Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Vegetable gems from Central France: Le Puy lentils

These are the best lentils in the world bar none, the beautiful little grey-green lentils originating in Le Puy en Velay, a gorgeous ancient town in the highlands of central France. With their nutty texture and delicious flavour, they leave every other lentil for dead, in my opinion! They were the first vegetable in France to get an AOC, or Appellation d'Origine Controlee, which means that if you grow the lentils anywhere but at Le Puy, they can't be called Le Puy lentils. (Australian-grown ones for instance are called 'Australian green lentils'--you'd think they might have been more imaginative!)
We've grown these lentils here in our garden in the Northern Tablelands of NSW(some from Le Puy lentils, some from 'Australian green lentils' from Victoria)and they've done pretty well, generally, and we've been able to get a few kilos off a not very large patch of ground. Last year however they grew beautifully at first but there was too much rain and they got waterlogged and only produced enough for a few meals as well as some seed for next year. Lentils are pretty fiddly to harvest as the pods are small and grow close to the ground and even when you are being very careful, inevitably little stones get caught up with them—because the stones are often the same slatey colour as the lentils, even when you sieve 'em several times, you don't always find them before you cook them and someone crunches down on one!
Last August we visited Le Puy itself for the first time to see the heart of lentil country, and realised that one of the reasons these little green gems grow so well in our area is that there are similar conditions climactically—with high-altitude, lots of frosts, pure air(and the Le Puy growers swear that it's not just a matter of soil but of the very air, the micro-climate, which makes these little beauties what they are.) It's a gorgeous spot, with beautiful countryside and ancient architecture, and though it guards its traditions(lentils and lace and liqueur!) jealously, it is not in the least a pretentious place.
The green lentil has been grown in Le Puy for at least 2,000 years and as you can imagine there is a very strong grower tradition in the region. Amusingly, there's also a 'Confrererie Verte' or 'Green Brotherhood' whose 'Knights' defend and maintain the tradition of Le Puy lentils. Some of France's greatest chefs, like Paul Bocuse, are 'Knights of the Green Brotherhood', complete with ceremonial costumes!
You can read more about the Confrererie and the Le Puy lentil generally at the official Le Puy growers' website: http://www.lalentillevertedupuy.com/ (there's an English translation on the site).
The green gems are lovely cooked in all sorts of ways, whether purely vegetarian or to accompany pork or lamb(as it's usually served in France.) As they cook, their colour changes from green to brown, but the nutty texture remains(as long as you don't overcook of course) Cooked and cooled, with a vinaigrette and plenty of chopped fresh herbs, they also make a great salad. You can also use them for soups if you want. They are more expensive than brown or red lentils but just so worth it—we simply don't bother with any other type of lentils these days. And because there's a fair few green lentil growers in Australia now, they're easy to find—I've even seen some recently in Coles!
Here's a simple basic recipe for cooking delicious Le Puy style lentils(proportions are for two people).Ingredients: half cup green lentils(they do not need soaking), half a chopped onion, clove garlic, olive oil, wine(red, white or rose, it's up to you), herbs(thyme, parsley), pepper, salt, stock—chicken or vegetable, up to you.
Fry the onion and garlic in some olive oil, add the lentils, stir for a few seconds, then add splash wine(any style is fine), then some pepper and salt, let simmer for a few more seconds, then add half the herbs, and then the stock to cover well. Simmer till lentils are cooked but not soft, for about 20-25 minutes(taste—they should be still nutty but not hard, and the liquid should have been almost all absorbed.) Drain, add a little extra garlic, and the rest of chopped herbs. Serve on its own for a vegetarian meal, with some plain stock-cooked Basmati rice, or with grilled sausage, roast pork, pickled pork, or lamb shanks. Last time, I also served it with a braised cabbage side—chopped cabbages cooked in a little olive oil, red wine, herbs, a little stock and a half teaspoon of tomato paste, and simmered for as long as the lentils—the cabbage does need to be very soft and to have totally absorbed its cooking juices.

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