Category Archives: Food

French in Brooklyn Part II

Un repas sans vin est un jour sans soleil

A meal without wine is like a day without sun” – French Proverb

If you didn’t check out their popular Bastille Day celebration photos on my last post, here is another chance to virtually visit this cool 60’s style French bistro aptly named Bar Tabac. This post was originally written for my Brooklyn Blog, Le Quartier Francais, back in 2010. It’s still a wonderful place to eat and drink…

If you arrive after 8pm, you might catch the rattle of a drum beat or hear the jazzy guitar riffs drifting out of the open doors on a live music night. After a long day of walking, you may be enticed by the abundance of outdoor seating available on the “terrace,” a frenchy way of saying you have the option to dine right on the sidewalk. Equally appealing are the cherry-red awning that wraps around the whole place and the old fashioned gold lettering on the windows announcing “restaurant,” “bar.” Oh yes, this is a French bistro. This is Bar Tabac.

Image credit: bartabacny.com

Image credit: bartabacny.com

Inside, dark wood panels line the walls in the front, while exposed brick does the job in the back. An abundance of lightweight mahogany chairs and tables ensure that there’s a seat for everyone. Antique ad posters on the walls tout classic French liqueurs like Suze and Ricard, while the occasional Parisian street sign makes one feel as if they were on a European vacation. A foosball table is also known to make appearances just outside the entrance in fine weather- you just might have to wait your turn. The waiters and waitresses are all European expats or stylish Brooklynites who make you feel like you’ve made the right choice by coming here.

In need of a drink? Feel free to approach the bar to the right of the entrance. This is one of the few places in the neighborhood that serve special Belgian beers like Leffe and Duval on tap. From the bargain-for-your-buck Côtes du Rhône to the more sophisticated Châteauneuf du Pape, Bar Tabac offers a solid wine list for only being one page in length, and also includes several vins du monde to add to the French selection. Lucky for us, one may also order bubbly by the glass!

Image credit: parisianspring.com

Image credit: parisianspring.com

For a brunch affair, the organic egg menu is full of tasty delights- the poached egg is served milky white and firm with a perfectly thick liquid golden yolk running down the side once punctured with a fork. On a cold day, the goat cheese salad served warm with beets, apples and walnuts dressed in raspberry vinaigrette is the best tangy accompaniment to the rich, comforting classic onion soup. If you’re in the mood to share, it is highly recommended to get the moules frites– a heap of steamed mussels cooked in a creamy sauce flavored with white wine and shallots, coupled with a small barquette of crispy French fries with both ketchup and the European choice: mayonnaise, for dipping. You won’t be sorry! You will also notice after your order arrives that each surrounding table will subsequently be brought the same thing. Hmmmm.

jessicasfranglais.com

jessicasfranglais.com

The dinner crowd will be pleasantly satisfied with the French bistro classics- steak frites, coq au vin, salade niçoise, duck confit and even the truite amandine. That’s right, they do have it all.

If you are not afraid of being labeled a gourmand (somewhere between a glutton and a gourmet) please order the raspberry cheesecake. One can only justly compare it to a fluffy slice of cloud brought straight down from heaven. Bon appétit!”

Bar Tabac

128 Smith Street (at Dean St.)
Brooklyn, NY 11201

Metro: F or G train to Bergen St.

http://www.bartabacny.com/

© Jessica’s Franglais 2015

French in Brooklyn Part I

When I lived in Brooklyn, I adored mon petit quartier français: my little French neighborhood nestled into Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens. We enjoyed French cafés, bars and restaurants, and even heard little school children speaking French in the streets as there is a bilingual school in the area: P.S. 58 The Carroll School.

Every Bastille Day since 2006, they close off Smith street for a pétanque tournament and the French establishments serve their Frenchest food and drink. Check out Bar Tabac’s website for more information.

Recently, a French TV station mentioned ce petit coin as a francophone destination:

TV5 Monde Destination Francophonie #115: Brooklyn

Notice the yellow café in the video? That’s Provence en Boîte. While there are many French restaurants in Brooklyn, this one was my favorite. I loved this place so much my husband and I had our last breakfast there before moving to Paris. Oui, c’est un resto francais, bien sûr. We simply had to have our last café et croissant before heading to the motherland.

