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.


  • 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


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).


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?


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!

How the French stick changed my life

Creative CommonsYou are looking at one of the reasons  we moved to France. Bread, aka le pain. It’s a quality-of-life thing: we figured that even if we had to put our careers on hold, at least we’d be able to enjoy fresh bread every day. Lovely, crusty, light-as-a-feather baguette right out of the oven. Sans preservatives, as I memorably informed my late mother-in-law.

There is a boulangerie on every street corner in Paris and at least one in every village. In thousands of mom-and-pop shops from Nantes to Nice, the baker is at the ovens in the wee hours every morning, and you can buy a warm baguette from about 6:30 a.m. Such unfailing devotion is encrusted* in the very fiber* of le boulanger.

One of my first challenges in France was being able to go into the local bakery and buy what I wanted. There are so many kinds of bread, often with no labels at all to help you identify them. Like so many things in France, il faut savoir. The classic French stick, la baguette, seemed like the safest bet. At least I knew what that was called. And was able to pronounce it.

Despite this, I would experience a sort of stage fright when going to the bakery. I’d rehearse the words in my head and get my change ready in advance so as not to be caught unprepared.

‘Je voudrais une baguette, s’il vous plaît,’ I would say primly, attempting a smile.

The baker-woman (inevitably the baker is a man, and the woman who serves you his wife), would look at me impassibly, then pass me a French stick with the words: ‘Deux francs cinquante.’ No smile. I handed over the money (we still used French francs back in the day) and exited stage left. That was the sum total of my interactions at the bakery for several weeks.

There were other, friendlier places in our quartier. But this small bakery with barely a sign on the door had the neighborhood’s best bread (very likely why the woman felt no need to be friendly.)

Then the day came when I dared to take it a step further. I’d noticed that most people didn’t bother formulating an entire sentence, so I dropped the ‘je voudrais’ (which my husband was always telling me was just this side of polite). More importantly, I observed other customers asking for a particular ‘cuisson’ – ‘done-ness’ of the bread: bien cuite (crusty), peu cuite (pale) or, my preferred in-between state, pas trop cuite.

‘Une baguette, pas trop cuite, s’il vous plaît,’ I ventured.

The woman really looked at me for the first time, seeming to register a person attached to the request. She reached for a perfect, lightly bronzed baguette and added, “Deux francs cinquante.” The rest of the exchange was as before.

After several weeks, a couple of things changed. I would enter the bakery, start to ask for a baguette and before I could complete the request, she would hand me a ‘pas trop cuite.” With the tiniest glimmer of a smile. I was a regular.

Later I would graduate to asking for other kinds of bread: un pain (a full-size, broader loaf), un bâtard (half way between the baguette and le pain), a boule, flûte or pain de campagne. Seigle (rye) or levain (sour-dough).

I also learned the proper way to ask for croissants, or ‘viennoiseries.’ That’s the generic word for the category of baked goods that includes croissants, pain au chocolat, pain au raisin, brioche and a host of other calorie-laden breakfast treats. Yet even when I could say all those things, it was sometimes hard to choose, and they always seemed to expect that you knew exactly what you wanted as soon as you walked in.

‘Madame?’ the baker-woman asked. ‘Uhhh….je voudrais un pain au chocolat, et puis…’ I raked my brain to decide what else and blanked. ‘Je vais réfléchir,’ I concluded. I’m going to think about it. She looked at me like I was a few centimes short of a franc, then moved on to serve the next customer while I pondered my life-changing choice of croissants.

Here are a few things I learned about French bakeries:

  • There are two kinds of bakery: boulangeries for bread and pâtisseries for cakes and pastries. Most do both but almost always specialize in one thing more than another. Hence, the best bread will not be found at the same place that sells the best cakes.
  • The name ‘Boulangerie’ may only be used by a professional baker whose bread is baked on the premises; anything else must be called a ‘Dépôt de pain’ (bread depot).
  • ‘Maitre Artisan’ is an additional sign of quality and your guarantee that the bread is baked with care by a qualified boulanger or his apprentice.
  • The price of bread is not regulated per se but a complex set of rules governs its production and selling price; the bakery must display a price list including the types and weight of each kind of bread sold.

These days I almost never buy plain old baguette. In recent years, the French have gone whole grain, introducing a much wider range of organic, whole wheat and multigrain breads. My current favorite is a ficelle aux céreales (thinner than a baguette so you get more crust).

But the humble baguette de pain remains the staple of the French bakery. And perhaps my most humble memory of those early stumbling steps in French.

So, what’s your favorite loaf? French or otherwise?

*The pun is the lowest form of wit, just as the bun is the lowest form of wheat.