Making every bite count

14 May 2007

I'm back.. musings on France

Life's been a bit hectic for the last month. I was on vacation in Europe for two weeks, and for the last two weeks, I've been cooking like crazy... for my new boyfriend, Fred.
When I am single, my cooking style tends to be a bit more sparse. Little to no cheese, more grains, less fish, simpler meals, fewer side dishes. But to me, cooking is a form of creativity, of expression. So lately, I've felt inspired. By Fred, yes, but by Europe, my friends, my life.
I spent a week in France eating as a I pleased, meat included. My sister and I made a pact: Each night a great meal, wine included, with no repeats. We broke that rule once, for a second meal at the cafe Le Vrai Paris on Rue des Abbesses. The first night we went there two lesbians interrupted our dinner then paid for it. (At 70 euros, we were happy to let them!) We returned our last night because we couldn't decide where else to go, and we wanted to stay in our neighborhood.
Because the vegetarian options are sparse in French bistros and cafes, I ate meat. I wasn't really happy with the decision, but the food was delicious. I took comfort in the fact that the French care so much about what they eat. It's not just duck on the menu, it's magret au col vert.
I ate so many delicious meals:
salmon in a rich cream sauce with spinach and shallots
coq au vin
paupiettes de pecheur au provencale (thin filets of fish filled with a cheese and vegetable mixture, rolled up and served with tomato sauce)
sliced, sauteed potatoes that were so rich and sweet they had to have been cooked in duck or goose fat
perfectly creamy scalloped potatoes
a croque madame
countless crepes filled with Nutella (well, I snagged bites of Rach's)
risotto with poultry (I thought it was vegetarian, then remembered "volaille" means poultry)
duck breast seared but still practically bleeding on the inside (surprisingly delicious), with roasted chestnuts and a rich red wine sauce
After a week in Paris, I was craving vegetables and grains and yes, tofu. But there was none to be had for a few more days, for I was off to Tours, where my French "grandmother" lives.
Colette Vavasseur is one of the kindest people I know. I was randomly assigned to live with her when I studied abroad six years ago. A naive 19-year-old who'd never been overseas, I learned so much sitting around her dinner table each night. Between 7:50 and 8:00 each night, she'd open the door at the bottom of the stairs and yell up to my camarade de chambre (roommate) and me, "A la table, les filles." "Oui," we'd respond, and be down the stairs within one minute flat.
Kosuke, the 13-year-old Japanese boy attending boarding school in Tours, would usually have beaten us to the table. As Patrick Poivre d'Arvor began reading the news (or Claire Chazal with her decolletage exposed and her annoying forward leaning posture on weekends) and we'd begin eating, sometimes with an aperatif but usually just with an entree.
Often a quiche, a seafood salad, stuffed avocados, sometimes beets, carottes rapees, concombres a la creme (cucumbers with creme fraiche), often a potage, sometimes pate, rillettes (which are a specialty of Tours) or even, once, foie gras.
Usually wine, often a rose from Bordeaux, or a white from the Touraine region. I didn't know whether it was good or bad, but I liked it.
After one helping, plus a no-thank you second helping, came clean plates and le plat principal, usually meat of some kind.
Often fish or chicken, sometimes roasted pork, rarely beef. At that time, mad cow fears were rampant, and beef prices were high. Some chickenlike meat made a frequent appearance, and it took me about six weeks to figure out that it was rabbit, the same rabbits that Colette kept in the backyard. (Chickens don't have large femur bones; that's how I figured it out.) Sometimes we had pasta, for my birthday Colette roasted a duck. My favorite meal was her roasted chicken, which I still crave. The skin crisp, ready to crack if flicked, the meat tender and juicy inside. The greasy, deliciously salty "sauce"/gravy spooned over multiple servings. Always accompanied by haricots verts a l'ail (with garlic). It was the one time Colette didn't have to tell us "Il faut finir." (You must finish.)
Colette was a founding member of the clean-plate club. The food was delicious, and we wanted to eat it, but one serving sufficed for American girls trying to watch their weight in the land of lanky French women. We were often allowed to eat the dinner leftovers for lunch or even dinner the next night, but the next course was salad, which we had to finish entirely each night.
