La ou les quenelle(s)?

I first discovered ‘quenelles’ when we moved to Lyon many years ago. A specialty of la cuisine lyonnaise, the quenelle is a sausage-shaped delicacy made of dough and finely minced fish or meat that is covered in sauce and baked in the oven until it blows up to twice its size and splits open, browning and bubbling in its dish.

Among the choices on the menu when we first began exploring the ‘bouchons Lyonnais’ — restaurants so small they were named after the cork in the wine bottle — the quenelle was certainly among the safest. Pigs’ trotters and tripe sausage were not for me.

I remember ordering, in my careful French, the quenelle only to have the waiter repeat: “Laq’nelle?” He had a twinkle in his eye so I’m not sure if I was missing out on a joke or he was just showing off the local lingo.

Later I discovered that quenelles could be found in most major supermarkets in France. The dish soon became a staple. It was a go-to dinner when the kids were small. Easy, quick, delicious. One that I’d forgotten about for some years in my drive to eat fewer prepared foods. Last week, though, on a cold night, I rediscovered les quenelles. Quelle joie!

It’s a simple thing, really, and typical of the humble origins of Lyon’s cuisine, yet the quenelle can be so delightfully flavoured and sauced that it rises — literally and figuratively — above its grade.

What I do is buy a better grade of quenelle, i.e. not the cheapest ones that are the most industrial looking but an artisanal brand. One with brochet or pike is my preference. Sometimes they’re called ‘délices’ as they’re not allowed to use the term ‘quenelle’ unless it meets certain criteria (yep, this is France!)

I then laid them out in a shallow baking dish and while the oven preheated, made a sauce. I can manage a fair Béchamel sauce, even using skim milk. I made it fairly thin (not too much flour) as the quenelles need to soak up lots of liquid in order to puff up nicely. But I added a couple of handfuls of grated comté cheese at the end for richness. The result was delightful. And accompanied by fresh wilted spinach (straight out of the bag, for time’s sake) sautéed with a bit of onion, the meal felt reasonably well-balanced.

You should be aware that ‘la quenelle’ has a dark side, however. The term became known in the last decade for a gesture popularized by the comedian, Dieudonné. He is known for his politics as well as his (questionable) humour and thanks to him, ‘la quenelle’ came to be known as a kind of reverse Nazi salute. I’ve heard it explained many different ways, as a subversive sort of ‘fuck you’ to the establishment, in reference to a sexual act (you don’t want to know) and, most disturbingly, as an antisemitic gesture.

To avoid any confusion, we generally refer to ‘les quenelles’ as the dish and ‘la quenelle’ as the gesture. I know which one I’ll have!

Have you ever had quenelles?

Ouistiti

Sometimes a word just makes you smile. ‘Ouistiti’ is one of them.

The first time I heard it was when my kids were little. “Ouistiti!” said the little boy who was my son’s best friend in maternelle or preschool. They both burst out in fits of giggles.

I had no idea it was actually a thing. Later I learned that a ‘ouistiti’ is a cute little monkey (much like that little boy). What we call a marmoset. Seems the name in French is inspired by the high-pitched sounds they make in the wild.

What inspires me most about these little guys, aside from their unbearable cuteness, is that they apparently listen to each other. Instead of cutting each other off midstream, they wait several seconds after each sound before making their own. Like a true conversation.

One of my pet peeves is something I have dubbed ‘interruptitis’: people who cut you off before you can finish a sentence. This is one of the many ills of modern life, as everyone seems to be convinced that they have something to say that’s more important than the other guy. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy blogging. I get to complete a thought before anyone cuts in.

I grew up in a family where interruptitis dominated the dinner table. There were four of us kids competing for attention so things often got loud. My dad was the worst offender; he was (and remains) convinced that the best way to make yourself understood is to shout down your opponent, banging your fist on the table for emphasis. Our nightly conversations quickly turned into arguments, some more vehement than others. I think for my father it was a sport. But for my mother it was tough. She hated conflict as much as our father relished it.

I suppose I have him to thank for the fact that I’m not afraid to defend my point of view. I do believe in listening, however. I think it’s important in any conversation to keep things respectful, to truly try to hear and understand other points of view.

