Du pain sur la planche

Bread on my cutting board

Take a bite of my favourite loaf. It’s soft and dense, still warm from the oven, fragrant with rye and walnuts. Delicious, right? Then why is having ‘du pain sur la planche’ equated with having a lot of work?

Perhaps it is because the baker – le boulanger – has his work cut out for him. Kneading and rolling, at the ovens before dawn, the baker on every corner must have fresh baguettes and épis and pains de campagnes ready early each morning.

It seems the expression, ‘avoir du pain sur la planche’, has morphed over the years. At first, having bread on one’s board meant wealth. That was back in the day when the bread was made to last a long time. Then, sometime in the last century, the meaning changed. Perhaps because people began to buy their bread fresh each day. And the skinny, white baguette, delicious just out of the oven, is stale soon after.

I’ve had plenty of bread on my board so to speak for the past several months. As a freelancer that can be a double-edged sword. You are grateful for the work coming in but you never know where the next job will come from, so you really need to be thinking ahead, networking and taking care of finding new clients. That is the part of the freelance life I enjoy the least.

But I need to do it to keep the bread coming in.

Come to think of it, equating bread with work makes perfect sense. You can’t have one without the other. To have a lot on your plate, as we say in English, isn’t so different.

Sometimes lately it all feels so overwhelming. Here in France we are in a phase where there is so much to do, at every level of society. It seems that everything is such a mess. People are out protesting in the streets each week. Beyond our borders is no better. Even the weather has gone crazy.

Yet the birds are back singing and signs of spring are unmistakable. Each day the baker manages to turn out little marvels like this loaf.

For that, I am grateful.

Et toi?

 

Français ou pas?

Higgins

One of the things I enjoy about travelling is the perspective you gain from stepping away from your world. Our recent jaunt to England made me think about some of the things that define the French. How very ‘English’ I sometimes still feel (which for me means anglo-Canadian) and at times how very French I’ve become.

It’s the little things, of course, and readers of this blog will know that I am one for observing the details that make up our lives.

La file d’attente

It starts at the airport. Whenever there is a line up, the difference is immediately apparent. The Brits queue in an orderly fashion; the French must push forward like a force of nature. I find myself somewhere in between, struck with admiration for the ‘keep calm and carry on’ approach of my fellow English natives yet driven by my far more impatient French self to get ahead quickly.

Le parfum

If you smell someone before you see them, there are two possible explanations: either they have not bathed or they are wearing strong perfume. Sometimes both explanations apply. In the latter case, they are very probably French. I can put up with body odour but have a very low tolerance (which is to say almost no tolerance) for perfume. French noses seem to be able to bear stronger scents far better than mine; the idea of a fragrance-free zone is entirely foreign.

Le petit déjeuner

One of the habits I have never acquired after all these years in France is eating just bread for breakfast. I will rarely say no to croissants and other French viennoiseries like pain au chocolat, pain aux raisins and croissant aux amandes (yum!), but my idea of breakfast is a bit more substantial. And if bread is involved, it must be toasted.

Starting the day with a ‘full English’ is horrifying to most French people; personally I enjoy a bit of egg and bacon, but the sausage, beans and black pudding is a bit much. A beer would have made it even better but is this even allowed in the UK so early in the day?

Le café ou thé

The French mostly have coffee with hot milk for breakfast, famously dunking their bread or croissant in a large bowl of the stuff. After that, they tend to drink small cups of espresso café or ‘express’. It is taken black, although sugar is always on offer.

I’m a hybrid there, too, as I love a couple of good strong coffees with milk for breakfast then drink tea in the afternoon. If the espresso is good, I will drink it black after a meal. Coffee culture is everywhere in the UK now but as soon as we left London, I had a hard time getting the kind of coffee I like: strong but not bitter with a bit of milk; not milk with a bit of coffee. Or – horror of horrors – instant coffee.

As for tea, who am I to complain about the nation that made it famous? But there was little evidence of whole tea culture that can be found now even in France, where green is a mainstay and my personal favourite is white (the leaves, not with milk!). French tea drinkers rarely take milk.

La cuisson

If you order meat in a French restaurant, you will usually be asked how you’d like it cooked. ‘La cuisson’ may be medium or rare (rosé or bleu), medium rare (à point) or well done (bien cuit). Ordering anything well done is a very tell-tale sign of English-ness.

