The French connection: lessons from an edible garden

It's little wonder our cousins across the Channel are so much more au fait with vegetables – they learn all about cultivating them from such a young age...

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.

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
Voices
voices
News
general electionThis quiz matches undecided voters with the best party for them
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen starred in the big screen adaptation of Austen's novel in 2005
tvStar says studios are forcing actors to get buff for period roles
News
Prince William and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge show their newly-born daughter, their second child, to the media outside the Lindo Wing at St Mary's Hospital in central London, on 2 May 2015.
news
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before