Here is a post, or a love letter really, that I wrote to Provence en Boîte on my old blog Le Quartier Français à Brooklyn before we left for la tour Eiffel:

“Even from the outside, it’s easy to see that Provence en Boîte has a bright character all its own. Quite literally a sunflower-yellow box plopped down on the corner of Smith and Degraw in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, this petit bistro warmly welcomes every passer-by to come in and discover the delights of Provence.

Installez-vous sur la terrasse

Installez-vous sur la terrasse!

Guests are seated at simple copper-topped tables and served water from French bottles. The golden colored walls are covered with eclectic paintings and photographs of Provence and Brooklyn, while antique French tins and bottles of Ricard and Lillet line the wooden shelves. Diners are tempted by the glass case at the center of the restaurant filled with fruit tarts, éclairs and decadent chocolate pastries. Above the pastry display sit rows of puffy croissants, glistening pains au chocolats and fresh baguettes just begging to be taken away.

As a resident of the neighborhood, I myself am drawn to this sanctuary like a moth to a lamp. Every brunch experience there is filled with fluffy egg and creamy goat cheese omelets, real French bread, rich espresso, perfectly vinegretted salad and mimosas that taste like sunlight on your tongue. I often see Jean-Jacques and Leslie, the charming French owners and executive chef (Jean-Jacques), making their rounds to the tables, saying “bonjour” and making sure that everything is delicious. Sometimes even les petits, their young children Andrea and Jacques, come around to collect the bill. Quite possibly they are in training to take over the restaurant from their parents one day.

Not one to forego new dining prospects, I noticed one evening that the yellow bistro is open for dinner as well. My boyfriend and I decided to stop in and see what was being served. Transformed for the evening with lights dimmed, a candle flickering on every table, and a track of smooth jazz playing, we found ourselves in a slightly more sophisticated version of the daytime hotspot.

Entrez!

Entrez!

That evening we were the only diners, but instead of feeling awkward it seemed as if the place had been reserved especially for us. We both ended up choosing the prix fixe menu, which was $22 for soup or salad, fish or entrée of the day, and crème brûlée for dessert.

The smooth and attentive waiter swiftly brought us our house salads with dark mixed greens and cherry tomatoes, which were to the same acidic perfection as when ordered during the day. Next for my boyfriend was the chicken special: a large thigh with crispy golden skin in a red wine reduction sauce, accompanied by creamy mashed potatoes and slices of savory portabella mushrooms. Quel paradis! On my plate sat a generous portion of thick buttery white monkfish smothered with an olive tapenade atop a chunky bed of ratatouille. The olive oil infused vegetables burst with flavor and complimented the fish superbly.

Topping off the evening with a bit of sugar, we gladly savored the vanilla custard of our home made crème brûlées down to the very last spoonful. Well, I savored. My boyfriend gobbled ravenously.

Crème brûlée. Photo credit: Foodspotting.com

Crème brûlée. Photo credit: Foodspotting.com

At the end of our lovely meal after paying our bill and saying our merci’s, I couldn’t help but notice chef Jean-Jacques sitting in the back of the restaurant watching a French drama on TV5. That evening, as he was privately enjoying a little bit of home, I hope he knew that Provence en Boîte had also brought a little bit of France to us.”

263 Smith St (at Degraw)

Brooklyn, NY 11231

Metro: F or G to Carroll St

http://www.provenceenboite.com/

What’s your favorite French place in Brooklyn?

Stay tuned for Part II!

© Jessica’s Franglais 2015

Stories Behind Bizarre French Foods Part II

I’m very pleased with the enthusiastic comments I’ve received from the last post! So, let’s continue on our journey down the path of unforgettable French delicacies…

Andouillette

Credit:Regions-of-France.com

Photo credit: Regions-of-France.com

After receiving several requests to write about this pungent plate, I discovered that this sausage is made with pork intestines and stomach. The casing is formed either with the small intestine or (yes) the colon. According to cuisinealafrancaise.com, andouillette was made with egg yolks, veal and rolled beef until 1864, when gastronomic manuals indicated that andouillettes should be made only with pig parts.

Each region of France has it’s own recipe, from Andouillette de Troyes with onions, Andouillette provençale with garlic and parsley, to Andouillette bourguignonne with white wine, shallots and mustard. With its sharp odor, this sausage is not for everyone. However, there is a club called L’ Association amicale des amateurs d’andouillettes authentiques (the Friendly Association of Authentic Andouillette Lovers) or 5A formed in the late 1960’s by a group of food writers in France who taste and award certificates to those made correctly and that are deemed of high quality.