Mine is medium rare.

L’apparence

The relaxation of dress standards in recent years has made it harder to put labels on people. So much the better! But there are a few tell-tale signs that will give French people away to those in the know. A scarf even in mild weather (we have very fragile necks!); a certain cut of clothing (the French don’t do oversized); anything well-ironed (rumpled is not a look the French favour). Men will be unshaven, as is the fashion, but they will wear a trendy pair of glasses, skinny jeans and their ‘pullover’ will sport a discreet but fashionable label. Women may appear drab at first glance, then you will notice that their jacket conceals a rather attractive top, that their accessories are coordinated and that underneath that basic ensemble is surely some well-cut lingerie.

En public

French behaviour in public places, aside from pushing in crowds, tends to be discreet. They don’t mingle, or start up conversations with strangers. I noticed this in several pubs where many of the patrons were looking about them and chatting with their neighbours; those with there heads down and sticking strictly to themselves were almost inevitably French. To be fair, the language barrier may be a reason.

Here again, I’m a hybrid. I have a horror of enforced socializing and will almost always gravitate to the edge of a crowd. On the other hand, people often come up to me on the street and ask for directions (more fools they, as I am rarely of much help); start talking to me on buses or in waiting rooms; sitting next to someone we often end up in conversation. My husband is always fascinated by this as it never happens to him. He shakes his head in wonder as I regale him with these stories.

Les bouledogues français

My Frenchie featured in this blog is called Higgins, a British name if there ever was one. And rightly so. On our recent trip, husband reminded me that the French bulldog breed has its origins in Nottingham, where the lace workers who travelled to France had to keep their canine companions small in order to go on the boats across to Calais.

Have you ever been surprised to discover that something you thought of as typically French or English was not at all?

 

 

 

Le quignon

shutterstock_258051422‘Le quignon’ is the pointy end of the baguette. I love the crust so it is my favorite part.

It was also the preferred morsel of my late Belle-Mère, so for years I had to pretend I didn’t care when she scooped it, saying “Un petit quignon, c’est mon préféré.” There were two, of course, but somehow it doesn’t do to compete with your mother-in-law over something so trivial as a piece of bread, given you’ve already absconded with her offspring.

I love how the quignon forms a perfectly bite-sized vehicle for enjoying a nice scoop of runny cheese like Saint Marcellin, or a soft mound of Saint Agur. Almost like a cheese cone.

The problem is that it’s an endangered species. Rare is the baguette that survives the trip home from the bakery without its end being ripped off and devoured.

Depending on your bread type – baguette, épée, batard, ficelle – the quignon can be quite pointy, even sharp. I’ve sliced my gums more than once on this crusty pleasure.

Having specific words for things is a measure of their importance in a language and culture. Just as the Inuit are said to have a multitude of words for snow and Hawaiians for fishing nets, so in France there are a lot of words that describe bread. Let’s look at some of the other words the French use to describe the doughy pleasures of the loaf:

Pain – Bread, obviously, but also smaller baked goods like pain au chocolat or pain aux raisins.

Croûte – The crust. Obviously the best part!

Mie – The doughy inner part of the loaf.

Pain de mie – Also a type of bread – the square kind of loaf typically sliced and used for toast.

Alvéole – This describes the airiness of la mie. This ranges from dense in pain de mie to irregular and airy in a baguette.

AlveoleYou already know how I feel about the French stick.

Et toi? Will you fight me for the quignon or do you prefer a different part of the loaf?

100 things to enjoy in France

Le champagne

For my 100th post on this blog about life in France, I’ve decided to share 100 things to eat, drink and simply enjoy in my adopted land. Some are personal favorites, others classics of French cuisine that everyone should try at least once.

