Picture of Dutch and English copy of books
I invited chroniqueur Jeffrey Greene to participate in “geprekken en gerechten” (conversation and recipes) Many years ago I read a book from his hands called “French Spirits” A story on living in in former presbytery in the smokey hills of Burgundy. In that time I did not visit this region often. Later I found the same book in Dutch in my parent’s house in Burgundy. It is translated by the mother of a dear school friend. It is always nice to reread some parts from this book, especially when you are in a tiny Burgundian village. Jeffrey writes about the people he meets in a very colorful way. So I contacted Jeffrey in Paris. Kindly Jeffrey sent me another book, titled ” The golden bristled boar” He has dugged into the life and background of this beast. But Jeffrey does more things. He teaches creative writing and he is now researching on edible things from te wild. Quite a topic and a trending one. Let’s see if I can write him a recipe, that reflects his knowledge on Burgundy, animals and wild edible things. And needless to say a combination with wine is made.
Who is Jeffrey? Tell me some more
I grew up in a shack-like house in the New England woods with a rather eccentric young mother and father. My mother was a teenage runaway from a grim boarding school, her head full of fanciful ideas of creating a family and living off the land based on M.G. Kains’ book Five Acres and Independence. My father came from a typical Jewish family in New York’s Lower East Side. Sent to art school to study textile design for the family business, he made himself the family’s black sheep by becoming a sculptor instead and marrying a sixteen year old. My parents’ attempts at raising goats and planting a garden turned out to be resounding disasters with deer and rabbits decimating the garden and the goats poisoning themselves on laurel. However, my father was a naturally gifted hunter-gatherer. He never hunted game, but he gathered wonderful bounty from the seaside or berries from the woods. Our having to move to the city when I was eleven was a great disappointment for me. I was a shy kid who enjoyed solitude and the woods suited that. My mother was too isolated though and took a job at Yale University, and my parents divorced.
Although I’ve gone on to become a professor, poet, and author, I’m someone who likes to make things—whether it’s building walls and bookcases or cooking dinner. I’m ultimately more physical than intellectual. I think that comes from my early years in the woods. My writing comes from this too—it springs from things, thingyness—observant of how the senses are engage. The rest is character and place.
When did you move to France and how did you adapt to French life and habits?
To be honest, it never occurred to me that I would leave America, that I would become a permanent resident in France, a kind of dual citizen, not officially, but in every other sense, an insider and outsider in two countries. It was not an overt decision like ones my ancestors made, immigrating to America for economic opportunities or to save their Eastern European skins. My life in France crept up on me. In 1986, I was finishing my graduate studies in Texas, and my mother gave me a call, “I’ve got good news! I will be on sabbatical at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. Why don’t you come an write for a year?” So instead of being a responsible, freshly minted Ph.D., hunting for a junior faculty position in some forsaken place, I came on quixotic impulse to Paris to be a writer. I soon found myself at Castello di Gargonza in Tuscany, sharing a dinner that included crostini, pasta with artichoke, and wild boar stew with my mother’s boss, Mary. Who knew I’d end up marrying a molecular biologist in a foreign country? It seemed like a conspiracy of improbables.
For a decade my life was complicated, because I did get a faculty position at a university in New England and could have supported a small family on phone bills and travel. But my sense of home slowly shifted to France, particularly after Mary and bought an old deserted presbytery (priest’s house) in northwestern Burgundy. We were living such a privileged life between the country and Paris. Eventually, I made the decision to give up my tenured position and devote my time to writing. Fortunately, I was asked to teach at the American University of Paris, which is a great pleasure. I love working with our young people coming to us from all over the world.
You wrote me that you were researching a book on edible things from the wild, why did you start these activities?
My father had a huge influence my hunter-gather habits. He fished, caught crabs, and gathered oysters, clams and oysters. My brother and I joined him in these activities. Simply, it was the most fun thing we did together, while he still lived with us. Even now, as my father approaches 90, the woods and seaside provide pure joy for him. He was a child of the Depression and his motivation as hunter-gatherer instincts seemed primarily based on getting something for nothing or a kind of treasure hunt. It was my mother who instilled the value and pleasure derived from healthy natural foods.
