Two years ago I stood dumb before my fishmonger, wondering why in the world I wasn’t getting any scallops.
Had I used the wrong word (Coquilles Saint-Jacques)? Had I not ushered the proper greeting? No, I understood after the third repetition: they were not in season.
Not in season? In America I could buy scallops whenever I wanted. But now, on the eve of my first dinner party in France, the pesky bi-valves were nowhere to be found. With Serge and Agnès arriving in less than an hour, I pointed hopefully to some white flesh-looking fish and returned home to struggle with its bones.
Despite the fact that I was raised in the “breadbasket to the world,” I had no sense of seasonality before moving to France. The same items were present year-round from my stadium-sized grocery store. They were cheaper in certain months, but always available.
In France, during that first month, I felt constrained. There were fewer options in smaller stores that seemed never to be open when I needed them. The recipes that had formerly dazzled were, without the right ingredients, of little use to me now.
I had to re-learn how to eat.
Eating in France means following the seasons. My next lesson was the autumn appearance of wild mushrooms. Months later, the arrival of clementines marked time for a city without snow. Oysters burst onto to scene with crowds gathering for free tastings at the local poissonnerie. Within months friends were whispering about springtime lamb and asparagus. And summer, before I knew it, had come 'round again - bringing deep red tomatoes and stacks of fresh herbs.
Last night I cooked again for Serge and Agnès. This time, however, I went about it in a much different way. Gone were the convoluted recipes and fusion acrobatics. In their place, an offering of what’s best in September:
Salad of endive, radicchio, beets, pears, goat cheese, and hazelnut
Roast chicken and potatoes with green beans
Seasonal plums (mirabellle, Reine Claude, quetsche) with a runny Brie de Meaux
When you buy food that’s in season, you don’t have to do much besides put it on a plate. The Brie de Meaux, which had been aged for eight weeks in my butcher’s cave and set out only when it was ready to be eaten that day, was runny and redolent of green summer grass. The plums were at the peak of ripeness – perfect in the moment and rotten the next morning on my counter.
So to paraphrase the Rolling Stones:
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes to follow the times
You just might find...you get what you need (and more).