Here they are, in no particular order:

  1. Le pain au chocolat. Don’t be misled by the name – there is no bread, just delightfully dark squishy chocolate tucked into a croissant-style bun.
  2. Le pain aux raisins. Still no bread, but a twist: the pastry spirals around in a circle interlaced with custard and raisins, sometimes sprinkled with sugar.
  3. Le croissant au beurre. Be sure you get the kind ‘au beurre’ if you want the 100% butter kind (rather than other fat). Wonderful with…
  4. La confiture. Jam. Nothing like a bit of Bonne Maman on your croissant.
  5. Le beurre. Doux (unsalted) or demi-sel (lightly salted). They don’t often serve it with bread in France, but sometimes eat it with cheese to soften the too-strong taste.
  6. Un petit noir. An espresso. Also known here as ‘un express’.
  7. Le chocolat. Perfect accompaniment to le petit noir. The French are not chocolate snobs as long as it’s dark.
  8. La baguette. The classic, crusty staple of French life (which changed mine)
  9. Le pain au levain. Sourdough. My favorite bread.
  10. Les profiteroles. Choux pastry filled with ice cream, topped with chocolate sauce and whipped cream. Holds a special place in my heart as it was my late mom’s favorite dessert.
  11. Les macarons. These double-decker meringue sandwiches have become so trendy you can get them everywhere. Ladurée is the most famous.
  12. La tarte au citron. A tangy dessert favorite of mine. With or sans méringue.
  13. La méringue. Okay, so it’s nothing but egg whites and sugar. These chewy clouds make a wonderful base for a fruity dessert.
  14. Le saucisson sec. A dry cured or smoked sausage, of which there are hundreds of kinds in this country. I like it with peppercorns or pistachio. Sliced on a wooden board and served with your favorite apéro.
  15. Le foie gras. You’re free to give this a miss if you can’t abide the idea of force feeding geese but France is the place to sample goose or duck liver pâté. Wonderful with brioche bread, onion chutney and a sweeter white wine.
  16. Le pâté. A nice slab of pâté (my favorite is la crème forestière) with pickles on a good bread makes a great sandwich.
  17. La saucisse de Toulouse. A thick pork sausage named for the southern city from which it originates and traditionally used in cassoulet.
  18. Le steak frites. The classic French bistro dish. Make sure you order your steak ‘bleu’ if you want it very rare and ‘à point’ if you prefer medium rare. Lovely with…
  19. La moutarde de Dijon. Smooth or grainy. Is there any other kind?
  20. La choucroute. An excellent dish from the German-influenced Alsace region featuring sauerkraut, potatoes and multiple cuts of fresh and smoked pork.
  21. Une andouillette. A sausage made of tripe. Not for the faint of heart. My husband loves this dish, but for me the sauce is the best part.
  22. Un MacDo. Just because you can have a beer with your burger while people-watching on Les Champs Elysées.
  23. Le sandwich. Because baguette. ‘Nuff said.
  24. Un pan bagnat. Basically a Niçoise salad on a round bun (tuna, eggs, tomatoes, lettuce). One of the healthier items to take out at the bakery.
  25. Une crêpe. To be eaten at the buvette in the park on a chilly fall afternoon. Dripping with chocolate sauce.
  26. Un beignet. Oddly, I’ve only ever seen the French eat sugar donuts at the beach.
  27. Une tarte tatin. An upside-down tarte of caramelized apples. Enjoy warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
  28. Un demi. My standard order of draft beer (25 cl). Unless I’m thirsty, in which case it’s une pression (half a liter).
  29. Le gigot d’agneau. French leg of lamb. Studded with garlic cloves, sprinkled with coarse salt and rosemary, roasted for Sunday lunch.
  30. Les cornichons. Pickles. Thick or thin but never sweet.
  31. Le camembert. The stinkiest of French cheeses. The most authentic has the ‘AOP’ label, is made from raw milk, ‘moulé à la louche’ and from Normandie.
  32. La vache qui rit. Okay, it’s processed cheese but the laughing cow has the fun factor. It was a favorite of my daughter’s and a staple of our household when the kids were small.
  33. Le Boursin. Le pain, le vin, le Boursin. With pepper please.
  34. La cervelle de canuts. A Lyonnaise spreadable specialty of creamy cheese, garlic and chives, served with slabs of pain de campagne (country bread).
  35. Le Saint Félicien. A delicate cow’s milk cheese from the Rhône-Alpes region that runs off the plate and lands on your bread like magic.
  36. Le Saint Marcellin. The St. Felicien’s feisty little brother.
