It’s all Greek to me

Kitschy door to a public toilet on Iguana Beach in Crete

Kitschy public toilet on Iguana Beach in Crete

I’ve been wanting to say that for a long time. Ever since I arrived in France and found myself floundering in a sea of incomprehension. But something always seemed to get lost in translation. Until I figured out that it’s not Greek but Chinese that describes what the French find impossible to understand. ‘C’est du Chinois?’ I’m sorry but that just sounds wrong.

Spending a week on the island of Crete is the perfect excuse to finally use the expression. We’re here catching a week of sun and making up for the summer that wasn’t in France. Also the vacation we didn’t find time to take. By ‘vacation’ I mean going away to a place with nothing more urgent to do than sit on a deck chair and watch the waves roll in. And decide what to order for lunch.

So here we are in boutique-hotel heaven on the western part of the island near Chania (pronounced ‘HAH-nea’), enjoying mostly sunny skies and warm but not sweltering temperatures. Where they serve delicious, heart-healthy Cretan diet food and excellent local wines – meaning you can eat and drink to your heart’s delight knowing that any weight you gain will be chock full of omega 3’s and antioxidants. Rest assured, I’m sporting the healthiest of belly rolls.

The crowd at our hotel is a mixed bag – Nordic, German, Swiss, French, Brits and the odd North American transplant like me. Everybody speaks an English of varying accents, including the staff, who are Greek and Turkish. I love the fact that English is the default language that enables people from such different cultures to communicate, even on such a mundane level as ‘Please pass the olive oil’, or ‘May I have an extra beach towel?’

And I find myself doing that thing I do. Where I become a sponge for other people’s verbal tics, speaking with an unfamiliar accent or an oddly European intonation. I’m convinced it’s a form of empathy that makes me do this. Either that or an odd desire to parrot.

I first noticed this when I began to speak French. It was as if the process of learning a foreign tongue made me temporarily lose my own. I found myself stuttering to get words out in my native language, or worse, employing French grammatical constructions in English: “She is the sister of my mother,” I explained to someone who asked about my aunt. He gave me a puzzled look. “You mean your mother’s sister?”

Sometimes my English sounded like a bad translation: “I am desolate,” I would say by way of apology, literally translating ‘je suis désolée’ from French. It wasn’t intentional – it just came out that way. I remember feeling very silly after being introduced to someone and popping out ‘I’m enchanted.’ While ‘Je suis enchantée’ may be perfectly correct in French, it sounds more than a little dated in English.

Whatever the reason, being surrounded by foreign languages leaves me temporarily at a loss for words. Which is probably just as well. It is so incredibly beautiful here that words seem redundant. Even the Greek ones with all those strange characters that defy description. You just want to lay back and watch the waves roll in. Wriggle your toes in the sand. And forget about all the things you don’t understand.

Capisce?

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Gun shy

Reserve_de_chasseIt’s that time of year again: ‘La Chasse’ as it’s called around here. Hunting season. Leash your pets and beware of stray bullets if you go off the beaten path for a walk in the woods in France.

This time last year I posted about the perils of living in a culture of guns (which generated quite the lively debate in the comments!). I still believe that hunting is a better use of weapons than war or holdups, but still – Je me sens toute petite – I feel completely powerless in the presence of men with guns. Because hunting is, at least in these parts, an almost exclusively male pursuit.

It’s hard to argue with a centuries-old tradition that still puts food on the table. Le gibier (game) is considered a delicacy by many French people, and enjoyed as part of the autumnal menu. But every year there are accidents, some tragic. In my husband’s family, an uncle was killed some years ago by (un)friendly fire from one of his own hunting party in Normandy.

So, if you see signs like this one, beware. A hunting they will go, quite possibly just steps from where you’re walking the dog.

I must admit that while I do eat meat I am not a huge fan of le gibier, which is rather strong tasting. What about you? Are you game for game?

Mousse au chocolat: My deep, dark secret

Mousse au chocolat recipeI was always nervous about anything involving egg whites. Even separating eggs seemed beyond me, having watched my mother fuss over a metal device which seemed to make the whole process rather complicated.

Then I met my husband. Separate eggs? Nothing simpler. He just broke the egg and poured it into his hand, capturing the yoke in his palm and letting the egg white run into the bowl below. Let me reassure any clean freaks in the audience: he washed his hands before (and after) performing this egg-cellent feat.

Need to beat egg whites to stiff peaks? No problem. He would take a whisk and a large bowl, add a pinch of salt and then bang those babies to attention. It does take a few minutes and a good arm, which probably explains why I could never manage it – having neither patience nor skill.

I’ve retained the egg-separating trick and now have a mixer to do the egg whites. So, without further ado, here is how you make the best damn chocolate mousse ever.

