The Gatherer: Cedric Denaux's Secrets To Wild Cuisine

Cedric Denaux's "snails and violet flowers"
Cedric Denaux's "snails and violet flowers"
Stéphane Davet

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.

Wild gardens

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.

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."

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"The Truest Hypocrisy" - The Russia-NATO Clash Seen From Moscow

Russia has decided to cut off relations with the Western military alliance. But Moscow says it was NATO who really wanted the break based on its own internal rationale.

NATO chief Stoltenberg and Russian Foregin Minister Lavrov

Russian Foreign Ministry/TASS via ZUMA
Pavel Tarasenko and Sergei Strokan

MOSCOW — The Russian Foreign Ministry's announcement that the country's permanent representation to NATO would be shut down for an indefinite period is a major development. But from Moscow's viewpoint, there was little alternative.

These measures were taken in response to the decision of NATO on Oct. 6 to cut the number of personnel allowed in the Russian mission to the Western alliance by half. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the removal of accreditations was from eight employees of the Russian mission to NATO who were identified as undeclared employees of Russian intelligence." We have seen an increase in Russian malicious activity for some time now," Stoltenberg said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry called NATO's expulsion of Russian personnel a "ridiculous stunt," and Stoltenberg's words "the truest hypocrisy."

In announcing the complete shutdown in diplomacy between Moscow and NATO, the Russian Foreign Ministry added: "The 'Russian threat' is being hyped in strengthen the alliance's internal unity and create the appearance of its 'relevance' in modern geopolitical conditions."

The number of Russian diplomatic missions in Brussels has been reduced twice unilaterally by NATO in 2015 and 2018 - after the alliance's decision of April 1, 2014 to suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation between Russia and NATO in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea. Diplomats' access to the alliance headquarters and communications with its international secretariat was restricted, military contacts have frozen.

Yet the new closure of all diplomatic contacts is a perilous new low. Kommersant sources said that the changes will affect the military liaison mission of the North Atlantic alliance in Moscow, aimed at promoting the expansion of the dialogue between Russia and NATO. However, in recent years there has been no de facto cooperation. And now, as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has announced, the activities of the military liaison mission will be suspended. The accreditation of its personnel will be canceled on November 1.

NATO told RIA Novosti news service on Monday that it regretted Moscow's move. Meanwhile, among Western countries, Germany was the first to respond. "It would complicate the already difficult situation in which we are now and prolong the "ice age," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters.

"Lavrov said on Monday, commenting on the present and future of relations between Moscow and the North Atlantic Alliance, "If this is the case, then we see no great need to continue pretending that any changes will be possible in the foreseeable future because NATO has already announced that such changes are impossible.

The suspension of activities of the Russian Permanent Mission to NATO, as well as the military liaison and information mission in Russia, means that Moscow and Brussels have decided to "draw a final line under the partnership relations of previous decades," explained Andrei Kortunov, director-general of the Russian Council on Foreign Affairs, "These relations began to form in the 1990s, opening channels for cooperation between the sides … but they have continued to steadily deteriorate over recent years."

Kortunov believes the current rupture was promoted by Brussels. "A new strategy for NATO is being prepared, which will be adopted at the next summit of the alliance, and the previous partnership with Russia does not fit into its concept anymore."

The existence and expansion of NATO after the end of the Cold War was the main reason for the destruction of the whole complex of relations between Russia and the West. Today, Russia is paying particular attention to marking red lines related to the further steps of Ukraine's integration into NATO. Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov previously stated this, warning that in response to the alliance's activity in the Ukrainian direction, Moscow would take "active steps" to ensure its security.

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