  37. Le Saint Agur. My favorite French blue. Creamier than roquefort but with just enough tang.
  38. Le jambon de Paris. Your basic cooked ham. The foundation meat for many a sandwich, croque, quiche, etc.
  39. Le jambon de Bayonne. An air-dried salted ham that takes its name from the city in southwest France.
  40. La tartiflette. A potato gratin made with Reblochon cheese and lardons. Loaded with calories to fill you up if you’re skiing – and even if you’re not!
  41. Un vin chaud. Mulled or hot wine, spicy and red. Not my absolute favorite thing but pretty damn good in the cold.
  42. La pizza. Who said pizza was Italian? Thin-crusted and richly topped, often with an egg, and available just about everywhere in France (but don’t expect delivery unless you’re in a big city).
  43. Le rouge. The only beverage that perfectly accompanies every meal (except breakfast.)
  44. Les rattes. Tiny, firm-fleshed potatoes with papery skin. Amazing with butter, parsley and garlic (but what isn’t?)
  45. Les blettes. Also known as bettes. Apologies but we had to talk green vegetables at some point. Similar to Swiss chard, the white ‘cotes’ are lovely and nutty and often enjoyed au gratin in France.
  46. Les cardons. Another odd veggie considered as something of a delicacy. Looks like celery, tastes like artichoke and often eaten in white sauce around Christmas.
  47. Les salsifis. The weirdest vegetable I have ever eaten. A white root served in a white sauce. Must confess I just don’t get what all the fuss is about!
  48. Les champignons. So many mushrooms, so little time: button mushrooms or champignons de Paris, cepes, morilles
  49. Les pralines. Sugar-coated nuts. What’s not to like?
  50. La mousse au chocolat. So good. Only 3 ingredients!
  51. L’île flottante. A.k.a oeufs à la neige (eggs in snow). An island of egg whites floating on a lake of custard. There’s a poem in there somewhere…
  52. Le croque monsieur / madame. Or the Dead Guy as my brother calls it. The classic melt. Madame has an egg on top.
  53. La soupe au choux. Cabbage soup. Also the name of a popular detox diet and a comedy classic film with Louis de Funès.
  54. La crême brulée. My all-time favorite dessert (next to cheesecake, which is decidedly not French). Thick vanilla custard with a burnt sugar top.
  55. La crême caramel. The classic custard dessert with a soft caramel top.
  56. La crème de marron. A sweet chestnut purée topping or ingredient for desserts. Lovely with yogurt or fromage blanc.
  57. Les marrons glacés. Iced chestnuts. My son loves these. You need a sweet tooth.
  58. Une glace. The best place to enjoy an ice cream in France? At the cinema, bien sûr!
  59. La buche de Noël. The traditional Yule log, with a great many gourmet twists – glacé, café, chataigne….
  60. Le trou Normand. A pause in the middle of a meal to relax and enjoy with a drop of…
  61. Le Calvados. Apple brandy, the Normandy digestif par excellence.
  62. La barbe à papa. My husband hates this stuff. Candy floss, spun sugar, white or pink. Transforms your children into sticky monsters at the park.
  63. Un oeuf en gelée. Why not? They look so pretty in that gelatin, and the egg will be cooked to ‘mollet’ perfection (the yoke a tad runny)
  64. Une omelette. Ain’t eggs wonderful? Especially when cooked to perfection on an omelet pan with globs of runny cheese inside.
  65. Des épinards à la crème. Talk about a spoon full of sugar! The French can add cream to anything and it will be delicious. Personally, I prefer my spinach with a knob of butter, salt, shallots and pine nuts.
  66. Un citron pressé. Freshly squeezed lemon juice, served in a tall glass with plenty of ice and sugar. Surely the healthiest option while sitting on a café terrace watching the world go by?
  67. Un flan. Imagine a slice of sweet, crustless egg pie. So good it’s trembling. The perfect treat for…
  68. Le goûter. A.k.a le quatre heures. The after-school snack is very important in French culture because the evening meal is never served before 8 pm, and the kids have very long school days. I know many fully grown French men and women who have never outgrown their goûter.
  69. Une quiche. Okay we all know Lorraine, but what about her variants? With goat’s cheese and sun-dried tomatoes, or spinach and ricotta.
  70. L’apéro. Cocktail hour à la française. Drink, eat, be merry!
  71. Le caramel au beurre salé. This is a drug to me. No translation required.
  72. Le pied de porc. Pig’s trotters. It’s said that nothing in the pig goes to waste. Here’s proof.
