23 Thermidor: Lentille (lentil, Lens culinaris)
Here’s a hard-working legume! The many varieties of lentil feed quite a lot of the world. They especially make themselves valuable in vegetarian or low-meat diets: the lentil is high in protein and a good source of iron and B vitamins. While lentils are deficient in two of the essential amino acids, mixing them with rice or pasta makes for a complete protein profile. If you are alive, thank a lentil—at the very least, on behalf of your ancestors.
What do lentils like? They are happiest in cool climates, tolerating some touches of spring frost; they want well-drained soil and not too much rainfall. Inoculate them with Rhizobium friends—everyone remembers about Fabaceae and the nitrogen cycle?—and keep down their weedy competitors. And your lentils will repay you.
22 Thermidor: Caprier (caper, Capparis spinosa)
Capers are best known in their culinary role: the little pickled green things in a jar, so tasty on deviled eggs and often spotted in company with salmon, are the unripe buds of the caper bush. People also pickle and eat the ripe berry, and sometimes the leaves.
What are the white spots on capers? Well—okay, in the above photo, there are obviously large grains of salt. But even unsalted capers often show small white speckles. Those are crystallized spots of rutin, a compound formed as mustard oil is released from the pickled buds.
20 Thermidor: Écluse (lock)
A lock on a canal or river allows boats to move between stretches of water on different levels: useful in canals, particularly, because a lock system allows a canal to be carved through the land regardless of highs and lows. The many designs get very complicated, but the basic idea of a pound lock is that the boat enters a chamber with gates on either end that allow water in and out. I am not engineer enough to report further, even though I now live near one end of the Erie Canal, which is a lock motherlode. (The top pics, by the way, come from the lovely New York State Archives, which is a lock image motherlode.)
Qiao Weiyo of the Song Dynasty period can be credited with the development of that pound lock system in 984. Sluice gates and other simple forms of water-level management were already common, but they were inadequate for the needs of the heavy tax-grain barges. The pound lock system protected the boats as well as simplifying their movement.
19 Thermidor: Gentiane (gentian, Gentiana lutea and other Gentiana spp.)
Gentiana is a large and colorful genus. Intense blues are typical, but some species are purple, white, or yellow. Millin describes the yellow gentian as the principal French species.
The root produces intensely bitter compounds, particularly amarogentin, used to study human taste receptors and to flavor tonics like Angostura bitters. And also Moxie. Excellent stuff.
18 Thermidor: Amande (almond, Prunus amygdalus)
Almonds: how do they work? The almond is a close relative of the peach; instead of sweet and fleshy, its fruit is leathery and green. Inside, as in a peach, you find a hard shell, and inside that shell you find a seed—the almond “nut.” At some point in human history, someone noticed that almonds occasionally failed to make the amygdalin that produces deadly hydrogen cyanide when metabolized, and decided to domesticate this tree.
From that first leap came marzipan, nougat, macarons, pasanda curries, almond butter, almond milk… It was a successful project, the domestication of the almond.
16 Thermidor: Guimauve (marshmallow, Althea officinalis)
Mucilage: a gelatinous substance of various plants (as legumes or seaweeds) that contains protein and polysaccharides and is similar to plant gums. Think aloe vera, okra, kelp…and marshmallows. The gooey mucilage of the marshmallow plant no longer plays a role in commercial marshmallow production but the name remains; marshmallow root is still used in some recipes for halvah.
If you want to try making old-style marshmallows, this site has a recipe. You’ll probably want to scale it down from 70 egg whites and 50 pounds of sugar. And when you’re done with that, Millin tells me that you can make a toothbrush from mallow roots as well!
14 Thermidor: Basilic (sweet basil, Ocimum basilicum)
It’s another one from the mint family! Basil comes first from India, and has made itself at home in many cuisines. The basil of the French calendar would be Ocimum basilicum, but there are several other species and varieties used in the kitchen.
And that lady in the middle photo, cozying up to her pot of basil? That’s Isabella and she’s got her boyfriend’s head in there.
13 Thermidor: Abricot (apricot, Prunus armeniaca)
Yum. That top photo is a crowd of apricots drying in the sun in Turkey. The smell must be heavenly. Armenia, India, and China have all been proposed as the point of origin for domestic apricots; as with other food plants it’s hard to distinguish between a wide natural range and early human-influenced spread. And who wouldn’t want to spread apricots? They look lovely, they smell lovely, they taste lovely.
And their wood joins the musical world: the duduk, an Armenian reed instrument, is properly made from apricot. I don’t follow Eurovision so I missed out on Armenia’s 2010 entry Apricot Stone, but now I know to watch it on YouTube.
12 Thermidor: Salicorne (glasswort, samphire, Salicornia europaea and other Salicornia spp.)
"Glasswort," you say. "What a funny name," you say. "Why is it called glasswort?"
I’m so glad you asked! Glasswort is called glasswort because it used to be burned for soda ash—sodium bicarbonate—essential in making soda lime glass. In 1791, Nicolas Leblanc patented a process for producing soda ash from sea salt, cutting out the plant middle-man, and unemployed glassworts roamed the seashore. But they have also been put to work as salt-rich animal fodder, and as human food as well.
Exciting halophytes. Glasswort joins statice and orache on the calendar’s salt-tolerant side.
11 Thermidor: Panis (switchgrass, proso millet, Panicum miliaceum and other Panicum spp.)
Panis (or panic) can refer to a whole genus of grasses, Panicum; but Millin specifies a “panicum italien” that birds particularly like and that can be mixed into bread, so I’m guessing the calendar-makers had proso millet in mind. But not every Panicum is a millet and not every millet is a Panicum. “Millet” describes a group of cereal grasses grown for their small round seeds. And yes, birds do like millet—at least, most cockatiels and budgies I’ve met have been about ready to shove their grandmothers under a bus for a spray of millet. But I notice that wild birdseed mixes heavy on millet—usually the cheapest available—tend not to get much enthusiasm at bird feeders.
Proso millet is grown mostly as livestock fodder and birdseed. It’s a fairly low-value grain, deficient in lysine, and as fodder it’s low in leaf and high in rough stem, but it can be a useful crop nonetheless. You can leave the stubble of a previous crop in place when you plant it, and it requires little water: in fact, its shallow root system means that deeper levels of soil can replenish their water while the millet grows.