We have always tried to eat in season. My grandparents grew vegetables in their potagers; Mom visited the bi-weekly market and the maraîchers; most of the time I favor the fruits and vegetables available at the Farmers’ markets.
One desirable advantage of living in a rural area is having easy access to produce from the surrounding farmland. In France, we call it circuit court, where intermediaries between producer and consumer are almost eliminated. I truly love being so close to my food sources but our climate is quite different from California, even though we live in southwestern France. For the first time in many years, I didn’t have access to local citrus this past winter. In Modesto, I could pick a Eureka lemon from my own tree to accompany sole meunière, or harvest some sweet Meyer lemons in my in-law’s backyard to candy some zests. And there was always someone bringing a full bag of oranges because they didn’t want them to go to waste.
Unless you have a serre (or an orangerie like at the château de Versailles…) it is extremely difficult to grow citrus trees in France and expect to harvest anything. The only area where you may see citrus en pleine terre is along the Mediterranean coast, particularly between Nice and Menton: the city close to the Italian border has organized a Fête du Citron for 86 years. During two weeks each February, you can stroll among citrus replica of fantastic animals or famous buildings like Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Eiffel Tower or a gigantic Taj Mahal.
A bit further South, Corsica produces the only clementine in France. The groves are located on the eastern plains of the island. The small fruit is juicy and seedless, with a good balance between sweetness and acidity. The skin is thin and shiny. In 2007, la Clémentine de Corse was granted an Indication Géographique Protégée to recognize its quality and specificity. Among the 70 criteria that producers must respect: the clementines have to be harvested by hand; plucked at maturity with at least two of their leaves attached to the stem; and not be subjected to any treatment that would alter its color.
I’ve enjoyed plenty of delicious clementines during my California years. Are the Corsican ones better? It’s a bit hard to tell unless you eat them side by side but I really like their floral tanginess. They are sold in small wooden crates or in bulk: choosing each fruit topped with a couple of green leaves enables you to appreciate how fresh they are. I mostly eat them out of hand; they yield an eye-opening breakfast juice; and, like other clementines, they make delicate desserts.
Le potager: vegetable garden
Le maraîcher: an individual who grows and sell his own produce; usually on the outskirt of a city.
Le circuit court: lit. short circuit; short supply channel
La sole Meunière: the classic dish of sole in a butter lemon sauce
La serre: greenhouse
L’orangerie: orangery, a dedicated room or structure where potted trees are moved to protect them from freezing temperatures.
En pleine terre: in the ground, as opposed to grown in pots
TARTELETTE A LA CRÈME DE CLEMENTINE
Tartlets with clementine cream
Makes 8 tartlets
1 sheet of pastry (homemade or store-bought)
3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp corn starch
Preheat oven to 375ºF. Roll out the pastry; cut out circles the same diameter as the tartlet pans; line the pans with dough rounds. In a salad bowl whisk the eggs, 1/4 cup of sugar, and vanilla extract until pale and creamy. Zest one clementine; juice four of them. Add zest, juice and corn starch to the egg mixture and mix well. Pour into the tartlets and bake for 20 minutes. Let cool. Cut eight slices in the remaining clementines. In a small saucepan, heat half a cup of water and the remaining sugar. As soon as the syrup starts boiling, add the clementine slices and cook until they start caramelizing. Remove from the heat and allow them to cool completely. Drain. Top each tartlet with one slice before serving.