Flying without a recette

French cookbooksOther than my post about French bread, the one that was freshly baked pressed, I’ve rarely written about the wonders of la cuisine. And I am certainly no authority on the finer points of French food. But here’s the thing: I love to eat.

My husband was always a more knowledgable cook and expert in the culinary arts. Which is perfectly normal – he had a head start:

  • Born and raised in France
  • Father a professional chef who also did a lot of the cooking at home
  • Attended hotel school in Nice, where he learned the basics of fine cuisine along with French service

But he left hospitality behind shortly after we married and began a career in IT. As it happened, I ended up doing most of the cooking. Not because of any gender-based stereotypes but simply because I care about eating well. Every single day.

My husband can still pull off a fabulous meal with astounding efficiency, and from time to time he’s conscripted for kitchen duty. I also ask his advice about how to cook things – boil or bake, sauté or simmer? But the day-to-day stuff? If he was in charge, we’d end up eating a lot of pizza. So over the years I’ve learned to do a few basics.

I’m certainly not one for anything complicated. Forget the finicky or technically complex. As my husband says, I’m a good short-order cook. I do well with eggs, from quiche to omelettes, grilled meat, sauteed vegetables and au gratin casseroles. And like my late mother, who loved to bake, I’m a fair hand with simple cakes and desserts. The kind that don’t necessarily look that impressive but never stay around very long.

IMG_2352I still have a few of my mom’s recipes, written on index cards in neat, slanting script. Dog-eared, sauce-spattered relics of a bygone era: they are precious souvenirs of her and the love she brought to anything she made.

My cookbook collection has expanded over the years to include a few French tomes. There’s the fabulous ‘repertoire de la cuisine’ from my husband’s hotel school days, a primer on the elements of French food. And a little book about bread by master baker Lionel Poilâne (son of the original). There’s the one about la Mère Brazier, queen of the kitchen in the Lyonnaise tradition. And the only book I ever really used for cooking actual dishes, the Elizabeth David book on French provincial cookery that contains one of my favorite recipes, la raie au beurre noire (skate fish in black butter sauce).

Now I’ll let you in on a little secret: I do most of my cooking without a recipe. This is something a lot of my North American friends find surprising but seems to be quite common in France.

In my experience, the French don’t use recipes all that much, at least not in daily life. In la vie quotidienne, they cook simply and follow a few basic principles: fresh food, in season, home cooked. Or according to old family recipes embedded in their DNA.

The fact is, if you’re able to buy good quality ingredients, you don’t need to do anything all that fancy to make them taste good. And if you’re on a budget, it’s all about planning and organization.

My version of French cooking – or at least, cooking in France – is not fancy and it’s certainly not rocket science. In fact, you don’t even need a recipe. I’ll share a few of my favorites with you here in upcoming posts.

Please feel free to share any of your own!

 

To sauce or not to sauce

SaucerMy middle-class upbringing forbade the use of anything other than a knife and fork to transport food from plate to palate. Nothing so crass for our family as mopping the plate with a piece of bread, no matter how delicious the sauce!*

Imagine my surprise on arriving in France and observing this behavior at table, whether at family occasions or in restaurants. Perfectly polite-looking people with linen napkins lightly placed on laps, tearing off bits of bread and delicately dabbing or swiping their plates, then popping the sauce-laden bread to bouche. In Italy, perhaps, this would have seemed normal. In France, it appeared indelicate. But in this, as in so many aspects of French life, my expectations were off.

‘Saucer’ means to mop up the sauce on your plate with bread. Although not considered perfect etiquette, it is accepted behavior at table in France. And a compliment to the chef.

Let’s face it: French cuisine provides ample motive and opportunity to ‘saucer.’ Everything from the humble vinaigrette to the delicately rich blanquette de veau leaves you with a puddle of liquid on your plate crying out to be consumed. And the bread stands by in waiting, a natural sponge and perfect vehicle for the task.

Even in more formal settings, there is a perfectly polite way of pulling this off. It consists in putting a small piece of bread on one’s plate and using a fork to perform the mopping.

While they value ‘la politesse,‘ the French are practical souls who see the value of not letting a wonderful sauce go to waste. And manners, in my book, are all about consideration for others. ‘Saucer’ is considerate on every count: offering compliments to the chef, cleaner plates for the kitchen crew, and no wasted bread!

How about you: do you mop or ‘sauce’ your plate?

For French speakers, here’s a thorough run down on correct behavior at table.

*Although I do remember scenes of plates being licked, to my mother’s eternal horror, on spaghetti night!

Grossir. The big, fat truth.

Fat catIt’s not pretty. In fact, it may be the least desirable word in the French language. Even less attractive than ‘moche’ and that’s ugly.

‘Grossir’. Oh, the indignity of it! To gain weight, aka ‘grossir’ or ‘prendre du poids’ is the obsession (‘la hantise’) of French women and many French men. Being able to zip up those slim jeans is what keeps the majority of the population in this country on the straight and narrow, at least between vacations and end-of-year fêtes.

The adjective for big, ‘gros’ (or grosse in the feminine form), shares the same roots as that for the vulgar and unrefined. Foul language is called ‘grossier’. I suppose that’s where we get the word ‘gross’ in English – and also the slang expression to ‘gross out’ or disgust someone.

The only acceptable reason to grossir in France is to become gross with child. La grossesse transforms the word into something elegant, even beautiful. But even then it’s something that must be strictly managed.

