First asparagus

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First asparagus

Nothing is quite as refreshing
Nothing is quite as green
Nothing is quite as optimistic
Nothing is quite as tasty
as the first asparagus of the season,
served on a bed of chopped endive
and topped with aïoli.

These first stalks take us back to our first spring in France and our asparagus filched from . . . well, here’s the story.

Our first home in France, back the early Aughts, was Montazels, a small wine-growing village on the banks of the Aude River that was on the SNCF line and home a hat factory. The main plant had closed years before, but in its day it was a hopping place and made hats for Hollywood cowboys, not the Hoot Gibson Ten-Gallons but those distinctive round flat-tops that everybody wore. (Seriously, check it out the next time you watch a Western. Those hats were made in Montazels. We have one. Just like John Wayne in The Searchers!) Our next-door neighbor was Georgette, a widow in her eighties who had worked in the hat factory when she was a girl and had the reputation in the village for getting into everybody’s business. She was a Force of Nature, all right, so as newcomers to France and unfamiliar with the protocols and manners involved in getting along in a rural village, we were easy marks. Before we knew it, she had us running errands for her whenever we went out, even for just a walk to Couiza, the town across the river on the main highway which had a grocery store, pharmacy, presse, and a couple of cafes. We didn’t mind at first taking on her “petites commissions,” but quickly learned how to get past her door unseen when we wanted our freedom. For one thing, Georgette often put a time limit on her requests, needing the morning paper by noon, for example, so she could check for specials at the Casino grocery, plus, as time went on, her little favors got quite complicated, time consuming, and bulky.

We had moved into the village at the turn of the new year and by March we had adjusted to our neighbor’s ways, so we were not surprised when one day she asked if we had ever cooked wild asparagus? We hadn’t, but we had seen villagers coming from the fields and forests with bunches of the stalks and had wondered about the etiquette of getting our own. Was it okay to pick if from the roadside? Was there any communal land where the tender shoots were free for the taking?

Georgette settled our questions with a big grin. Come on, she said, let’s go for a walk.

She took us to the forest trail down beside the river where wild asparagus grew in abundance under the trees. But when we got there, all of the new shoots had already been harvested by other villagers. Undeterred, Georgette, after a half-hour of fruitless searching in the brush and brambles, said, Forget this. I know where we can get all we want.

At a bend in the trail that took us closer to the river, we came upon a quarter-acre clearing, a field of asparagus which had been let go to weed. Georgette rushed up to the closest row and began poking in the soil. See there, she said, pointing to the tip of an asparagus stalk poking up through the soil. There’re everywhere, you just have to look.

Um, Georgette? I asked. Is it okay for us to be taking these? Isn’t this a private garden plot?

Ahh, don’t worry, she replied, brushing off my concern with a wave of the stalk she had just pulled from the ground. That old guy that planted these, he doesn’t care.

Dubious but unwilling to contradict our guide as she avidly pulled out the Opinel she had stuck in her apron pocket and began slicing at the base of another stalk, I shrugged and said to D, What else we gonna do, my right?

And so we spent the next hour cleaning the asparagus field of all the stalks ready to be taken, which, as it turned out, were not many after all. Untended, commercial asparagus does not hold up in the wild. Even so, we were satisfied with the take, in spite of our qualms about its legality. Georgette even showed us the best places to find mushrooms after the autumn rains, down beside trail where it crossed the SNCF tracks in front of the railroad tunnel. She even helped us gather deadfall branches and limbs to use in our stoves. Most of the land along the river was communal or owned by the SNCF.

In time, we learned how to protect ourselves from getting sucked into Georgette’s pandemonium—and do it in a neighborly way, as taught to us by other villagers who had lived a lifetime with her, from the work benches of the hat factory to the floral displays at the St. Mary shrine down by the river. We never went scrounging in the woods beside the river with her again. But when mushroom season came around in the fall, we knew right where to look.

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