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Strolling through a fruit and vegetable market in France is an excellent way to feel like a local or to remind yourself why you became one. The sights, smells, and the smattering of banter your ears pick out of the hubbub are as much a treat for the senses as is the produce. The baskets and bunches contain home-grown delicacies and others from far-off shores, both probably unfamiliar to you until now.
The endive, better known as leaf chicory to English-speakers, is a bitter-tasting, leafy vegetable that is incredibly popular in French cooking. It also happens to be extremely good for you. The leaves are high in fiber and rich in vitamins A and K and folate. In 100 grams of them, there are just 17 calories. Recently published research also suggests that eating endives could help diabetic and obese people reduce their glucose and LDL cholesterol levels thanks to the vegetable’s particular combination of fiber and inulin content.
Called Penny Buns in Britain and porcini mushrooms in the United States, cèpes are in season in Europe from August through to November. In France, they are most often seen dried and piled high in baskets at market stalls. While fresh, these fungi (apologies for the liberal interpretation of ‘fruits and vegetables’) are relatively mild, but the taste increases in strength through drying. Their popularity among foragers – and less adventurous mushroom enthusiasts – is down to the fact that they’re abundant in most woodlands, easily recognizable, and, most importantly, dissimilar in appearance to all poisonous mushrooms!
This light yellow to dark orange-red fruit, what we would call a persimmon, grows on trees which can be found across the world. However, the most widely cultivated varieties, and those which you can find at your local French market, originally come from Japan. Like the tomato, the kaki isn’t technically a fruit at all but is, in fact, a berry. Its health benefits are derived from betulinic acid, an anti-tumor compound, catechins, which have anti-infective, anti-inflammatory, and anti-hemorrhagic properties, and other anti-oxidants like zeaxanthin, which can help prevent age-related blindness.
We’ve all heard Nat King Cole singing about ‘chestnuts roasting on an open fire,’ but how many of us have actually tasted one? In France, however, it almost seems like a compulsory act each winter. From about October onwards, street vendors appear on corners and outside metro stations, roasting up these shiny brown nuts and selling them like popcorn in paper bags. Unless you are a nut expert or, for that matter, a nutter, we advise against foraging in your local parks for the châtaigne as the very similar-looking horse chestnut, which the Brits call conkers, are highly toxic.
Head to the fresh produce section of any French supermarket, and you’ll be amazed by the amount of packaged mâche you can find there. Called lamb’s lettuce or corn salad in English, this dark green, soft, and nutty leaf was popularized by Jean-Baptiste de la Quintine, royal gardener to Louis XIV. Its German name was borrowed by the Brothers Grimm for their character Rapunzel, whose father steals it from a witch’s garden, and it was grown by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. Today, the majority of Europe’s mâche comes from the fields around Nantes.
The name trompette de la mort, or trumpet of the dead – also known as the black trumpet, black chanterelle, or horn of plenty – is thought to originate from the notion that fungi were instruments pushed through the soil by those buried beneath. It is found in forests, usually under broad-leafed trees like oak or beech, across the Northern Hemisphere and appears in France between June and November. Though quite unattractive, it is rather tasty. Similar to cèpes, it is popular in French cooking, and the flavor increases with dehydration, acquiring notes of black truffle.
The mirabelle plum or prune is descended from a wild fruit originally found in Anatolia, in modern Turkey. The soil and climate of the French region of Lorraine make it ideal for the cultivation of this small, dark yellow fruit. More than 15,000 tons are grown here each year, constituting 80 percent of global production. Every August, the city of Metz holds a two-week festival dedicated to the mirabelle. Markets sell fresh prunes, tarts, and liquor made from the fruit, and there are parades, live music performances, art exhibits, and the crowning of the Mirabelle Queen at the gala.
The quetsche, or blue plum, is the fruit of the plum tree of Damascus. It ripens in mid-August and is hugely popular in Alsace and Lorraine as well as Germany, Austria, Luxembourg, and Switzerland. In the French regions, it is used to make a local brandy known as Quiterie, which can be drunk at room temperature or heated up like coffee. The oval, pale red or violet fruit can also be eaten fresh and made into seriously scrumptious jams, tarts, and sorbets.
The coing, or quince, is characterized by its cottony surface, yellow color, and distinct fragrance. When grown in a Mediterranean climate, it can be eaten like an apple or pear but, farther north, it remains a little too hard and acidic and is better suited to jellies, jams, pastes, and cakes. In Moroccan cuisine, the quince is a common ingredient in tajines, often prepared alongside lamb, mutton, or veal. In Alsace, as is clearly the thing to do in the more rural regions of France, it is fermented into liqueur de coing and served as a digestif.
The pitaya is known as dragon fruit in English and is produced by hemiepiphytic cacti native to Central America. The external case is bright pink with green wings, and the flesh inside is white with black seeds like a kiwi. The extremely sweet fruit has helpful digestive properties, helping to prevent gout and even functioning, by some estimations, as a light laxative. French settlers in Vietnam imported the cacti from Mexico at the start of the 19th century, and cultivation spread across Asia. Today, pitaya normally comes into the EU from the French DOM-TOM.