Photo by Stocksy/Laura Austin
In France, it seems as if everyone has a garden. In fact, for many people, vegetable gardens take precedence over lawns. And it’s not just homeowners who enjoy getting their hands in the dirt; apartment dwellers can find a small spot of land in city gardens, and cities and factories parcel out unused land and make it available to employees or residents. Perhaps it’s the heritage of years of deprivation during war, or perhaps there’s a peasant farmer in the heart of every French man and woman; whatever the reason, vegetables grow in the front and back yards of millions of homes and buildings across the country.
My wife, Michèle, is from Normandy, France, and when we moved to Jamestown, New York, in 1965, we were constantly searching area markets for the same vegetables her family grew in their home garden. So, when we started our garden, the first things we planted were French vegetables that we couldn’t find in local grocery stores. Even today, these vegetables are difficult to find in big supermarkets. Fortunately, you can grow them yourself. Here’s a look at three French vegetables that you can easily add to your home garden.
We’ve found that sorrel is unfamiliar to most Americans, which is unfortunate, because it makes a delicious soup and a wonderful fish sauce. Both have a creamy, lemony taste.
Sorrel is a leafy perennial that’s easy to grow and requires little maintenance. You’re not likely to find it in your local grocery store because the leaves wilt too fast for commercial shipping, so you’ll have to grow your own.
There are two main species of sorrel: garden sorrel (Rumex acetosa) and French sorrel (R. scutatus). Garden sorrel has elongated, spade-shaped leaves, while French sorrel has broader, heart-shaped leaves. We’ve grown both, and in our opinion, French sorrel is less acidic. And when it comes to cooking, the French variety has crisper, less fibrous leaves that are easier to strip off the center stems and clean.
Sorrel is very adaptable, and can produce in either full sun or partial shade. It’ll grow in just about any kind of soil (it even does quite well in our unimproved heavy clay), but will flourish in soil that’s rich and well-drained.
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The easiest way to grow sorrel is to propagate it from root divisions; just make sure you dig up as much of the long taproots as possible. If you don’t have access to root cuttings, you can start sorrel from seed. Sorrel seeds are readily available in the herb section of most seed catalogs. Plant the seeds in early spring, as soon as the ground warms up. Space seeds 3 to 4 inches apart, and cover them with about 1⁄4 inch of soil. They take three weeks or longer to germinate, and grow very slowly at first as they sink their roots deep into the ground. You may find that you have the best success starting seeds indoors or in a cold frame.
You should have a small crop by the end of the first summer; your crop will multiply greatly the second year, and then endlessly thereafter. Once your sorrel patch begins to expand too much, though, thin it out. Doing so every few years increases leafy growth and reduces the amount of woody flower stalks. Cut these flower stalks as soon as they emerge in the spring; you may have to keep at it throughout the season, because the plants are stubbornly persistent in their attempts to seed. You only need 8 to 10 plants for an abundant harvest.
Sorrel is best harvested in early spring and late fall, but it can grow up to the first hard frost. It’s tolerant of light snow, and actually tastes better after a light frost. Keep in mind that the leaves wilt very rapidly once picked, so pick them just before you plan to use them, or keep them in cold water to retain their freshness. When it looks like your plants have plenty of large leaves, pick them, wash them, and then strip them off their middle stems. Spin-dry the leaves in a salad spinner, or shake them in a towel, and keep them in the refrigerator in a zip-close bag until needed. When grown in abundance, sorrel can be preserved by cooking it with a small amount of butter until creamy, and then freezing it in small containers for later use.
Also known as “lamb’s lettuce” in English, and “mâche” in French, corn salad (Valerianella locusta) is a leaf vegetable that’s commonly available in French markets during spring. It’s easy to grow, and it thrives with the resistance of a weed. Indeed, it’s considered a common weed in European wheat fields.
The plants are small and short with spoon-shaped leaves that can reach 4 to 6 inches in length. The leaves taste similar to butterhead lettuce, and have a crunchy texture. We’ve planted large-seeded varieties, as well as the small-seeded cultivar ‘Verte de Cambrai.’ The latter has smaller, thicker leaves and is a bit more crisp and juicy.
A cold-hardy crop, corn salad easily survives fall frosts. It’s even survived harsh winters in our garden under a blanket of snow, protected by an insulating mulch of straw or leaves. Long after our lettuce has disappeared, we’re still bringing in bowls of fresh corn salad.
Photo by Jeffrey Victor
Corn salad is adaptable to different soils, but does best in nitrogen-rich soil that’s light, sandy, and well-drained. Plant in full sun to partial shade for best results. Few pests seem to bother corn salad plants; even the many slugs in our garden never seem interested.
Plant the seeds in rows about 12 inches apart, firmly covering them with 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 inch of soil. For a fresh salad crop in late fall, plant seeds at the end of August or beginning of September. An over-winter planting will bring you corn salad ready to eat as soon as spring arrives. It can also be planted in early spring, but will weaken once the hot weather arrives.
To harvest, pluck individual leaves for a cut-and-come-again crop, and wash thoroughly to remove any dirt or pests. Corn salad plants typically produce new leaves every week or so all season long, so you’ll never be without fresh salad leaves.
The only edible part of flageolet beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) are their seeds, which are an attractive light-green color, similar to lima beans. But that’s where any comparison ends. They have a more delicate taste and texture than white beans, and should never be smothered in a strong sauce; they’re best served in butter. The cellulose seed envelopes are much thinner than those on other beans, and it’s not surprising that seed catalogs sometimes advertise them as “gourmet French beans.”
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Growing flageolet beans can be labor intensive, but they’re a fun and rewarding addition to your garden. Flageolet seeds can be purchased through most seed companies, and, if you decide growing them isn’t for you, dried beans can be found online. This plant prefers moist and well-drained soil, particularly in the early stages of growth. Apply a layer of compost in early spring before planting to increase water retention and drainage. Work the compost deep into the soil, ensuring that the organic matter reaches 12 to 18 inches below the surface. Flageolets require full sun, as the beans won’t thrive in the shade, so plan your site accordingly.
Plant seeds two weeks after your last frost date, spacing them 4 to 6 inches apart. This crop has a fast germination period of 4 to 10 days, and sprouts up quickly as well; depending on the cultivar, they’re ready to harvest in just 52 days, though some may take up to 120 days.
The culture of flageolet beans is essentially the same as bush beans. Instead of harvesting the pods, though, wait until the pods have ripened, and then pull the entire plant and hang it out to dry in the sun for a few days. Afterward, shell the pods and collect the beans. You can use the beans immediately, or store them in a dry spot for later. Dried flageolet beans can be harvested through mid-fall and used all year long.
- Authentic French Salad Dressing Recipe
- Flageolet Beans Recipe
- Sorrel Fish Sauce Recipe
- Sorrel Soup Recipe
Dr. Jeffrey Victor is a retired sociology professor and author. Michèle Victor is a retired French professor. The two were pen pals in high school, and married in France before moving to the United States, where they maintain an extensive French garden.