My babies were both big, and so was my weight gain. I remember one woman asking me, “And your doctor allows you to put on that much weight?” I was stymied by the question. What on earth had my doctor got to do with it? I just ate healthily and figured nature would take its course. But the other expectant mamans worried about their weight gain, wanting to avoid a longer or more difficult delivery at all costs.

I used to be called petite. Mostly because I’m on the short side (5’2”). But even before middle age spread caught up with me, I never fit into French clothing. My body type is all wrong – too big of bone and heavy of limb. Even French shoes don’t fit. German, Swiss, Italian…but not French.

Everything here is on a smaller scale. People and parking spots. There are no supersize menus, no jumbo snack packs and few plus-size shops. The fact is, there is no culture in this country for big.

That is not to say that French woman don’t get fat. Bien sûr qui si! You can’t live in a country filled with gourmet foods and little fitness culture and never gain weight. That’s a myth that’s sold a lot of books.

As much as they love the good things in life, the French care deeply about appearances: elegance, refinement and la ligne. That sells a lot of diet pills, miracle cures and crazy weight loss schemes. None of which works, at least for long.

My late Belle-mère spent much of her life trying to stay slim. She tried everything: pills, Weight Watchers (which she pronounced ‘what-ay-wha-chairs’), even joining a gym. Her diets and exercise regimens worked for awhile but she inevitably yo-yoed back to being a little rounder than she was comfortable with. I only wish she could have found a happy place with her weight. A balance where she enjoyed life, remained active and most importantly, felt good about herself.

French woman do get fat. But they fight it. Mostly they do this by balancing out the weekend’s excesses with a slimmer regime during the week. By avoiding dessert, not snacking, staying active (although not necessarily exercising per se). It’s really about balance and moderation. And a refusal to let bulge creep in.

This summer the good life got the better of me. Not by much. But on my so-called petite frame, a few pounds makes a huge difference. For me, it’s not so much how I look as how I feel, which is gross in every sense of the word. So I’m stepping up the exercise and cutting back on the treats. At least until I feel good about myself again.

Nothing drastic, mind you. Life is too short not to enjoy a daily glass of wine or a slice of cheese, preferably both.

Et vous? How do you feel about your weight or attitudes towards weight in general?

Aucune idée

Hollande hasn't got a clue

Hollande hasn’t got a clue

I have no idea why French President François Hollande is making this face. It could be for any number of reasons.

Perhaps he’s reacting to a question about his popularity. Or lack of. It could be a response to his ex’s new book, in which Valérie Trierweiler casts aspersions not on his sexual prowess so much as his true sentiments towards the poor classes. Someone should have told her that living well is the best revenge, not writing about it. Then again, Hollande should have known that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

But I know what he meant. This face, and its expression, is familiar to anyone who’s ever lived in France. It’s the face fart, or universal expression for ‘aucune idée’ – I haven’t got a clue. And a clue is just what this fellow does not have, it seems, as his popularity slides further into oblivion.

It’s just one of several ways to speak French in sign language. Which gesture is your favorite?

I must confess to a certain penchant for the doigt d’honneur. And I’d be willing to bet it’s a certain former first lady’s too.

La rentrée: We’re back!

Ready for his first ‘rentrée’: my son, Elliott, in the early 90s.

Ready for his first ‘rentrée’: my son, Elliott, in the early 90s.

It’s been more years that I care to remember since I went back to school. Also quite a few since I took my kids for their first day of école maternelle. But every year in the first week of September, I get that back-to-school buzz. It feels like the real start of the year.

‘La rentrée des classes’ heralds much more than just the start of a new school year in France. It’s the rentrée for a whole new schedule of radio and television programs, sporting activities and holidays. It’s also the return of political infighting, strikes and tax bills. We got off to a running start this year, with the entire government under Manuel Valls resigning at the end of August.

The school calendar, set by l’Education Nationale, provides the structure and framework for French life.

French school calendar 2014-2015

French school calendar 2014-2015

France is divided into 3 zones: A, B, and C. This is supposed to help control the chaos on the roads when everyone heads for the ski slopes in February. I like being in zone A, mostly because Paris is in zone C. That means fewer traffic jams for us, although we still get stuck in the stream of vacationers on their way to and from their holiday destinations.

Spreading out the school breaks helps ensure a profitable few months for the resorts during ‘les petites vacances’ in the fall, winter and spring. The year-end break at Christmas and ‘les grandes vacances‘ in the summer are the same for all.

The French returned in droves from summer vacation last weekend. There are always the inevitable ‘tardataires’ (late-comers) who must stay away until the last possible moment, but the poor weather this year added to their number as people delayed their departure in hopes of sunnier skies.

The lineups at les grandes surfaces (shopping centers) were long as parents jockeyed to get that last item for the long list of school supplies. They don’t really have to have everything on the first day, of course, but we all have such a sense of fear and awe for the educational system in this country that we daren’t send our children to school without that heavy cartable loaded down with every item the teacher has indicated will be essential for the school year. We are talking about hundreds of sheets of loose leaf paper, whose squares must be of a defined size and color, a specified number of pens and pencils and rulers and erasers and notebooks of various types. In primary school you must add gym slippers and coveralls for art class. Pity the poor parents desperately seeking to satisfy the list. I remember it well. And am feeling just a tad…nostalgic for those lost years.

So today I will go to the local papéterie (paper shop) and buy myself several of my favorite writing tools: fine-point pens and sharp pencils and bright notebooks. Just for old time’s sake.

What’s your fondest memory of going back to school? Or was it rather ‘school’s out for summer?’