It may be a staple for apéro snacks but the humble pickled gherkin (cornichon) is very unlikely to have been grown in France.
Cornichons, that peculiarly French condiment, may still have an entire aisle to themselves in most French supermarkets, but today they are almost exclusively produced abroad, largely in India.
‘Almost’ exclusively, because a single grower, Florent Jeannequin, has clung on to the French soil when giants like Amora-Maille went abroad.
Along with his son, Henri, he went on to found Maison Marc, which today produces cornichons of sufficient quality to attract the approval of the likes of Guillaume Gomez, the head chef at the Elysée palace.
If Mr Jeannequin was sad to see the big cornichon producers leave French soil, he also took a pragmatic view. It’s a question of economy,” he says. “In India, there are three cornichon harvests per year, work is cheaper and transport costs are much lower”.
Foreign production may lower costs, but Mr Jeannequin believes that “the quality of the resulting cornichon is not the same”. The high year-round Indian temperatures mean that preservatives have to be deployed to keep the cornichons in good condition in their jars. In the fields, insects that drill into the cornichon plant have necessitated the widespread use of pesticides.
“These chemicals diminish the flavour of the fruit,” he adds. “The cornichons you buy in the supermarket taste nothing like the traditional cornichon. It’s like milk: mass-produced milk tastes absolutely nothing like milk fresh from the cow”.
Florent Jeannequin took a risk in continuing to grow cornichons when all the other producers were turning to other cereal crops, such as wheat. “I realised that there was a niche for a producer to sell a quality product to épiceries fines and I decided to give it a go,” he says.
At the outset, Maison Marc struggled to find buyers, and exported its cornichons to Austria and Germany. Little by little, word got out and the reputation of Maison Marc grew.
Florent and Henri Jeannequin have stuck resolutely to traditional methods of cornichon preparation. “When my grandmother made cornichons she used a simple recipe,” says Mr Jeannequin. “She stored them in her cellar with the eggs. The principles we use today are exactly the same”. Even the company name nods at tradition, as Marc was the name of Florent Jeannequin’s father.
Florent and Henri Jeannequin oversee the entire cornichon production process, from field to shop. “We even do all the deliveries ourselves,” explains Mr Jeannequin. “This allows us to get to know all the people we supply personally. We have a good chat”.
During the 15-day harvest, Maison Marc employs about 28 seasonal workers, who do all the picking by hand. “The plant is very fragile and it is important not to separate the leaves.
“You have to reach under the plant, like collecting eggs from underneath a hen. This is why we would never use machines”.
In three years’ time, Florent Jeannequin, 62, will retire, handing the business on to Henri, 24, who intends to stick to the traditional methods used by his father. If you want to taste a cornichon that has not lost its original flavour, and have not yet been invited to dine at the Elysée, you can find a list of stockists at www.lescornichons.fr.