Because apparently it can’t always be about pie
The soil warms up, the first asparagus arrives in the market, and the village gets busy. There is also a cat who says “maman”, if that’s your sort of thing.
In the fields, the hi-vis jacketed hunters have been replaced by men – it seems it’s mostly men – in gloves, secateurs in hand, clipping the whippy, wild growth from the vines, tying back the leading tendrils into the wire supports to encourage new growth. The old wood looks like rows and rows of arthritic fingers.
At this time of year, from a distance, the earth looks like it’s covered in a fine dusting of snow. It’s not snow. We hardly ever get snow. It’s false rocket, Diplotaxis eurucoides, a honey-scented member of the brassica family which grows in a thick carpet beneath the vines. Its white flowers are beloved by bees, it releases phosphorous into the soil, locks in other nutrients, crowds out other, less beneficial weeds, and can be easily ploughed back into the soil when the time comes. It’s not just a pretty face.
In the village, the narrow, nippy little tractors designed to fit neatly between the rows of vines, careen cheerfully around corners. They can get up a surprising lick of speed. The glossy tour buses filled with visitors headed to the Noilly Prat chais park up opposite the house. After an hour or so, their passengers appear with smart green and white bags clinking with bottles and jars of vermouth-adjacent merch, such as olives, tapenade and jam. The restaurants on the port are opening up again, some newly painted, some with new terraces.
In the oldest part of the village, there is a new salon de thé, smart, cream, expensive. When I was in the hairdresser’s on Friday, there was consternation about the cost of an éclair. This was in between two of the older ladies discussing whether they would rather have a lover or simply a nice gentleman who was kind, one vote each, another chat about one of Johnny Hallyday’s daughters (the late French Elvis’s grandmother-in-law lives in the village and is known to everyone as Mamie Rock, but that is a story for another day), and the woman who swore her cat said “maman”.
It's spring, our second spring. Everything is opening up. Yesterday, we planted a lemon tree and laid out a flower bed. The soil was warm and sweet smelling as we turned it over. In the market, the first of the very early asparagus appears, a mere €14.99 a bundle. I will wait a little while before I try it, until the prices come down, when I will eat it almost every day. For now, other, less expensive salads like today’s roasted squash and broccoli will have to do. It’s honestly no hardship.
Roast squash, broccoli and chickpea salad
This is an easy, colourful main course salad. You can use any squash you like. I used butternut, which honestly is not my favourite – I find it watery and under-flavoured compared to some, but le butternut is ubiquitous here. Roasting it and adding lots of seasoning rescues it somewhat, and the charred broccoli adds a welcome touch of bitterness alongside the sweetness from the squash. Add a handful of toasted pumpkin seeds if you have them, too.
1.5kg butternut or other, better squash
6 tbsp olive oil
6-8 garlic cloves, unpeeled but bashed to break the skin
4 bay leaves
1 tsp chilli flakes
About 600g broccoli
250g cooked chickpeas, or 1x400g tin of chickpeas, drained
Zest and juice of an unwaxed lemon
A good handful of parsley, leaves and fine stalks, finely chopped
A handful of coriander, leaves and fine stalks, finely chopped
150-200g block of feta cheese, cut into cubes or broken into bite-sized pieces
Flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat the oven to 200C/180C Fan/Gas 6. Line two roasting tins with foil or baking parchment.
Halve the squash, remove the seeds and peel it if you want to. Cut it into 3cm cubes. Place them in a bowl and toss them with 2 tbsp of the olive oil, the garlic cloves, bay leaves and chilli flakes. Season well with salt and pepper. Tip them into one of the roasting tins and space them evenly apart so they roast rather than steam. Roast them for 30-40 minutes, stirring halfway through, until tender and charred around the edges – read the next paragraph now though, as you need to put the broccoli in while the squash is cooking.
Break the florets away from the broccoli stalk and break or cut into bite-sized pieces. Peel the tough part of the broccoli stalk and cut it into 2cm cubes. Toss in 2 tbsp of the oil and season well with salt and pepper. Arrange them evenly in the second roasting tin. Place them in the oven and bake for 18-20 minutes, until the florets are slightly charred around the edges and the cubes of stem are tender.
Discard the bay leaves. Mix the squash and broccoli together in a large bowl with the chickpeas.
When the garlic cloves are cool enough to handle, squeeze out the puréed centres into a small bowl. Whisk together with the lemon juice and zest, and the remaining olive oil. Toss the squash and broccoli in the dressing until well coated. Taste and add more salt and pepper if needed. Toss again with the herbs, and the feta.
Serve warm or cold.
The squash salad recipe looks yummy. As we are edging towards Spring I feel ready for a less meat heavy diet and I can even persuade my husband to abandon meat for a couple of times a week. This will fit the bill nicely. It will be some weeks before we get our local Wye valley asparagus but always anticipated with pleasure.
Ooh, that salad looks delicious. Thank you x ps a cat that says “maman” is *definitely* my thing! 😻🤣