Some of our oldest friends came out from London to visit us this past weekend. Being fearless foodies, they are always interested in trying new and strange produce from far-flung – or less-far-flung lands. This time, they themselves semi-discovered a new delicacy to try after having seen various people on the way to our house, rummaging away in the ditches at the side of the road. What were they looking for?
Our time here has meant that we have learnt two things: not to be surprised at cars randomly, and often dangerously, parked at the side of the road and secondly, that the French will go to huge lengths to acquire the freshest of edible produce. The ditch foragers, in this case and at this time of year, were looking for responchous.
A word almost impossible to pronounce, not least because it is spelt in so many different ways (responchous, reponchons, respounchous…), this climbing plant is an indicator in our part of the world, that spring has arrived. Sometimes confused with wild asparagus, this stringy vegetable is in fact otherwise known as Black Bryony (in French, tamier commun) and needs supersonic eyesight to spot.
Foraging to many English folk, is one of those antiquated traditions in which people from slightly uncivilised nations partake. However, the French have no compunction in spending an hour or two poking about under hedges to find a delicious something-or-other which is free and can’t be bought vacuum-packed at the local Waitrose.
Responchous are particularly prevalent in the Lot, the Aveyron and the Tarn (where we live). They have pretty, heart-shaped leaves and need to be picked when young (I’m not sure how you distinguish between young and old shoots but let’s not be ageist until tasting time). It is also known as “l’herbe aux femmes battues” (battered-wives grass) for its bruise-disguising properties. Not its greatest selling point!
A forager friend, Sandrine, posted a photograph of a generous pile she had spent an hour or so harvesting along the edges of local woodland which incited our enthusiasm to try it. On the excuse of giving the dog a long walk we funnily enough ended up at a local vineyard the owners of which insisted we try all of their finest produce.. On the way home, two or three sheets to the wind, we purposely set forth on our quest to find our own responchous.
Happily ignorant of the fact that the entire plant is poisonous when uncooked, we started looking in the shrubs along the roadside and in the forest. We didn’t really know what we were searching for and we had had at least three glasses of wine each but we felt confident in our mission. We had also bumped into an old neighbour who showed us what it looked like – forgetting that she might have wanted to poison us after several ‘neighbourly’ altercations!
And find some we did! We were so proud of ourselves! Excitedly we prepared bavettes and potatoes (said with a French accent but they are in fact potato wedges) to accompany our gathered treasures. We had earnestly googled how to prepare our unknown friends – three minutes boiling in salted water. Chief chef, Dave, initially blanched the delicate stalks but after tasting them realised that the bitterness remained. Worried it wouldn’t complement the rest of the meal, he then “boiled the crap out of them” for another two minutes.
This, sadly, changed nothing. The bitterness made endives seem like Kitkats in comparison. We should have maybe followed Sandrine’s advice of preparing them with lardons, eggs and potatoes. Would that have been enough to disguise the bitterness? Or changing the cooking water halfway through, as someone else suggested?
In all honestly, these pretenders to the asparagus family rank among other vile French favourites, such as Andouillettes – which give off a corpse-under-the-floorboard odour when being cooked. Or Escargots, which are basically bogeys with garlic. Or certain cheeses which might very well be spilt milk scraped off the dairy floor after a week of being cow-trodden.
But despite the fact that responchous are poisonous until cooked, nobody died. And we have learnt that some things found in ditches should stay there – like roadkill and spindly green stalks. Our visitor’s latest French culinary adventure was more of a misadventure with this one although we found it a struggle to chuck out the sadly discarded remnants from our first time foraging. Just don’t tell Sandrine or any of the other local fans…