PARIS, 12 JULY 2006—Les Légumes de Joël ! is a sumptuous book about
the gifted market gardener Joël Thiébault describing his life, his
produce, and his customers who include many of the top
French chefs. The book also contains some 36 recipes, from
these super-chefs as well as from personal friends, where one of his
vegetables has been prepared in an original and striking way.
So what is so special about these herbs and veggies? Why is he
different from anyone else? For starters, his carrots are yellow not
orange and his beetroots are orange not purple. His tomatoes are not
all red but green, while his broccoli is, you've guessed, not green but a
brilliant shade of violet! Freaky? No way, because the flavour and
freshness of all he produces is unbelievable. Until you have eaten one of
his tomatoes, for example, the case may be that you have never really
tasted a tomato before. And that applies to most of what he produces; a
staggering 1600 varieties of vegetables and herbs.
When I first met him, he was waggling a pretty sage-green plant under
the nose of one of his customers at his market stall*. Her guess that it
belonged to a long-lost member of the mint family wasn't far off the mark
as it turned out to be pineapple mint, so called because of the delicate
soft vanilla-yellow etchings along the edges of each leaf.
Joel Thiébault at the market at Alma Marceau in Paris
"I am insatiably curious", Thiébault told me at a later meeting.
"The moment I hear about something new I can't resist trying to grow it
while at the same time, I adore cultivating vegetables which have gone out
of fashion. I enjoy discovering plants which were grown way back
when. Last year alone I grew 50 or 60 different kinds of tomatoes,
which, administratively speaking was way too many. But I love the colour,
flavour and scent of each variety such as Green Zebra which has a perfume
all of its own, particularly at the end of a sunny day. Some
varieties are matt, others brilliant, and each has a unique texture.
Finally, you can't ignore the actual sensation of the fruit in your mouth
which can be very sensual, and differs according to the variety."
"The problem I have", he continued, "is my tendency to treat every
vegetable I produce in the same way, and there simply aren't enough
hours in the day to do all I want."
No two days are ever the same for this man who not only works on the
land at Carrières -sur-Seine, to the West of Paris, as well as dealing
with all the administration that his business entails, but also goes to
market and sells his produce in the capital himself, one of the remaining
market gardeners to do so.
"My day changes with the seasons, "he said. "This morning I was up at 4
a.m. to sort out deliveries and bills before drawing up the days
requirements for the rest of my team and after that I had to oversee that
all the orders for restaurants and private customers were put in the
truck, produce which can only be picked and loaded at the last minute
before we leave for Paris."
(At this point my own curiosity was aroused and I asked him which chefs
had ordered from him that day. "Pierre Gagnaire**, William Ledeuil***, Helen
Darroze****", he began, "but I don't work with everyone who is in the
By 6 30 a.m. he was setting up his stall on the Avenue du Président
-Wilson where you will find only fresh vegetables in season,
basically root vegetables in winter and leafy ones in summer, and
where he will happily advise customers on the best ways to
store, prepare, and cook his produce.
"I enjoy the direct contact with people", he said. "And it's obvious,
isn't it, that the best thing to do after shopping is to take everything
home and put it in a cool place as quickly as possible, particularly all
leafy foods which should be wrapped in cling film and kept at 2°C.
In spite of being a lover of good food, Thiébault does not cook
himself, although the tip he gave me to prepare spinach was excellent. He
told me to wash the spinach thoroughly, drying each leaf before putting it
in a large frying pan or wok with a knob of butter and stirring it gently
for no more than three minutes. A clove of garlic stuck to your spoon does
no harm either. His recipe for a rhubarb tart was equally as delicious. He
suggested macerating small chunks of rhubarb with sugar and fresh ginger
overnight. The following day he beat 2 soup spoons of thick fresh cream
with 75 grams of sugar, 3 soup spoons of flour and an egg plus an extra
yolk to make a smooth cream. He poured the lot into a pastry base,
arranging the rhubarb on top before baking for 45 minutes in a hot oven.
But what can't be quibbled with is the quality of the fruit. The secret is
to use young sticks of rhubarb as quickly as possible after picking as
nothing replaces the freshness of a product.
book, which is not strictly speaking a cookery book in the usual sense,
also benefits from some 250 beautiful photographs by Grant Symon, the
photographer who won the World Cookbooks Award in 2004 for the best
photography in a cookery book. His pictures are extraordinary. For the
moment, Les Légumes de Joel is only available in French,
published by Flammarion, but is so visually lovely that anyone interested
shouldn't hesitate to order it immediately!
Les Légumes de
By Lyndsay and Patrick Mikanowski
Editions Flammarion (Paris, 24 October 2005)
* The Market at Alma Marceau, avenue du Président Wilson.
Wednesdays and Saturdays.
** Restaurant Pierre Gagnaire
6, rue Balzac
Tel: (33) 01 58 36 12 50
(Count 310 euros per person ,
no wine, for dinner, 100 euro special lunch menu, no wine)
*** Ze Kitchen
4, rue des Grands-Augustins
(33) 01 44 32 00 33
(Count 34 euros per person, all inclusive for
**** Hélène Darroze
4, rue d'Assas
(33) 01 42 22 00 11
(Count 200 euros per person for dinner, no