An Irish Chef in France

Martin and Sile Dwyer’s Chambre d’Hôte in the Languedoc has been closed by Covid for months on end and, as for everyone in lockdown, the daily walk has become their main highlight. As spring arrives, the foraging year begins, adding interest to their outings - and some of the wild food that’s there for the taking in France is surprisngly exotic…

Spring comes in quietly here in the Languedoc and always makes us think that it is earlier than usual.

The first true signs we see are the almond trees starting to blossom - I am never sure whether it is the most beautiful of the fruit trees or if it is just so welcome as the first arrival after the winter.

In our department, the Herault, we are particularly well supplied with almonds which grow around the vineyards even though no one seems to pick them much anymore. It is hard to tell if they were deliberately planted or if they are more likely an escape from cultivation.

When the Almond blossom has fallen it is the cue for other plants which grow in the wild to start their own production.

One of the first is the figs, these are truly wonderful. As an Irishman they are very exotic, I have only seen expensive imports available in Ireland in the summertime. Here they literally grow on trees. Now these wild figs are not often left to rot on the branches. There is a particular beauty which we pass on our daily walk that we always keep an eye on, often picking the ripe fruit within our reach. We have been surprised on occasion to notice that the fruit higher up in the tree - unreachable without a ladder - would often disappear overnight. We assumed that it must be a fruit eating bird or bat which was taking its full of the ripe fruit.

One evening as we returned from our walk later than usual we found the fig eater. Coming against us, and heading towards the fig trees was a determined village housewife. She was carrying her fig picking machine, basically a small metal bucket on the end of a long pole. With this ingenious device she could knock the fruit into her bucket and take them home for jam.

For other products of the spring hedgerows and verges we are dependent on the thrifty French to give us notice that they are ready. Much prized, and rightly so, is the wild asparagus.

You need to watch carefully for this. The first indication of its imminent arrival is the fern, you have to look out for this and note well where you spotted it. The wild asparagus itself is very difficult to spot as it stands erect in the ditch looking for all the world like a fat blade of grass. Don’t be fooled. It is a real treat if boiled briefly and then eaten with plenty of butter.

At around the same time we will see some canny gourmets scrabbling about in the bottom of the ditches. They are it seems looking for one of two things; baby dandelion leaves for their salad or fat petit Gris (snails to you and me) to take home and purify before eating with plenty of garlic.

But for us perhaps the most exotic of the hedgerow treats is the pomegranate. This fruit is ready to steal from the trees in the height of the summer. Like the fig it amazes us that this rare and expensive fruit can be just there for the picking.

The autumn also has its fair share of food for free. You have to search them out a bit but there are wild quinces and walnuts growing around the roads and lanes of the Languedoc. I try and pick just a few walnuts every year in June to steep in alcohol to make some delicious Vin de Noix, and the quinces provide me with perhaps the best bounty of all. These I boil and sieve carefully and then reboil with sugar until it makes a firm well set jelly.

This is known as Membrillo in Portugal where it is much prized but here in the south of France it is called Cotignac. This I pour onto lined trays and then when set cut up into squares which I wrap individually. These little squares are totally delicious with the cheeses of the area- the goats cheese from the Garrigues and particularly with the sharp blue sheep’s cheese which they make in Roquefort.

The main difference between foraging here and in Ireland is, we feel, that in Ireland we are picking real wild fruit, like the sloe and the blackberry (they grow here too but don’t ripen like they do in Ireland because of the drier climate). Here the bounty of the hedges and ditches is principally fruits which were once cultivated by the smallholders but have now escaped back into the wild - and these are real prizes for us transplanted Irish folk.

Martin Dwyer started cooking professionally over 40 years ago in the legendary “Snaffles Restaurant” in Dublin. After a time in a Relais Chateau in Anjou and in “The Wife of Bath” in Kent, he opened his own acclaimed restaurant, “Dwyers”, in Waterford in 1989. In 2004 he sold this and moved south to France where he and his wife Síle bought and restored an old presbytery in a village in the Languedoc. They now run Le Presbytère as a French style Chambre d’Hôte. Martin however is far too passionate about food to give up cooking so they now enjoy serving dinner to their customers on the terrace of Le Presbytère on warm summer evenings. Martin runs occasional cookery courses in Le Presbytère and Síle’s brother Colm does week long Nature Strolls discovering the Flora and Fauna of the Languedoc.
Le Presbytère can be seen at:;


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