The name of a popular series on Showtime, Weeds, is also now becoming a popular part of haute cuisine in France. On June 7, 2007, on France 2’s “Envoyé special” (a show like 20/20 or 60-minutes in the U.S.), one of the segments was dedicated to the use of “herbes sauvages” or wild herbs in France’s top 3-star restaurants. The reporters followed a member of the Radio France chorus who picked weeds right in Paris, tasted and explained them, and then carried them to her favorite 3-star chef. After demonstrating how fine tastes can come from these strangely exotic yet common weeds, they were off to a farm in Brittany where one woman specializes in growing weeds. She used to grow grains but when she recognized the profitability of this niche market, she switched. Her farm now has an annual income of over €200,000 a year – for picking, packing, selling and shipping dandelion leaves and the like. There’s even a workshop led in Switzerland where you can go around picking wild herbs in the mountains all day and then come back and learn how to make them into pesto and flan. Not to fear, the French are well aware that some herbs are toxic. But they put it into perspective: we eat potatoes, but the leaves are dangerous to eat. Same with rhubarb – never eat the leaves. One man was ready to pop a “bouton d’or” (buttercup) into his mouth when his instructor yelled out, “Non!” The 3-star chef assured that when he had questions about an item, he contacted his friend the horticulturalist to be on the safe side.
This program brought two things to my attention. The French think that the dangerous side of food is sexy, but there’s more to food safety than avoiding inherently toxic foods. At no point did anyone discuss the conditions in which the herbs were grown. As Doug and I wrote in our doggy-dining article … there is dog poop all over Paris and the rest of France. If there’s a patch of grass somewhere, it’s very likely that a cat or dog (or human) is also using this spot for relief. That’s quite a lot less sexy to think about than the perils of eating such refined foods as weeds. One aspiring chef said that everyone made fun of her … everyone asked her the same questions about knowing if the weeds were dangerous or not. She never mentioned if she thought that dog, cat, mouse, bird, or turtle poop might be on the herbs she’s putting primarily into fresh salads and uncooked sauces.