t’s been nearly one hundred years since Pampille wrote about the seasonal glories of French fruits and vegetables. Her description makes me long nostalgically for a time that probably never was quite that magical. Food in early twentieth-century France and America was more local and seasonal and the more anticipated and appreciated for those qualities. "From the end of February, you notice in the greengrocer’s shop windows–which begin to resemble the windows of jewelry shops–strawberries lying on beds of cotton in little wooden boxes. They are beautiful, and huge, but still a little pale. They are a marvel, but they are never good to eat so early."
We, too, notice the strawberries–huge and bright red in their little green plastic baskets in our grocery stores in March. How is it that the pointy ends of these giants never turn ripe and stay hard as stones? They too are never good to eat. Bred for dipping in bad melted chocolate and for posing in food porn photographs, they come from the promised land of California.
"Soon the good ones will appear, mostly large ones from market gardens; entire long trainloads of them will cross Paris, leaving in their wake the odor of fruit instead of smoke." My equivalent is the strawberry bed in my neighbor’s garden. If I stand in just the right spot on a sunny late May or early June morning, I can catch that heady, sweet scent. Or I can visit the vaster fields at pick-your-own farms in mid morning when the sun has contributed its warmth and the mosquitoes have quit feeding. When the farmers market opens in late April it will be just a short few weeks before merchants sell excellent berries. These should not be dipped in chocolate but should be eaten fresh, perhaps with a little sugar and cream or crème fraîche or yogurt. They become a perfect topping for shortcake, and by shortcake I mean real biscuit shortcake, not the cellophane wrapped individual sponge cakes misnamed “shortcake” in the grocery stores. For gourmets, gourmands, or foodies–all terms I’ve come to dislike intensely–strawberries can be gussied up with balsamic vinegar or dusted with fresh ground black pepper. Strawberry rhubarb pie is a good use of berries and making preserves is another option when berries become abundant and less costly.
Sadly, I never see Pampille’s wild strawberries here, "tiny strawberries in small baskets, so delicate they must have been picked by elves. These berries taste of leaves and the dawn." The fraises des bois I ordered from a nursery and planted with so much hope are beautiful plants as the catalog promises ("fine edging plants because they do not throw runners") with tiny, tiny fruits, smaller than the end of my little finger. ("Of a dozen or so species of Strawberries, none has the panache of the woodland varieties known in France as fraises des bois. Their small, pointed fruits have an intense flavor that is positively addictive, and nothing compares with a handful of them popped directly from the plant into the mouth.") Mine taste absolutely awful but the birds love them.
I do not know if Pampille was a gardener, but she is a wonderful garden muse in these first exhilarating days of spring. Her attention to the seasonal march of produce reflects a gardener’s sensibilities. We long to know more of Pampille. We learn from Shirley King’s afterword that she was born Marthe Allard in 1878 and she received her writing name from a friend for her fine-featured beauty. She was the second wife of Leon Daudet, son of writer Alphonse Daudet whose writings extolling his beloved Provence are still read avidly in France today. Filmmaker Marcel Pagnol, whose Fanny trilogy inspired Alice Waters, adapted Alphonse’s Lettres de Mon Moulinfor film in 1954. Proust knew the Daudet family well; his Guermantes Way is dedicated to Leon and Pampille is cited in Within a Budding Grove and Guermantes Way. Pampille was “a model mother, housekeeper, and hostess, and was known to be calm, cultivated, and energetic.” We don’t know a lot more.
I didn’t cook from Pampille’s Table this week but I thought about her as I puttered about my awakening garden. Maybe the mysteries of Pampille’s life echo the mysteries of each new spring.