of potato, a sliver of courgette, julienne of half a carrot, or a cherry tomato are a sight to make the heart leap with excitement.

It may not be a region famed for its food, but the Poitou-Charentes region has plenty of superb restaurants. Particular favourites of ours are the Lion d’Or in Chauvigny, the Charlemagne in Charroux, both of which have retained their high standard over the 20 years we have eaten there, and Bistrot du Boucher in Poitiers is where we always take guests, certain that the quality and service will be faultless. We have never had a meal at any of those establishments that was less than excellent. There are mediocre restaurants, and bad restaurants, just as there are anywhere in the world, but this is a region where you can eat really well, in a bistro, an unassuming restaurant or an elegant château.

One thing they tend to have in common, though, is the dearth of vegetables served.  Maybe it’s our English upbringing, where a proper meal was considered to be meat and three vegetables, potatoes being compulsory, whether mashed, roasted, fried or baked, no meal is complete without the faithful spud. Yet servings of vegetables are almost as rare as hen’s teeth when we dine out, either in restaurants or French friends’ homes. And if any are served, they’re usually in minute quantities. Why? If the French grow vegetables because they enjoy them, don’t they want them when they go out to eat? Or do they just grow them to show they can? Or because it is traditional? What do they do with them?

Lou Messugo
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14 thoughts on “The enigma of the vanishing vegetables

    • From whence they never emerge! When we were house-hunting, in one house we looked at the garage was crammed with bottles of sinister grey shapes, all smothered in cobwebs and dust. 🙂

  1. It was the die straight rows and uniformity which used to strike me…the appreciation of a good garden was the phrase
    tire a la corde comme il en faut.

    Our gardens were always fairly messy…companion plants, some beds only half full until later in the season because of the soil or the shade….so we didn’t qualify!

    Friends ate loads of veg….both on the plate and in soup…and bottling was rife.
    One woman used to relieve me of my gluts of courgettes – would you believe – and bottle the beasts and someone told me of someone she knew who bottled lettuces.

    But restaurants? No.

  2. I seem to remember something in Goose Fat and Garlic, the cookery of south west France (one of my favourite cookery books) about peasants wanting to eat protein when they went out because they didn’t get much at home. So meals out tended to lean towards meat entree, meat plat and cheese. Maybe the tradition continues.

  3. That’s what I have been told too. Eating vegetables “in public” would be an admission that you could not afford meat. Even with guests, which are rare unless family members, it’s no, or very few, vegetables.
    Always amazes me that most French when eating in a restaurant leave the salad garnish untouched more often than not. Let alone the vegetables.
    Hence the nightmare for veggies trying to get anything other than an omelette for a meal.
    You can add into that the French belief that if they didn’t invent it in the food line then it ain’t worth eating. Think, corn on the cob, runner beans, parsnips to name but three. In my previous life we used to grow acres of these three alone in the Loire valley for seed to go into little packets in garden centres all over the UK. The climate was perfect for their production but the French table would never see them.
    Not, therefore, surprising that French cuisine is living in the past both in restaurants and homes.

  4. I didn’t know about your seed-growing activities, Pip. How interesting. Did you manage to achieve those neat rows?

    The only corn on the cob I have seen here has been in vacuum-packs of two, and as for parsnips! Well, in fact over the last couple of years we have seen them from time to time, locally, but they’re more often than not sad wrinkled little specimens hardly worthy of the name.

    Almost all of our French friends look blank when I mention “panais” – they’ve never heard of them let alone eaten any. A farmer volunteered that they were only suitable for feeding to livestock. Fancy, a country that proclaims itself the leader of international cuisine but doesn’t know how to produce a decent roast potato or parsnip!

    They certainly are living in the past. When I first came to live here, I asked in the supermarket for porridge oats . The snooty and very awkward manager there stared at me with contempt, and assured me that the only things that ate oats were horses. Nothing I could say would convince him otherwise. Now, of course, they’re on every supermarket shelf, and, I know it’s petty, but whenever I buy a packet I always make sure that they are conspicuous in my trolley, and slap them down triumphantly on the counter if he’s on the till. 🙂

  5. They were probably in straight lines but that was left to the farmer with his dirty great tractor and drill. I would not see them until they were flowering so we could pull up the wrong ones. 10 acres of parsnip plants which are by now 5ft or more tall takes a bit of walking through.
    I too found corn on the cob not only old and wrinkled but hellish expensive. Until this summer when to my delight I found them in Grand Frais stores in their natural leaf wrapping, not drastically priced and pretty fresh.
    I love Grand Frais they have such a wide selection of fruit and veg unseen anywhere else in France.

  6. Interesting story about your neighbour – a great character for a novel! I have usually been disappointed in the veg (or lack of) served in restaurants. Whereas people take home baskets groaning with green produce from the markets, you rarely get more than potatoes or a few stringy haricots verts when you eat out. There are exceptions, fortunately, #AllAboutFrance

  7. I haven’t noticed the lack of vegetables when dining out in France particularly but I will take more notice now.

  8. I think perhaps I’m in a good area for restaurant vegetable eating because there’s no lack around here, but I can certainly picture what you’re describing in other parts of France. I’m always amazed at the gardens taken over by rows of veg, even in tiny suburban plots, there’s often nowhere for relaxation, it’s all about work. Interesting observation. I think Jacqui hits the nail on the head that most veg are bottled and hiding in cellars! Thanks for linking to #AllAboutFrance

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