In a world where people regularly shout each other down on social media and bully others online, maybe we should all take the example of the marmoset. Wait for a second or two to let the other person’s thought settle before cutting in with our own.

When I lose patience and want to cut someone off, on the road or in words, I will try to think about something that automatically makes me smile. Like ouistiti.

In fact, this is what French people say when taking a photo instead of ‘cheese’.

Try it: wee-stee-tee!

Are you smiling yet?

P’tit déj

Breakfast has always been my favourite meal.

Le petit déjeuner, often shortened in spoken French to ‘le petit déj’ or just ‘p’tit déj’ has a lot to love. First of all, it is is eaten as soon as you wake up (at least for me). No waiting, no socializing. Also, you please yourself. That means you decide what, when and where you have breakfast.

As someone who reads a lot, I figured out early on that one of life’s great pleasures was eating breakfast while reading. Not the stuffy old newspaper that my dad used to hide behind for hours over the breakfast table, but whatever book currently had me in its grip.

From there I soon decided to shift the whole operation back to bed.

At first breakfast in bed was just on weekends. Then I figured: life is short. Why not enjoy your favourite thing every day? So for most of my adult life, and with a few rare exceptions like travelling and having guests over, my p’tit déj is served each morning, by moi, in bed. No matter how early.

Now to the main event: the food. The typical French breakfast, the one we always called ‘continental’ traditionally consists of a bowl of café au lait, a fresh baguette sliced in half and spread with butter and jam. Add in a glass of orange juice and maybe a yoghurt, and you get what the French call ‘petit déjeuner complet’. The first time I saw this menu description in a hotel, I was outraged. ‘Complet’? Basically it was the above, but with croissants as well as bread. How could you call that complete? Where were the bacon and eggs? The toast and cereal? The fresh fruit?

The bacon and eggs belong to the full English, bien évidemment. And the French reserve hot meals for midday and evening. Breakfast is mostly a cold affair, despite the enticing warm fragrance of freshly baked ‘viennoiseries’ (general name for croissants and other delicious pastries like pain au chocolat or pain aux raisins).

When it comes to my own choice of breakfast menu, I try to follow the old adage for healthy eating: “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.” Unfortunately I usually only get the first two right, and my weight reflects this.

My p'tit déj

Still, I get a few things right. Balance, for one thing. Most days I have oatmeal or muesli with unsweetened yogurt, nuts and dried fruit. On alternate days I have toast with cheese, an egg or peanut butter. If eating toast, I try to get my favourite bakery loaf: rye with walnuts or raisins.

A few years ago, I switched from juice to fresh fruit for breakfast, one of the best changes I’ve ever made in terms of glycemic index. It’s the only time of day I really enjoy fruit so I try to sneak in at least a couple of servings: kiwis, bananas, citrus, and berries if in season.

Last fall I had some stomach trouble and went off coffee for a while, which led to a change in my normal morning routine. Now for breakfast I have a pot of black tea, full-leaf Darjeeling s’il vous plaît. But I’m back on coffee and so by mid-morning I’ll have a large latté with two shots of espresso!

And because we live in France, and the bakery is just two minutes away, I’ll have croissants on the weekend. With jam, merci. On a tray.

What did you have for breakfast?

Photo by Sergio Arze on Unsplash

Rien à dire

Apologies, dear followers, but it seems that I have nothing in particular to say this week.

Rien. Nada. Niet.

‘Niet’, by the way, while Russian in origin, is frequently used in French to say ‘no way’.

But having ‘rien à dire’ (nothing to say) shall not stop this brave writer from spewing forth a few wise words. Far be it from me to allow writer’s block to deprive you of your weekly dose of — what, exactly? I used to see this blog as a way of a) avenging myself against the slings and arrows of being foreign in France, and b) explaining this great and wonderful land to the ROW (rest of world), and finally c) discovering along the way that I had become, uh, one of them.

Now I find myself struggling with my focus. France, the French people and the French language itself continue to provide a rich and seemingly bottomless source of inspiration for observations which I hope are original, informative and occasionally funny. But lately my heart is not quite in it.

