Spring time is the season for ‘respounchous’ here in the south west of France. There were a few bunches of them for sale in the market last Saturday but it only takes an hour or two of foraging in the wooded lanes to gather enough respounchous for a light lunch. So, in need of a break from my computer, I decided to go hunting for respounchous…
What, you may ask, are ‘respounchous’? Well, it’s a wild plant that you’ll find growing in ditches and hedgerows. In early spring it sends up tall stalks with small asparagus-looking tips – in fact people often get confused, and call it ‘wild asparagus’ or ‘asperge sauvage’, but that’s a different plant.
The word ‘respounchous’ is the Occitan name for ‘tamier’ or, in Latin – Tamus Communis. It’s what you and I would call in English, black bryony, and it’s familiar in the autumn for its garlands of bright red (and highly toxic) berries. Don’t let that put you off! I’m into my tenth year of gathering respounchous and eating the new shoots and I’m still alive to tell the story. But you have to remember that only the young shoots are edible – and they do have to be cooked.
Since I’ve lived in France, I’ve learned to recognise that if there’s a car parked in the middle of the countryside (even more of a sign, three or four cars parked) then someone, somewhere, is wading through the undergrowth on the hunt for something. Depending on the season, it could be respounchous, snails, mushrooms of all kinds (especially ceps), wild figs, cherries, wild leeks, chestnuts, and probably a few other things I haven’t yet discovered.
The best time to gather respounchous here in south west France is mid-April to mid-May. In Britain, the season is likely to be more mid-May to mid-June, depending on how far north you are. They grow in moist ditches and hedges, and you will find them twining themselves round other plants. The stalks range from thread-like pale green to almost purple and much thicker, but they all end in small asparagus-looking tips. Visiting my mother’s home in Herefordshire a few years ago, I realised the hedgerows were filled with lovely thick stalks that, previously, I would completely have ignored – if only I had known!
Warm Salade De ResPounchous – serves two. Picking time – two hours, preparation time, 15 minutes.
A good bunch of ‘respounchous’ – when you can no longer hold the bunch in one hand, you’ve got enough for two people
4 eggs (2 per person)
250 grams ‘lardons’ – bacon pieces (ideally organic, free-range for taste)
4 soup spoons of walnut oil
2 soup spoons olive oil
1 soup spoon red wine vinegar
1 soup spoon Dijon mustard
1 heaped tsp of sugar
Sea salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
(Mix all the ingredients together with a ballon whisk in a bowl. This makes far more than you need for this recipe. You can keep what’s left in a jar in the fridge for at least a week)
Place the eggs in a pan of cold water and bring to the boil. Total cooking time should be around 12-14 minutes (depending on the size of the eggs) if you want ‘oeufs molleux‘, or around 15 minutes if you prefer hard-boiled. When cooked, tip out the hot water, replace with cold and leave to stand.
Whilst the eggs are cooking, fry up your lardons in a small pan with a smear of olive oil. You’re aiming for crispy and slightly golden so you want to fry off any extra fat/moisture. When the bacon pieces are nicely crispy, remove from the heat.
At the same time, bring a large pan of salted water to boil for the respounchous. Cut off the tougher ends of the stalks, leaving about 25 cms of stalk with the tip. Cut these into shorter lengths (6/8 cms) and then tip them all into the boiling salted water. You’re aiming to blanch them for about three minutes max, so do a taste test after about two minutes. The aim of the blanching is to reduce the slight bitterness and soften them up – but you don’t want soggy!
When ready, tip them into a colander and let them cool.
Now you can assemble the salad. Place the respounchous in a bowl and add 2-3 soup spoons of salad dressing and gently toss the stalks. Next, add the bacon bits and toss once more. Finally, place the eggs on top of the salad and cut each egg into four, so the yolk (if they’re ‘molleux‘) mixes with the dressing.
Add a sprinkling of salt and pepper and it’s ready to serve, with a crispy baguette to mop up the dressing.
The taste is really unique. A mix of slightly bitter (softened by the sweetness of the dressing and the yolk of the egg) and a deep, spring green taste that feels as if it must be doing you good. I suspect this was on the list of plants used by medieval herbalists for ‘cleansing the blood’ after the rigours of a winter diet.