PARIS » The French do not know kale.
While legions of American chefs, diners and health gurus have turned it into a menu staple and a sought-after superfood, their Gallic counterparts do not understand the leafy green vegetable. Even worse, they do not seem interested.
They cannot even agree on what to call it. There are at least five terms for kale, and the technical name, chou frisi non-pommi, translates unappetizingly as "curly headless cabbage."
In a nation that loves just about every comestible its terroir can put forth, kale is a reminder of the dietary deprivation of World War II that made boiled cabbage an unpleasant fixture of the dinner table. Even here in the city that tends to embrace trends it considers trhs Brooklyn, kale (so ubiquitous in Brooklyn that it could be named the borough’s official vegetable) evokes the classic Parisian shrug.
But suddenly there are stirrings of a movement to make France pay attention, led by a 29-year-old American who has transformed herself into the Joan of Arc of kale. This crusader for crucifers, Kristen Beddard, found herself without a job in 2011 after quitting as an Ogilvy & Mather account manager in New York to follow her husband to Paris. She also found herself without a beloved food she had eaten since her childhood in Pittsburgh.
"I went to so many farmers and restaurants, showing them photos of kale," Beddard said. "No one had any idea what I was talking about. One night I was out to dinner with my husband and I said, ‘What if I try to bring kale to Paris?’"
Working from her apartment on a shoestring budget, she has created The Kale Project, complete with a website that dutifully reports kale sightings. Despite her minimal French, she has passionately pitched kale to chefs and vegetable farmers.
"I knew deep down that if I could get farmers to grow it, I could create a kale community in France," Beddard said. "My mission is to make kale as common as lettuce."
She is under no illusion that she will earn a living from kale, and is not making any money at the moment. But if her kale project turns a profit one day, she would be delighted.
She has her work cut out for her.
"Why would the French ever care about this large, coarse-leaved cabbage?" asked Sanak Lemoine, a French writer in Brooklyn who helped found a food blog called The Walkin Kitchen (and cooks a lot with kale). "They don’t need magical vegetables or superfoods. They already have a tradition of eating balanced meals. In a strange way, kale is superfluous."
In Beddard’s encounters with the French, some have bridled at this young American who presumes to instruct them about an ancient piece of their culinary heritage. One of France’s largest food distributors laughed at her, she said, when she proposed that he ask his farmers to plant kale.
But with the help of a quiet charm and an advertising executive’s enthusiasm, she has chalked up some modest victories.
They include organizing several kale events at small restaurants and cafes, including what was billed as Paris’ first official kale evening at the upscale bistro Verjus last year. She supplies Loustic, an espresso and lunch bar in the Marais, every day with kale salads, kale chips and kale pesto that she makes herself.
At her suggestion, a young chef at T Divin, a hip new bistro in a working-class neighborhood in eastern Paris, is using kale to garnish tjte de veau and to anchor salads with fresh apple sauces and Comti cheese. Next month, Beddard will help create cocktails with kale juice at Silencio, the club in central Paris designed by the filmmaker David Lynch.
The first farmer to embrace her project was Hermione Boehrer, who has started growing organic baby kale and selling it for 25 euros a kilogram (about $15 a pound) every Sunday at the outdoor organic food market on Boulevard Raspail. She says she always sells out.
Beddard met her at the market, after noticing that mustard greens, an oddity in France, were for sale at her stand. The two women struck up a conversation. "It sounds cheesy, but it was almost like fate," Beddard said.
Boehrer, 60, is gray-haired, deeply tanned and deadly serious. She lives alone, without indoor plumbing or electricity, on a 2-acre farm near Coulommiers, about a 90-minute drive from Paris. Beddard provided her with seeds that she had brought from England for a curly-leaf kale called Halbhoher Gr 5/8n Krauser. The first crop last year was eaten by insects, but this year’s harvest has been a smashing success.
Beddard also contacted Jokl Thiibault, the high-end farmer who grows more than 1,500 varieties of nonorganic fruits and vegetables outside Paris. He had grown kale several years ago, but it did not sell. Prodded by Beddard, he began growing kale again, and recently it was selling briskly at an outdoor market here.
When Beddard has questions about soil content or predatory insects, she consults her uncle, Thomas Beddard, the founder of Lady Moon Farms, a large organic produce operation on the East Coast of the United States. And she has become a walking Wikipedia entry on the history and culture of kale.
