The French breakfast radish D'Avignon. (Barbara Damrosch for The…)
It’s cute, tender and delicious, but its name has always been a puzzle. Why would a radish be called “French Breakfast”? In my experience, breakfast in France means a baguette and great coffee — except when it’s great coffee and a croissant. They do love their radishes, but as a French expat down under in Sydney blogged, “I have never eaten or seen anyone eat radishes for breakfast in France.”
The vegetable in question is a two-inch, one-bite treat prized for its sweet mild flavor and succulent crunch. Technically a spring radish, it is one you can sow any time of the year, though in winter it might need some cold protection and in summer you’d want to harvest it promptly, at 20 to 25 days, before it has a chance to get pithy inside. It’s the perfect little fast-growing crop to squeeze between others.
An heirloom introduced in 1879, French Breakfast was the popular market radish of Paris, now more a type than a single variety. Always red tipped with white, the shape can vary. On the Web site of the French seed company Graines Baumaux there are a dozen small radishes with this coloration, ranging from round to olive-shaped to, most typically, cylindrical with a blunt tip. Most American seed catalogues sell some form of French Breakfast. I favor the variety D’Avignon, sold by High Mowing (www.highmowingseeds.
com), the Cook’s Garden (www.cooksgarden.com) and Johnny’s Selected Seeds (www.johnnyseeds.com). It’s pointed, with a bit more resistance to pithiness.
These radishes are the handiest of snacks for the table. I just put out a bowl of them plain at meals, but the shape also makes them great for dipping. In France they are sliced lengthwise, spread with butter and salted, or placed atop a buttered baguette for a “tartine.”
The English chef Fergus Henderson butters them, too. He also suggests collecting the tops in a bowl as you go and turning them into a spicy salad with vinaigrette. You might try slicing both roots and leaves for a stir-fry, or sauteeing them in butter.
Occasionally I have come across this sort of radish referred to as English Breakfast, and I wonder whether the radish-for-breakfast idea got more traction across the Channel. The traditional English “breakfast” resembles most people’s midday or evening meal.
Then again, a French Web site called Jardins des Pareillas suggests that after a day’s gardening in the hot sun, or after a dinner rich in cheese, you need a breakfast that will eliminate wastes and toxins for better liver and gallbladder function. The site’s recommendation: radishes. And if I were to eat a radish for breakfast, the French Breakfast would be the one.
Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of “The Garden Primer.”