When I came to France, I began collecting mushrooms and that alone became a passion. I was writing for a different book, one about how I saw myself as an American transplant in France, in fact how imported my sense of Thoreau and Emerson, American transcendentalists, to the French forests. I approached the subject through wild mushrooms, describing not only the pleasure of looking for them and their earthy, nutty, even smoky flavors that they add to cuisine but also the problems, how they absorb and concentrate radiation, heavy metals, and chemicals. It occurred to me that wild edibles, a popular topic, could be approached in important ways, including their role in culture, art, and survival.
You wrote a book on buying a presbytery in a small village in Burgundy, where you still live. Has anything changed over the years?
Yes, I wrote a book called French Spirits, which was translated into Dutch among other languages. The village I wrote about is Rogny-les-Sept-Ecluses ( Rogny of the seven locks), which has the Loing River and the Briaire Canal running through it. Built in the 1600s, the Briaire Canal is the first canal in Europe linking two river valleys—those of the Seine and the Loire. Much has changed in the twenty years since we bought the old deserted presbytery. Part of the charm of the village was that it seemed completely lost, and our neighbors were woodsmen, sheep farmers, and masons, people with country savvy and worked with their hands.
The ports on the canal and the river were renovated, a park built, and some parking put it, so the town has become something of a minor tourist destination. Also a number of the old houses and the eleventh-century church next to our house were restored. Of course we’ve don’t major renovations and restoration work. Our gardens are thriving as is the old curé’s orchard. My book turned out to be aptly named; many of the main characters have become French spirits.
Another book from you hand is on boars, that are abundant in Burgundy, you even learned how to butcher a half boar, what is you most striking anecdote on this animal?
The Golden-Bristled Boar: Last Ferocious Beast of the Forest was so much fun to write. In many ways, it was a sequel to French Spirits, since the main setting is the same as are many of the characters. Of course, many of experiences are recounted in the book. The wild boar and close relative the feral hog have become the number one animal outlaw in the world, and they’ve had an extraordinary relationship with humans, particularly in Europe and Asia. They figure in art, myth, cuisine, and even the founding of early civilizations. Burgundy is overrun with wild boars as is Germany, Italy, and elsewhere. This anecdote doesn’t appear in the book, but while I was doing a nationwide book tour in the United States I received an email from my personal doctor, who is a nature lover and helped connect me to a forestry expert who becomes a major character. He was on a major highway just outside of Paris when a group of wild boars caused a six-car accident. Only my doctor was still able to drive. Wild boars cause 14,500 accidents in France, more than any other large animal.
I have the feeling that you are a dreamer. If you had to choose, only one option is possible, between being a writer or adventurer? What would it be?
Yes, I am a dreamer, which is different from being an adventurer. I have friends, mainly journalists who are far more adventurous than I am. They are driven to experience life’s extremes, often in awful war zones in Africa, the Balkans, Asia, and the Middle East. It’s not just war, but some go off to exotic places to report on nature. I admire them—they are our witnesses. Making a life in Europe seems to me a true privilege and maybe an adventure only in taking professional risks for love and a richer life. So this question is for me. Nothing keeps me going more than having a project at my writing desk.
Which plant do you like the most and which one you dislike? I am very curious about that
This is one of the hardest questions I’ve ever been asked. All plants are amazing and a discussion of grass is hugely important, since life as we know it is sustained on grass. And who doesn’t love violets or field poppies or wild daffodils or cyclamen or any wild flower. The plant that amazes me is the snowdrop. They are the first sign of spring and they generate warmth to melt through snow. You see them take over the ground of forests here, and the wild daffodils. It’s truly magical.
I should say nettles and brambles, since I’m at constant war with them. My legs are burning now from yard work and nettles. But I wrote a book called Water from Stone about land restoration, the protection of endangered species, and environmental education. When you change natural environment situations, certain native plants or exotics can take over and create hugely limited environments. The ash-juniper does that in Texas.
As an American, what did wonder you the most in Burgundy ?
I don’t think Americans know too much about Burgundy, which is a huge region in France. They’ve heard of the wines and the cuisine. Americans tend to go to Paris, Normandy, and Provence. I saw a movie when I was very young that was set Burgundy, and I had a vision of gentle rolling countryside, hidden chateaus, forests, and misty world full of deer and wild boar. That’s what much of it is—a beautiful harmony of forests, rolling countryside, rivers, ponds, and fecund earth. It’s hardly a wonder that the Neanderthals and early Homo Sapiens lived there and that there was always a significant human population. There is much more—some of the most gorgeous Romanesque churches with carved capitals, a unique art giving insight into the both the secular and the religious life in the medieval world. Abbeys, chateaux, and hospices.
