NATIONAL pride dies on the vine each fall when summer travelers return with tales of markets in France, in Italy, in wherever. So we practiced a little preventive medicine, and early in July took a couple of French chefs to the farm markets in York, Pa. True, the setting of York's Eastern Market on 201 Memory Lane can't compete with a medieval walled village. It is, rather, a monstrous highway parking lot with a shopping center in the middle, only charming if you are sick of charm. But under one enormous roof were fruits and vegetables that Frenchmen, much less Americans may not have seen for years. Red currants and pink gooseberries were snatched up for jams. Curly savoy cabbages nearly a yard wide from leaf tip to leaf tip were fought over, ours becoming a picnic centerpiece. We found sour red cherries for pies, and sweet cherries both pink and gold. We struggled over choices of sausages: mild or hot, smoked or plain, herbed or unseasoned. There was plenty to remind us this was mass-market America: cakes of shortening-and-sugar frosting in colors more associated with bathing suits than with food, grease-sodden and tasteless cooked chickens, ducks with that rigid and boxy shape associated with being stacked in freezers. But we found tiny peas, already shelled, and cheeses never seen outside Amish country (but reminiscent of France's runny fresh cheeses).
We came home with the first white corn and early -- very expensive -- tomatoes. (Our shock at the price prompted the vendor to suggest, "You know what to do with these tomatoes? Eat them very slowly.") We finished on the spot the freshly made potato chips. We thrilled at the sight of lean thick bacon -- but found it tasted neither smoked nor cured once we got it home. We filled a bag with our favorite leafy vegetable, beet greens. But we passed up one regional treat, despite its historical interest: we couldn't get ourselves to even taste the original, homemade forerunners of the Devil Dog.
As long as we are reminiscing, let us all remember good old Hudson Brothers, the green grocer supreme, in Georgetown, where we found not only the best (at a price to match) of the routine fruits and vegetables, but also and always surprises. If we wanted berries in winter, or the first fennel and arugola, we looked at Hudson Brothers. If we were ever to find fresh lichees or prickly pears, we would find them at Hudson Brothers. And when we had no garden of our own, we went for a few moments of country lushness to that small stand where every fruit and vegetable was the best and the brightest. But a season of complaints about Hudson Brothers' produce is fading. We checked and agreed. Limpness and brown edges. A few wan herbs where once was profusion. You can get plump and pretty fruits, but you can also get pale and tired ones. Some highlights are still there, but the everydy is just . . . everyday, sometimes worse. We hope Hudson Brothers is taking just a short breather from its tradition of excellence.
"I would rather give my tricks to a housewife than give them to another cook," says Jacques Blanc, who came to Washington as a chef 20 years ago and four years later launched Le Provencal as one of the city's earliest and major French restaurants. He is now planning to launch Washington's first cooking school conducted by a local French chef who has achieved such Gallic honors as Maitre Cuisinier and Officier du Merite Agricole. Blanc has taught budding professionals at Cornell's hotel school, but this course, expected to begin in the fall, will be for home cooks rather than professionals at Cornell's hotel school, but this course, expected to begin in the fall, will be for home cooks rather than professionals, and will include telephone consultations to discuss problems students encounter at home when trying his menus. And, while the classes wil cover complete menus, Blanc plans to incorporate the basics -- how to boil an egg, if necessary. Look for this white toque to hang out in Spring Valley, where Massachusetts Avenue may soon be pronounced Marseilles.
In the bargains-are-not-necessarily-cheap department, let us consider morels, those incomparable wild mushrooms bought dried and sold dear. We have found them around town for $15 an ounce. But by banding together with a few other lovers of luxury we have bought them for one-third that price. The catch is that you have to order them from Sweden (AB Bernhard Andersson, S- 385 00 Torsas, Sweden) and the price -- $140 to $180 a kilo -- may be proportionally higher for smaller quantities. In any case, the top quality ($180 a kilo) are the biggest and most flavorsome morels we have tasted. They come in two lesser qualities ($150 and $140) plus in scraps ($130), and prices do not include transportation (nor translation of the order form from Swedish). But this well-established company has been sending us postcards with current prices (in kroner) for years; and the only reason we haven't reordered is that, even divided several ways, using up a kilo of morels is a long-term project.