The triumphant return of “forgotten vegetables” from France

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At the start of the Occupation in 1940, Nazi troops seized about 80 percent of French food production, including about a quarter of its products and half of its meat. They focused on choice products like potatoes, leaving the French with leftovers. Before World War II, vegetables such as rutabaga and Jerusalem artichoke had been relegated to animal feed, but they quickly became the centerpieces of French tables.

It is not surprising that the French, who survived these rustic vegetables for nine years, could no longer see them when the rationing finally ended in 1949. Eggplant, zucchini and potatoes returned to the market stalls, but many other easy-to-grow root vegetables were clearly missing, so much so that when they finally started appearing on restaurant menus decades later, they were doubled forgotten vegetables: forgotten vegetables.

Fred Pouillot, owner of the Parisian culinary school Le Foodist, grew up in central France. To date, he says, his 86-year-old mother “despises rutabagas”.

“She said that Jerusalem artichokes (Jerusalem artichokes) was the only thing she remembered eating during the good war, “he said. “But she never cooked them again. “

With food shortages, firmer vegetables have become essential for survival.
With food shortages, firmer vegetables have become essential for survival. Keystone-France / Getty Images

Culinary historian Patrick Rambourg, professor at Paris Diderot University, echoes this experience. “In families where grandparents had gone through this difficult time, there was absolutely no question of them appearing on their tables,” he said. “They just contributed to the idea of ​​everything that was so horrible in the Occupation.”

War was just the coffin for many of these vegetables. Jerusalem artichokes, in particular, were small, difficult to peel and caused digestive problems when eaten in excess, just like kohlrabi, which was generally eaten only by the poorest in France.

Still others had been replaced by tastier replacements long before the occupation. When the potato was first introduced to France in the 17th century, it is believed to have caused leprosy and the plague. Thanks to the marketing genius of Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, the potatoes then regained the place occupied by parsnips on French tables since the Middle Ages. As a result, the white winter root began its long fade into oblivion.

It wasn’t until the early 2000s that many of these vegetables took root again in French hearts and menus. Loïc Martin, owner of the Martin wine bar and the Robert restaurant, says that their rebirth came with the “bistronomie” movement. The term, coined by French food journalist and critic Sébastien Démorand in 2004, refers to a tendency to move from picky cuisine to honest bistro cuisine made with local products. The humble old-fashioned root vegetables have proven to be “ingredients that fit this philosophy,” he says.

Liran Tal's red cabbage is massaged with miso butter and adorned with cumin seeds, goat cheese and date vinegar chutney.
Liran Tal’s red cabbage is massaged with miso butter and adorned with cumin seeds, goat cheese and date vinegar chutney. Liran Tal

Composed of the influence of Japanese and Anglo-Saxon chefs, “forgotten” vegetables quickly appeared with surprising regularity on French tables. Liran Tal, the Israeli chef at Baba Marais, is a “big fan of forgotten vegetables”.

“My cuisine is based on local, seasonal ingredients combined with Mediterranean influences and cooking techniques from around the world,” he explains. “As for the forgotten vegetables, I like to char the kohlrabi or rutabaga in a charcoal oven, slice it finely like a carpaccio, and serve it with olive oil and date vinegar. “

But part of this trend is also a return, not only to root vegetables, but to the historic roots of French cuisine. Kristen Beddard, the American founder of the Kale Project, who sought to reintroduce kale on French farms and tables from 2012, recalls how it was easier to sell premises on the history of kale, rather than the health benefits that so captivated his American supporters. “In the end, the French are not afraid of eating habits,” she says.

Kristen Beddard and Hermione Boehrer harvest kale in Coulommiers, France.
Kristen Beddard and Hermione Boehrer harvest kale in Coulommiers, France. Emily Dilling

This attitude, explains Rambourg, is part of a broader trend: that of finding exoticism, not from distant lands, but from home. “We cling to something that has to do with our own land, with our own agriculture,” he says. “It is reassuring to eat something like that, because the global environment in recent history has not been reassuring. “

This culinary nostalgia is far from a typical French problem, according to Ken Albala, food historian and professor of history at the University of the Pacific. “My mother’s generation, who grew up during the depression, ate indescribable things,” he says, citing lungs, which are now illegal to eat in the United States. “She sort of looked at those who are longing but would never do it for the family,” he says. “Even though she did not leave home to work, she used cooked meals. She was totally in modernity and technology and science and all snapshot. The generation that followed, he explains, “is just the opposite,” with their love for everything from sourdough to homemade cold cuts.

But Albala believes that the current trend in subsistence cooking is coming to an end. “It has been at least fifteen years now that DIY, crafts, cooking for the domestic movement have taken place,” he said. “Since the first economic slowdown. “He believes that we are ready for another period of high-tech cooking, like the ready meals of the 50s or molecular gastronomy of the 90s.” Once everything is finished and the economy is back, I think that people will get tired of DIY again, ”he wonders.

Jerusalem artichokes make a rich velvety sauce at the Foodist.
Jerusalem artichokes make a rich velvety sauce at the Foodist. The Foodist

In France, the pendulum will probably also oscillate, but perhaps not as violently. As is often the case in France, the trends are more subtle and tend to leave their mark longer than in the United States. “Consumers have found their way back to the farm,” says Martin. He doesn’t think they’ll leave it that easily. And after all, although they’ve been back in the culinary landscape for a few years, Jerusalem artichokes and rutabagas are still only eaten occasionally, says Ramburg. “These are not common vegetables. “

“As far as Paris is concerned, I personally find that the supply on the markets is very limited,” says Pouillot. “I can still find red beets, quite easily Jerusalem artichokes and parsnips, sometimes crusted and salsify. Rarely original beets or tuberous chervil (turnip root chervil), and never freezing ficoide (common ice plant) or purslane (purslane). “

But even if these vegetables are rare, one thing is certain: they have been successfully dissociated, if not in collective memory, at least in individual memory, during difficult times.

“Perhaps we had to wait for the second or third generation,” remarks Rambourg. “We are moving away from this history and this painful past of the occupation. Over time, you know. Not in our memories. ”

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