You also write poetry, can you share something on this topic?
What is the difference between Van Gogh or Rembrandt or the great Flemish painters and the greatest poetry of their time. These are pure arts, the creative foundations since the cave painters and oral tradition, which was in poetry. I started out as a poet, and I’m just finishing my fifth collection. It’s a pure art. I love writing the prose because it really is fun and engaging, but poetry matters deeply to me.
Speaking of food, which dish you prefer the most? And of course what food you do not eat?
To pick out a single dish seems almost impossible—I love everything from macaroni and cheese and pizza to dinners we were taught to prepare by the French president’s personal cook. I love to cook, and I love trying different ethic recipes. If I had to choose one thing, it would probably be lobster. I used to dive for lobsters at night as a kid. Now it’s impossible to afford them.
What I wouldn’t like to eat is easy—brains, although I’ve probably eaten a lot of brains without knowing it. Now that I’m writing a book on wild edibles, there a ton of things that I’m worried about eating but will have to try.
Which wines do you like? Since you are in Burgundy it most be more.
Our village is in northwest Burgundy. Believe it or not, the closest wines to us are Sancerre, Menetou-Salon, and Pouilly Fumé and on the Burgundy side Chablis and wines in the north, mainly white. We love these wines. My wife is a scientist and I’m a professor, and we don’t have much money to invest in wine. We love wines from all over. I still have to say Burgundies are my favorite. It’s still the wine we go to producers, and we put away to age. The trick we use is to go to restaurants in the Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune, and get recommendations for wine with food and if it’s good we get the producer’s address and buy for the future. Our big splurge is on Volnay and Pommard. Santenay is great, Savigny les Beaune, Chassagne Montrachet. It’s not cheap.
What else do you want to share?
My mother is Gretchen Van Blaricom, and she is half-Dutch. She’s proud of it. Obvious that makes me a quarter Dutch. We have the most extraordinary Dutch friends in our part of Burgundy. I can’t believe how many they are, and they are among our closest friends.
Picture cover of Jeffrey’s book
The Netherlands is a country of rivers and estuaries. Its shores, mudflats and beaches are full of edible wild things. Jeffrey went all the way to Amsterdam to collect a boat, that he will use when he gathers wild edibles. His wonderful story and ofcourse his Dutch descent this gave me the clue for his recipe. The dish I made for Jeffrey is a pasta dish with wild clams (kokkel in Dutch), Dutch shrimps, the grey ones, and salty vegetables like grasswort (salicornia Europea) and sea lavender (limonium vulgare) from the southwestern province of Zeeland. They can be found growing on the so called “kwelders” or sea marshes.
The wine to pair this dish is a white Burgundy form the village of Mancey in Southern Burgundy, “Mâcon Mancey “Les Cadoles” Blanc” The dish, the wine and the terroirs will have a gathering of their own. I hope Jeffrey enjoys it. I wish him a lot of succes while exploring, gathering, eating and writing (on) wild edible things
Ingredients 4 persons:
300 g of tagliatelle
1 kg of wild clams
250 g peeled shrimps
150 g grasswort
150 g sea lavender
1 chopped onion
1 glass of white wine
salt and black pepper
Cook the pasta according to the instructions on the package. Put aside for later use. Rinse the clams a few times in salted water. This will take some time, because clams can contain a lot of sand! The last rinse should be done with fresh water. Gently rinse the vegetables and shake them dry. Never leave these vegetables in fresh water because they are used to salty waters. Cook the grasswort for 3 minutes al dente. Heat 2 tbs. of oil in a big casserole, stir fry the chopped onion. Then add the clams and the glass of wine. Put the lid on and leave the clams to cook for about 8 minutes. Shake the pan from time to time. Get the clams out of the casserole and save some of its cooking moisture. Put a knob of butter in the pan. Add the grasswort, the tagliatelle and some of the cooking moisture. Let this warm gently on a low fire. Put the clams back in the pan and mingle gently with pasta and vegetables. Finally add the shrimps and sea lavender. Season with some salt and black pepper. Serve this dish on plates. Give it a dash of lemon juice, put on a tiny knob of butter and a sprinkle of chopped parsley.
To vary this dish you may also use razors, American immigrants on our shores, to be found on every beach or mudflat. (picture)