Note that the expression ‘rien à dire’ is, oddly, often used as a compliment. Meaning: There is nothing to criticize here. Ah, if only. My head is filled with complaints and critiques, but I am trying not to listen to them. To focus on the positive. But I don’t want to turn this blog into a travelogue, which others do very well, or an ode to ‘la vie en rose’. Which my life in France is most decidedly not.

There are bigger topics here in France right now that I could blog about. But the ones that seem worthy of a post require more time and energy than I have to give at the moment. And the ones that inspire my muse make me feel like I’m repeating myself.

In the past, when the world made a tiny bit more sense than it does now, I would take refuge in silence. Wait until the muse moved me with words worth sharing. But in this day of social media savvy, of regular posting and fighting for screen time, I am inspired to write about the fact that I have nothing to say.

So forgive me, please. Mea culpa. Pardon my French, or lack thereof. It’s probably just a blip, a minor dysfunction of my normally wagging tongue.

I will hunker down and hibernate for a while and return soon with renewed vim and vigour.

A bientôt!

In the meantime, if you are inspired to say anything, feel free!

Photo by Brannon Naito on Unsplash

Le frometon

There is nothing like a bit of cheese to get you through January — or any day, any time of year. To me, le frometon, as it’s affectionately called, is the perfect comfort food. Along with eggs it is the reason I could live fairly happily as a vegetarian but not as a vegan. Let me give you a tour of a few personal favourites.

Leading a sheltered life outre-Atlantique until my mid-twenties, I was only aware of maybe three types of cheese: cheddar, Swiss and Gouda. I won’t count Philadelphia. Somewhere in the early 1980s our culinary horizons expanded in Canada and I discovered such delicacies as Brie and goat’s cheese.

None of it prepared me for France. The first time I opened the fridge door and was hit by that smell — What or who died? — I knew things were going to be different. Raw-milk cheeses, especially the softer ones like camembert, are like living creatures whose enzymes keep maturing until they reach a level bordering on the putrid. This is when many French cheese lovers consider them ripe.

These days, while cheese is a staple of my diet, I rarely venture into the ‘fromages qui puent’ like camembert. I have nothing against them but it just so happens that my preferred varieties are less inclined to stink up the house.

Comté (the ‘m’ is pronounced like ‘n’) is my go-to hard cheese. Made from unpasteurized cow’s milk in the Franche-Comté province of eastern France, it is ubiquitous in France. I love it for its somewhat rich texture and easygoing flavour — not too strong or too bland. My favourite way to eat it is as a snack, on its own or with an apple. It’s also lovely grated and melted in an omelette.

Saint Agur is my favourite of the blues. Unlike the famous Roquefort, which is a sheep’s milk cheese from the south, it is softer and creamier with a bit of a tang but not the raw force. It is not a traditional cheese but was developed commercially in the Auvergne region to woo the French back to the fading glory of the blues. The move was apparently successful as it is the most-consumed blue cheese in France today.

Le Gruyère Suisse d’Alpage

There are no holes in my favourite Swiss cheese. What we generally think of as Swiss cheese in North America is actually Emmenthal — it’s the one with the holes — and while it originated in Switzerland, it is also made in France. Gruyère Suisse (preferably d’Alpage, meaning from Alpine pastures) is by far the tastier Swiss cheese. Dense and flavourful, my preferred aged variety has little hard crystals that tell you it has reached its nirvana of maturity. Can you see them?

I love goat’s cheese in just about every form. Its tangy taste, its velvety texture. ‘Rocamadour’ is one that I often buy as it’s just the right amount for one serving. A tiny, perfect raw-milk delight.

Okay, I’m going to get some people’s goats now by naming another Swiss cheese. Apologies to my French friends but I live very close to the border and it must be said that the Swiss also know a few things about cheese as well as chocolate.

La tomme Vaudoise is another tiny, perfect wonder of a cheese. It is one of the few whose edible mould of a skin I eat without qualm. It comes from our area, just across the lake on the Swiss side in the Canton of Vaud, and is often flavoured with ‘ail des ours’ (wild garlic leaves), truffles or grilled pine nuts. I enjoy it plain.

So there you have it, the cheeses that most frequently populate my frigo.

Although I do have a confession to make. I could be shot for treason saying this but if I could only have one kind of cheese, it would probably be a good old, sharp cheddar.

Comfort food, right?

What’s your favourite cheese?