  73. Le lapin. Eat Peter Rabbit, you say? Forget the Easter bunny. If you like white meat, you’ll love it.
  74. Le magret de canard. Duck breast, a dark meat readily available in most French supermarkets and easy to prepare (although you need a fan). Makes a nice change from beef.
  75. La tête de veau. Calf’s brain. Okay, I have to confess I’ve never eaten this one. But it is a classic of French cuisine, and your butcher will debone and roll it for you. Go ahead, I dare you! Often eaten with Gribiche, a sauce of hard-cooked eggs, mustard and pickles, as is…
  76. Le tablier des sapeurs. Another tripe specialty from Lyon. Basically they throw nothing away.
  77. Une salade Lyonnaise. A safe option in Lyon for the less adventurous. Bacon and eggs on a salad.
  78. Une salade Niçoise. Tuna, hard boiled eggs, green beans, tomatoes, potatoes. Anchovies optional. Oh, and a few salad leaves if you insist!
  79. Une salade au chevre chaud. Melt goat’s cheese on toast under the broiler and serve on salad leaves. Presto!
  80. Le petit salé. Salted pork. Often served with…
  81. Les lentilles à la crème. Sure, add bacon and cream to anything and it’ll taste good!
  82. Les asperges blanches. The French prefer the big fat white asparagus, which they often eat lukewarm with a cream sauce like Gribiche.
  83. La pissaladière. A pizza variant from Nice. Onions, olives, garlic, anchovies.
  84. La tarte au myrtilles. You cannot get fresh blueberries easily in France. They’re expensive and often moldy. The best bet is preserves, which are wonderful served in a buttery pie shell.
  85. Un kébab. The kebab is popular French street food, although most of the meat comes from Germany.
  86. Un couscous. Given the large North African population in France, it’s not surprising that this dish has a lot of fans. Traditionally prepared with merguez (spicy beef sausages), lamb, chicken, steamed veg, chick peas and mounds of soft semolina. Gorgeous.
  87. Un verre de blanc. You see people at the markets and food halls sipping white wine quite early in the morning. Why wait for l’apéro?
  88. La poule de Bresse. The chicken with a pedigree from Bresse, in eastern France. The ‘artistocrat of modern poultry’, it has blue legs, if not blue blood.
  89. Une tisane / infusion. A herbal tea traditionally consumed in the evening, on a cold day or anytime one feels the need for a healthy infusion. Chamomile for relaxation, verbena, mint and fennel for digestion, red vine for circulation – whatever ails you, there’s a tisane for it. Medicinal herbs also sold in pharmacies.
  90. Un gratin de courge. Let’s face it – anything mixed with cheese and broiled is good. For some reason, the French are big fans of squash done this way. The secret ingredient: nutmeg.
  91. Les moules frites. Another French bistro classic. I do love mussels, especially the garlicky broth – but they are rather a lot of work to eat.
  92. Les huitres. Okay, this another cheat as I don’t eat these either (how many have you counted so far?). But those who love oysters swear by them. With lemon, shallots and a glass of white wine.
  93. La tartare de boeuf. One of my husband’s favorite dishes. Only to be ordered in restaurants where you can be absolutely sure of the freshness of the meat. They put a raw egg on top, just in case you weren’t already worried about salmonella.
  94. La blanquette de veau. As its name suggests, a white dish with a fine sauce. Neither the veal nor the onions are browned. Served with rice.
  95. La raie au beurre noire. Skate fish in a black butter sauce with capers. I love the texture of this fish.
  96. Les cuisses de grenouille. My final cheat. Everyone who’s eaten them swears by frogs’ legs, and they are readily available in Lyon by the banks of the Saône river. One of these days…
  97. Les quenelles. Another specialty of Lyon, la quenelle is a sort of dumpling made of eggs and fish, poached in white sauce until it swells, then browned under the broiler.
  98. Un kir. My default aperitif when neither beer nor champagne are on offer. White wine blushed with any kind of crême liqueur – cassis, mûre, raspberry, peach. Don’t waste good wine on it. Unless you have it with champagne, in which case it is a kir royale.
  99. Une flute. A salty, sometimes cheesy snack stick to go with…
  100. Le champagne. There are no rules with champagne in France – you can drink it before, during or after. A fitting conclusion to a special meal – and this list. Santé!

I’ve probably missed a few…what are your favorite French treats?

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?