On the seasonal food calendar here in France, May and early June are un régal (delight) of fresh goodies. In Aix-en-Provence, I have been wandering the outdoor markets and come upon bunches of ciboulette (chives) with purple flowers intact, hefty bulbs of ail nouveau (new garlic), plump fèves (fava beans) direct from the vendor’s garden, bright green petits pois (spring peas), and the most tender fragrant fraises (strawberries) on the planet. It’s tempting to become a vegetarian with all this gorgeous produce.

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But a real star has been all the asparagus. Cultivated in French potagers (vegetable gardens) since the 15th century, les asperges are so plentiful this time of year that they seem to nearly overtake everything else. Green asparagus, white asparagus, thin stalks, thick stalks. There are mounds of them for sale everywhere. And no matter which type you buy, they’re all very flavorful and tender as vendors make sure to tell you.

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You can imagine that these unruly green stalks have just been plucked from the garden. It’s like the wild, wild west of asparagus. Speaking of wild, I have friends in Provence who love to find wild asparagus growing near where they live. They pick it and then sauté it quickly with a little butter or olive oil for a truly rare, seasonal treat.

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In Europe, white asparagus gets just as much attention as the green variety. You’ll see it on restaurant menus steamed and served with hollandaise sauce or roasted in the oven with a nice sauce béchamel. Here is a French market shopper carefully choosing her own white asperges.

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Les asperges vertes also show up on many restaurant menus this time of year. Lately, I’ve seen green asparagus with parma ham and parmesan offered as a starter. Or asparagus with a poached egg – even poached quail eggs! – and parmesan. There’s also the classic asparagus with vinaigrette for a lighter option. And many main dishes have been featuring asparagus somewhere on the plate, including a lovely asparagus risotto. But my favorite asparagus taste this season has been the fabulous asparagus pâté I stumbled upon the other day at the best boucherie (butcher shop) in Aix.

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It’s not every day that you see this variety of charcuterie due to the short asparagus growing season. Sure enough, the saleslady at La Boucherie du Palais said that once asparagus was over, their pâté aux asperges was done for another year. Immediately, I asked for a nice tranche (slice) which she promptly cut and wrapped in the traditional waxed paper. Later, I spread some on a fluffy fresh baguette. Franchement (frankly), it was one of the best pâtés I’ve ever had. And unless I figure out how to make the pâté myself, I’ll be lining up at their door same time next year for more of this wonderful delicacy.

All that to say, if you’re into fresh, you’ll want to check out the seasonal market offerings while traveling in France. Make a mental note of the top things growing at that moment. Then, try restaurant dishes featuring these items. Also, if you’re not a cook and/or you don’t have a kitchen while visiting, keep your eyes open for somebody close by – such as the Aix butcher shop – who is making something take-out with the latest and greatest in French market fresh. You never know what specialty you’ll find!

 

NB: The French Agricultural Ministry publishes a fantastic monthly guide to what’s fresh in French markets. You can click here to see the seasonal offerings listed for May 2014 (June is not posted yet). Note that it is in French.

 

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