Kale-like primitive cabbages with prominent stalks were cultivated in ancient Greece and Rome. Because kale grows so well in cold climates, it caught on big in Northern Europe, becoming a staple in Germany, the Netherlands and England. But not in France.
A visit to Boehrer’s farm is like a trip into that history. Her 30-square-foot house is lighted at night with two bulbs powered by a wire attached to the cigarette lighter of her truck. She washes herself and waters her fields with rainwater caught in huge vats. She plants chervil and mustard among the kale to discourage insects. She harvests her vegetables and herbs by hand, one leaf at a time.
"Not just anyone can come here," she said. "I don’t have time for guests."
Her guests on this day (Beddard, the food writer Jean-Claude Ribaut and this reporter) bought two wooden crates of kale, for $100. One was delivered to Alain Passard, who specializes in vegetables at Arphge, his three-star Michelin restaurant in Paris. Passard had agreed to see what he could do with this strange new ingredient; even though he grows his own fruits and vegetables, he had never encountered kale.
His six-course lunch started with a crescent-shaped pastry stuffed with turnips, onions and kale. Kale-filled ravioli in a sweet tomato bouillon followed, then a thin gratin with kale, onion and black cardamom garnished with chives. A rich green kale soup, a bit of zucchini added for texture, was topped with a white emulsion of speck.
Then out came a dark chipolata sausage of kale, onions and savory, served with puries of turnips and celery. The meal ended with a tribute to the peasant: stuffed cabbage. Kale leaves were wrapped around tiny cubes of potato and chopped onion and kale; a bouillon was made of green tomato, bay leaf and mati tea.
When it was over, Passard spoke effusively about what he called le kahl. "For me, it’s not a cabbage, it’s a seaweed," he said. "It has the feel of an algae. It has a personality, a character, a power. It unlocks creativity. It touches on all the senses!"
Then he turned to Beddard and asked, with all the gravity of a marriage proposal, "Will you send me some seeds?"
STUFFED KALE IN TOMATO WATER
Adapted from Alain Passard
Time: About 1 1/2 hours
Yield: 4 servings (3 stuffed kale leaves per serving)
12 large kale leaves, stemmed
2 1/2 pounds green zebra tomatoes or any combination of ripe heirloom tomatoes
3 or 4 bay leaves, preferably fresh
2 medium new potatoes
1/4 cup salted butter
1/2 sweet onion, minced
1 small zucchini, finely chopped
6 to 8 medium-size kale leaves, thinly sliced (1 packed cup)
1/4 cup unroasted pistachios, chopped
2 to 3 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves removed
1 fresh hyssop branch (optional)
A few drops of pistachio or walnut oil
1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Blanch the large kale leaves for 30 seconds, drain and transfer to an ice bath or run under cold water to stop the cooking. Set them aside.
2. Halve and core the tomatoes; transfer to a medium saucepan and place over high heat. Bring to a boil and let soften for 2 to 3 minutes. Crush the tomatoes with a potato masher. Reduce to a simmer and continue to cook for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and cool.
3. Strain the tomato water through two layers of cheesecloth. (Do not force the extraction.) When all liquid has drained, discard the cheesecloth and pulp, add the bay leaves and let stand for 15 minutes. Discard the bay leaves and set aside the tomato water.
4. Meanwhile, cook the potatoes in salted water until tender when pierced with a knife, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain, peel and cut into cubes, about 1/4-inch square.
5. Place a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, melt the butter and add the onion, zucchini and sliced kale leaves. Cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
6. Add the potatoes, pistachios, thyme and hyssop, if using, and stir gently to just combine. (Do not mash.) Remove from heat.
7. Lay a 10-inch square piece of plastic wrap on a clean work surface. Place a large kale leaf in the center of the plastic and spoon about 2 tablespoons of the filling into the center of the leaf. Gather up the edges of the plastic wrap and twist to form a ball with the kale leaf at the bottom. Tie the plastic tightly at the base of the ball. Repeat with remaining kale and stuffing.
8. Bring a steamer to a boil, reduce to a low simmer and add the plastic-wrapped kale. Gently steam the bundles for 5 minutes. (Be careful; if heat is too high the plastic will melt.) Remove the bundles, carefully untie and serve, seam side down, in the warm tomato water. Drizzle with the oil and sprinkle with pepper.