Hank Williams, Jr. sings about how a country boy can run a trotline, skin a deer and do whatever to survive. He extols the virtues of the country boy. I dont know the real name of the song but the familiar refrain that keeps popping into my head is a county boy can survive. I am not sure that it is true anymore. Recent studies of the rural South indicate that many young people have no idea how to cook a potato or that French fries are made from potatoes.
During the great depression people had to live off the land but I am not sure that Americans have ever truly learned the concept. I can remember when I was five years old kicking over toad stools every morning with my friends in South Georgia. It was great fun because they were poisonous and something akin to an axis of evil. Fifty years later while escorting some French visitors through the back roads of Georgia, they excitedly demanded that I stop. They wanted to gather for dinner the same toadstools that I used to kick over as a child. They were genuinely surprised that I thought they were poisonous.
No one lives off the land like the French. They east mushrooms, snails, frogs, and everything that comes out of the water. Chestnuts and walnuts are everywhere in the fall and Acacia flowers make great beignets in the spring. In the summer there are wild strawberries, blackberries and wild plums. Even in the middle of winter there are great treats to gather from the land. February and early March is the season to harvest wild mache and dandelions to make salads.
Last week our friend Christine Montambaux invited us to dinner for crepes which are traditionally eaten in February. The tradition is to eat crepes on February 2nd, which is the day of Chandeleur, but like the galettes of January 6th, they are consumed all month long. Crepes where traditionally cooked over the fire in a cast iron frying pan with a four foot handle. Christine and her mother, Eliane, decided to make the crepes over the fire in the traditional way to show us how it was done in the old days. In keeping with tradition, they spent the day up on the plain in the vineyards gathering pissenlit and wild mache for our salad.
In France, it is not just the country boys who know how to survive on the land. My neighbors is are Parisians who only visit their cave a few times a year, but I am constantly surprised at how much they know about the land and traditions of the countryside. Pierre is an architect who specializes in building bridges all over France. He is originally from this region but has not lived here for many years. His girlfriend is from Paris but she also seems to know the lore of the land. They know the names and uses of plants, herbs, trees and flowers like a Native American medicine man. One evening they were being bitten by bugs, so Pierre went over to a bush and pulled off some leaves and rubbed them on their ankles. He told me it was citronella. The leaves smelled like the expensive candles that we have been buying to chase mosquitoes.
Everyone gathers dandelions to make salad and acacia flowers to make beignets. Monsieur Jean harvests a wild stinging nettle called ortil to make soup and young sprouts of a plum tree to make an aperitif call pousse depine. My friends from Nantes find wild mushrooms growing on the side of the road. No one lives on honeybuns at the local convenience store in France. A country boy can still survive here.
Gather the dandelion leaves before they flower. After the plant flowers, it is too late and the dandelion is not edible. The best time for harvesting the wild dandelion is during the month of February and early March. The best place for gathering dandelions in the vineyards but they grow everywhere. Wild mache also sprouts about the same time in the vineyards and makes a good compliment to the dandelions.
Rapeseed oil (canola oil)
Dandelion and Mache
Dissolve the salt and pepper in the vinegar (salt and pepper will not dissolve in oil). Add three parts of oil for each part of vinegar. Pour the vinaigrette in a salad bowl. Add the washed dandelions and mache. Dice the hard boiled egg and place on the leaves. Toss when ready to eat.
Instead of using rapeseed oil, chop and cook bacon in a frying pan. Use the bacon fat and bacon instead of the oil.