The French and their vegetables, huh? My sister and I are sitting in a French restaurant, and we're definitely eating soup, but its identity is eluding us. It is labelled with the musical word "topinambour", but that's as far as we get. The waitress isn't a huge amount of help; though we speak French and she speaks English, none of us possesses a specialist knowledge of vegetable translation. "It's a bit like a parsnip," she tells us finally, and we take another sip of soup, which is a weirdly frustrating experience when you don't know what exactly it is that you're eating.
Whether or not they know the English translation, even a child in France knows their veg. A whole genre of kids' books exists in France which have no English equivalents: we own a few, including L'imagier du Légume, a pictorial guide intended to help babies distinguish frisée from mâche. And when I say babies, I'm not exaggerating. You can buy colourful books detailing different ways of eating veg, how to buy them at market and those that just help you identify an aubergine. All for before you're six. No wonder there are children at the next table happily slurping soupe de topinambour.
Evelyne Bloch-Dano, a French historian and biographer, has now taken the national devotion to the edible plant a step further and published Vegetables: A Biography (University of Chicago Press, £13). We've had biographies of cod and salt, so it was only a matter of time, perhaps, before someone tackled chilli peppers (among 12 vegetables chosen for the treatment). But this is a particularly charming account of the peppers: Inca gods, native princesses and a Christopher Columbus who immediately concedes that the chilli is "better than our pepper".
Recipes, popular French songs, the science of a cabbage's smell: all combine to poetic effect. But on a deeper level, Bloch-Dano asks the reader to think about what vegetables mean: why one particular variety or taste can have such power. For her, a childhood in her grandparents' vegetable patch had a lot to do with it – she still cherishes a vivid memory of grazing on parsley one hot summer. And veg, for her, connect strongly to the past: "Mother's leek soup, an aunt's artichoke and bean tagine, the lentils in the school cafeteria..."
Her approach begins in the academic, because her book started as a series of lectures for the Popular University, free and open to all, organised by the anarchist French intellectual Michel Onfray. (Each of her talks was followed by a demonstration by a chef. Naturally.) But it ends up somewhere much more real life. The book is full of vivid images, such as the allotments created by starving 1945 Berliners among the ruins of shelled houses – or, in her words, "Life's revenge over death".
And here, somewhere around page 37, we solve the mystery of the topinambour. It's a Jerusalem artichoke. I'd always imagined, given the name, that this was a plant brought back by crusaders at the very least. In fact, as Bloch-Dano explains, the vegetable (main picture, in a late-18th century watercolour by the painter Giovanni Antonio Bottione) was grown by the Montagnais Indian tribes of Canada and brought back to French cuisine by Champlain, the founder of Quebec.
So that strange French name? An even curiouser story. A visiting Brazilian tribe were in Paris at the same time as the arrival of the fashionable edible tuber. All Paris, including Montaigne, went to meet the so-called savages, provoking his famous ponderings on the nature of civilisation. Their moniker: the Toüouinambaoults. Brazil, Canada, they're all the same. But call it whatever you like, it still makes a delicious soup.
Next year, Jerusalem
The basics: Part of the sunflower family, Jerusalem artichokes will grow like crazy once settled in. Best pick a bit of the veg patch you don't mind being utterly colonised, where they won't overshadow your prize pumpkin.
The planting: Give each plant lots of room, to make sure the resulting tubers are as fat as possible. 25 tubers of 'Fuseau' are £10.95, marshalls-seeds.co.uk
The Cooking: Dig them up fresh, and slice thinly with rocket and Parmesan for a sensational flavour combination.
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