SAINT-PAUL-TROIS-CHATEAUX - Three steps in from the side of the path are enough for Cédric Denaux to identify a veritable pantry. Where we only see a field of flowers and weeds exploding in springtime chaos, this botanist-cum-cook spots the pointed flower of the buckhorn plantain, the bubble-shaped one belonging to the bladder campion, a tuft of goosefoot with the looks of spinach or a specimen of pellitory growing between stones.
Tearing a few leaves, he crumples them to smell them better, before making us taste this savory chlorophyll.
By the walls of Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux in southeast France, stands his restaurant, L et Lui (a play on words "elle et lui", "she and him"), opened in 2007, with his wife, Cathy. Barely a mile away and you already bump into one of the daily gathering places of a chef who has put wild plants at the heart of his cuisine.
On a recent rainy May afternoon, acacias hardly express their voluptuous honey scents. Yet branches exhibit clusters of white flowers like little temptations. While untying some of these delicate bouquets, the 40-something chef, an earring, a salt and pepper beard, suggests other tracks than the traditional recipe.
"I bone and unroll a saddle of rabbit, which I stuff with acacia flowers. After braising the saddle, I add a bit of water in the pan, in which I throw a handful of flowers. Even with the cooking, they keep their honey perfume."
Stained with the red of poppies -- which Denaux like to add to fresh goat cheese -- a still green wheat field spreads right next to a vine. In 2010, the local wine changed its appellation. The Tricastin vineyards were re-named Grignan-les-Adhémar, winegrowers having long suffered from confusion with the very near Tricastin nuclear station.
The negative image of the big chimneys sometimes visible on the horizon does not reduce the chef's enthusiasm for his land of plenty. "A paradise for truck farming," he asserts, "owing to the river Rhône's alluviums, the Mediterranean climate refreshed by the proximity of Vercors and Ventoux mountains."
This is a wild land, where Nature took repossession of wastelands.
Around Saint-Paul, in the Clansayes territory, diversified in a fertile plain, coves, abrupt cliffs, wooded hills, plateaux and the Provençal garrigue scrubland, the cook had his botanic epiphany, in the late 1990s. Taking advantage of a complementary training opportunity, this son of a restaurateur, educated in award-winning houses, turned to studying with ethnobotanists.
One of them Christian Giroux, from Ardèche, endowed with a druidic knowledge, spent four years showing him that his ingredients could be found by his feet, in the fields and forests around him.
"By discovering all these plants and wild fruits, ignored by most cooks, my field of experimentation enlarged in an almost unlimited way," asserts the chef of one of France's most astonishing tables.
In a second stage, Cathy Denaux gave permanent life to the vegetable whims of her husband. After obtaining a diploma in agriculture, specialized in aromatic and medicinal plants, she conceived, as a biological farming aficionado, extraordinary gardens, an indispensable complement to the cook's inspiration.
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Photo: L et Lui
In a small book, that is both practical and fascinating, Cueillettes Sauvages, dedicated to edible wild plants, Bernard Bertrand reminds us how the ancestral activity that is gathering or foraging, disappeared with the ascent of agriculture. And thus, this flora thus had long become associated with poverty and want. Even though some populations -- including the Mediterranean basin -- remained fond of wild herbs and salads.
Looking for new flavors, prophets of a terroir cuisine swimming against the current of an industrial uniformization of tastes, vanguard chefs like Michel Bras in Laguiole and Marc Veyrat (guided by the botanist François Couplan) in Veyrier-du-Lac helped to resurrect gathering.
This trend accelerated over the last few years, under the influence, among others, of René Redzepi's naturalist cuisine. Noma"s Danish chef in Copenhagen likes to scatter shoots, herbs and other lichens, alluding to a kind of Scandinavian ruggedness. Many of this "brute" cuisine disciples juxtapose meat, fish, vegetables and touches of wild plants.
This minimalism is out of context at L et lui. If a meal at Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux always starts with a mere circle of herbs and flowers, dipped in a bit of fromage blanc, Cédric Denaux infuses his plants with a cook's master touch.
By the side of a rainwater evacuation gap, favorable to the thriving of plants, he picks up a bouquet of wild clove basil. He will then mix these anise flavored threadlike leaves into a superb carrot and rhubarb cream, where a thin slice of crude foie gras is bathing.
Later there is roquette pulled up, and the thin roots of a wild parsnip that he will cook in almond milk. By our feet, a carpet of sweet-clover, whose essential oil --coumarin--recalls vanilla and freshly cut hay. After treating it for a long time in syrup or ice cream, the chef marries it with that of asparagus, around which are enrolled slices of goose breast, the whole sprayed with bear's garlic vinaigrette.
Over the gap, an elder stretches its branches, laden with white parasols of a heady fragrance. Currently, Denaux uses them in strawberry sablés. By fall, they will turn to dark berries, ideal with game. Very important, do not confound them with those of the dwarf elder, which are toxic.
"Foraging requires a certain knowledge," Denaux says. "One plant can disguise itself as another. You need to be able to identify it at every stage of its development."