The salad bowl made its appearance just when Devan (the other American in the house) and I were ready to burst. We'd drink more wine to be able to eat more. The large glass bowl, more like a punch bowl, it seemed, would appear in the center of the table, the large leaves of buttery soft lettuce dressed with the same shallot vinaigrette night after night (the secret, Colette told me this time, is cider vinegar and vegetable oil). The French don't cut lettuce but carefully fold it into neat bites using knife and fork. This prolonged the salad course, a welcome diversion during digestion. Salad at the end, I've decided is a brilliant French diet trick. Cleans out the other stuff, I think. The good-natured argument was the same every night:
Colette: "Il faut finir la salade, les filles." (You must finish the salad, girls.)
Us: "But we're so full from all your delicious food."
Colette: "OK, but the lettuce is expensive because the fields are flooded (the Loire was flooded that spring), so you have to eat it all."
One of us: "If lettuce is expensive, then could you just buy less?"
Colette: "Yes, next time I will, but tonight I've made this, so we don't want to waste it."
Us: Sigh, deep breath, silent fight to see who would finish.
One of us: "Well, I had seconds on the meat, so I think xxx should have more salad."
The other: "Ok, well I know how much you like salad, so I think you should finish it."
Round and round it went, until we'd finished.
After the salad, cheese -- Sainte Maure, Camembert, Brie, Roquefort, chevre, any number of pungent French cheeses... which I at first had to wrap inside bread and swallow almost whole to tolerate them. By the end of 10 weeks, I'd learned to love the smelly French fromage.
Finally fruit, which we'd usually refuse, followed by dessert:
Colette makes a great tarte tatin, so good in fact that I never passed it up. That upside-down French tart, with its caramelly, buttery apples and crisp, flaky crust. Classically French and perfectly done.
On my birthday, I had a chocolate cake from scratch. Other times, pear tarts, ile flottant, creme caramel, pots de creme, chocolate mousse. How could I say no?
Finally a digestif on special occasions and coffee to wake us up so we could finish our homework.
That was my introduction to French food, 10 weeks in the Loire Valley in spring 2001. I gained 10 pounds, but I didn't care.
During those meals, which sometimes lasted two hours, I learned more about French and France than I did all day in my classes. We watched the news, I asked questions, Colette explained French culture and current events. Some nights, we skipped going out to bars with friends so we could linger around the table, drinking tea or coffee and talking with Colette. As she said the day I left, with tears in her eyes, she was more than my host mother, she was my friend. She still is, and the French lessons she gave me and love she put into the food she made had made a profound impact on me.
This visit, I spent two and a half days with Colette. I had great meals, unfortunately full of meat:
Cucumber-vinaigrette salad
Roasted pork with perfectly crisp, buttery, sweet fried potatoes
Salad with her shallot vinaigrette, which I of course, finished
Cheese: a dry and a moist Sainte-Maure
A slice of chocolate cake
For lunch the next day,
A mild white fish with Hollandaise sauce
Cherry tomatoes ready to burst with ripeness and flavor
I'm forgetting what else, but the meal was superb.
"Il faut profiter de la vie," Colette told me when I protested as she refilled my wine glass with a crisp, yet semi sweet Touraine white.
The day I left, Colette made me eat lunch though I'd eaten breakfast just two hours before. No one leaves Colette's home hungry. So, I ate more tomatoes, a whole bowl, with a dab of creamy, full-fat mayonnaise (French mayo just tastes so much better than U.S. mayo), a sprinkling of salt and pepper and some good bread. Life was good, the wine was free-flowing, and I was happy.
Sitting around her table that first night, six years older and feeling so much wiser, tears welled up at one point. My French had returned, I spoke freely and we reminisced about those 10 weeks. We watched Patrick and Claire as the election returns came in, and we fell into that same rhythm: food, conversation, seconds, questions.
I asked Colette for some of her recipes to share, but I didn't get very many of them. I'll ask her again when I send the pictures we took my last night there.

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