This recipe is supposed to serve six. It reminds me of another one of my mother’s expressions: “What do they mean? Six midgets?” Suffice it to say that if you are of sound of body and healthy of appetite, and have a sweet tooth, it can also serve four.

I was amazed to discover there are only 3 ingredients (although the eggs are used in two ways) and absolutely no cooking involved. All you need is very fresh eggs and good chocolate.

Ingredients:

  • 1 tablet of dark chocolate – 200 grams
  • 6 Eggs
  • 1 Pinch of salt

Directions:

  1. Melt chocolate in double boiler or on cooktop at lowest heat, then let cool (Use a microwave if you must – personally I dislike this method)
  2. Separate eggs; retain yolks in a medium glass bowl
  3. Add salt to egg whites and beat until they form stiff peaks
  4. Gradually add cooled melted chocolate into egg yolks, stirring well
  5. Using a spatula, gently fold egg whites into chocolate mixture in three batches. Careful not to make the whites fall!
  6. Refrigerate at least 3 hours.
  7. Serve chilled

P.S. My deep dark secret is that recipe is not mine: it’s the one on the back of the Nestlé Dessert Noir.

What’s your favorite dessert, homemade or otherwise? Are you a dab hand with a whisk?

 

La Vinaigrette: All dressed up

Sauce vinaigretteLa sauce vinaigrette or salad dressing is such a basic thing I hardly dare dedicate a post to it. And yet, it adds so much flavor and zing to my daily consumption of salad leaves, root veggies and crudités that it seems worthy of mention.

‘Poireaux vinaigrette’ was probably my first encounter with the humble sauce. So simple, yet so delicious: the leeks cooked to a fondant perfection, served at room temperature under several spoons of vinaigrette that puddled in the dish to be ‘sauced’ with crusty bread.

My beau-père would always make his own vinaigrette for the salad traditionally served in France after the main dish and before the cheese: usually with shallots and red-wine vinegar. It tended to be fairly strong stuff – beware the roof of your mouth – but that was needed to dress the stiff, crisp leaves of batavia and escarole that my belle-mère preferred. It also had a cleansing effect that prepared the palate and aided the digestive system in making room for the cheese – the stinky star of the meal for my husband’s family who hailed from Normandy, home of the camembert.

Other than special occasions like the year-end holidays, we rarely sit down to a full meal in the French tradition these days – appetizer, main dish, salad, cheese and dessert.  I, along with my waistline, am grateful for this, as it was always hard going. You roll away from the table ready for nothing more than a nap.

Now, without further ado, my easy-peasy recipe for making even a dull salad sing.

My house vinaigrette is made of walnut oil and cider vinegar. I love the subtle flavor that it brings to just about every kind of salad, although originally I made it to accompany my favorite combination of endives, walnuts and roquefort cheese. It also works extremely well with cubes of apple and a harder cheese like Conté or Beaufort.

Ingredients:

  • Walnut oil – l’huile de noix
  • Dijon mustard – Make sure you get plain Dijon and not the kind with the added mayonnaise
  • Cider vinegar – ‘Maille’ really is the best
  • Salt & pepper

 Method:

I haven’t listed quantities as it really depends on how much you’re making and how ‘edgy’ you like your dressing. Personally, I tend to go for a 3-1 oil-to-vinegar ratio, but I cheat by adding a bit of warm water to top up the oil – it lightens both the calories and the cost. Walnut oil is rather expensive, so if you’re on a budget, you may wish to substitute canola  although I recommend you keep at least half walnut for the flavor. It can also be hard to find in North America (or it was the last time I looked — 20 years ago!)

Shake it upPour a little vinegar into a bowl and mix with a heaping spoonful of mustard. Add the oil gradually, stirring constantly to create an emulsion. Season. Top up with 1-2 tablespoons of hot water. Stir or shake (if using a salad shaker – these babies are great for measuring and for storage).

Variants:

The wonderful thing about vinaigrette is that you can do so many different things to it according to your whim. Whether you use red-wine vinegar, white or red balsamic or sherry vinegar; olive, walnut or a neutral oil like canola.

  • Add a bruised clove of garlic and let it slowly release its power over several hours or days
  • Finely chop some shallots or red onions
  • Add a handful of coarsely chopped herbs – parsley, tarragon, basil, mint
  • A few tablespoons of yoghurt turns the vinaigrette into a creamier salad dressing
  • A spoonful of honey will soften the vinegar if too vinegary

I never buy bottled salad dressing anymore – who needs the additives? If I haven’t got the few minutes it takes to make a dressing, I’d rather just toss in a little balsamic and oil.

Salade du jourAs for the salad, this one was a kitchen sink version based on what I had on hand: lucky for me it was Parma ham, conté, walnuts, mushrooms and avocado. Oh, and a bit of lettuce, or ‘salade’ as it’s called here.

La vie est belle, non?

 

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!