Never having tasted andouillette myself, I leave you with the experience of this grad student in Paris.

Rognons

Credit: macuisinerouge.com

Photo credit: macuisinerouge.com

Kidneys and other internal organs have been enjoyed for many centuries, all the way back to our ancestors in Ancient Greece, Rome and Gaul. It is said that even Catherine de Médecis appreciated kidneys cooked with rooster crests sautéd with artichoke hearts, although later Balzac and his contemporaries seemed to find the dish vulgar.

On French menus today, rognons de veau (veal kidneys) and rognons d’agneau (lamb kidneys) are quite popular. Don’t be surprised if they show up in Michelin-starred restaurants. Bryan G. Newman shares some recipes on his site, Behind the French Menu. From Fricassée de Rognons de Bœuf

(kidney stew with vegetables and mushrooms) to Rognons à la Bordelaise (baked in a casserole with Bordeaux wine, onions, shallots, carrots and herbs) to Émincé de Rognon de Veau, Sauce Moutarde (Thin slices of veal kidneys lightly fried with a mustard sauce) you’re sure to find a preparation that pleases.

Steak tartare

Credit: Frenchcountryfood.com

Photo credit: Frenchcountryfood.com

At the turn of the 20th century, raw beef began appearing on menus in France. According to this New York Times article, it was originally called beefsteack à l’Américaine” because cuisine was going through an international phase. The dish gained popularity in the 1950’s, but it remains unclear why it was associated with the U.S. It was served with “a raw egg yolk atop the raw ground meat and with capers, chopped onion and chopped parsley on the side. Steak tartare was originally a derivative dish, named not for raw-meat-eating Tatars, but for the tartar sauce that was served with it.”

After waiting at the entrance of the catacombs in Paris for the second time that week, my husband and I finally decided to ditch the long line exposed to the blazing sun where pigeons in the trees above did their best to aim their droppings on tourists’ heads. We wandered to a neighborhood café where my husband discovered steak tartare on the menu. With his “when in France” attitude, he ordered it right away. Although I was too afraid to touch it, he said it tasted well-seasoned and fresh, but he did not really enjoy the squishy texture.

Tête de veau

Credit: Little Miss Parsley

Photo credit: Little Miss Parsley

Last but not least, have you ever eaten something’s head? Deemed a “noble organ” along with sweetbreads, tongue and bone marrow (as opposed to organs traditionally eaten by the poor: tripe and lungs) calf’s head as described by restaurant reviewer Nick Lander is prepared “classically and simply, by cooking the calf’s head in a white court-bouillon seasoned with cloves and a bouquet garni, allowing it to simmer gently for a couple of hours. The dish is presented by carving the various parts of the head – cheek, tongue, brain and ear – into smaller pieces and then serving them, alongside a quenelle of veal and a crouton, in a tomato sauce laced with Madeira, capers and olives.” It has been a staple in European cooking for centuries.

The website Lyon Saveurs calls la tête de veau “un patrimoine gastronomique national” (national gastronomic heritage). Every year on the 21st of January, le club de la tête de veau enjoys a traditional calf’s head meal to celebrate the decapitation of Louis XVI after the French revolution. As Gustave Flaubert points out in L’Education sentimentale, this was inspired by the English celebration of the decapitation of King Charles I after the first English revolution.

My first host family lived on a farm in Northern France and raised chickens and turkeys. After the first few days, I grew accustomed to descending the stairs to find dead chickens laying on the kitchen table. What surprised me one day was the sight of one of my host brothers holding up the side of a cow’s face, eyeball still intact, as a mask to frighten me. Let me tell you, it worked. I’m sure it ended up on the dinner table in one form or another, but I honestly don’t remember eating it. Maybe I blocked it out.

Years later when I returned to visit my host family, the grandmother raved all afternoon about the tête de veau lunch she had shared with some neighbors at a restaurant in the center of the village. Whether or not she belonged to le club de la tête de veau remains to be discovered.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but more like an amuse-bouche to whet the appetite for discussion. What is your favorite French dish? How was it prepared and where/with whom did you eat it?

© Jessica’s Franglais 2015

 

Stories Behind Bizarre French Foods Part I

Have you ever seen something on a plate in France and wondered, “what’s that?” If you’re French, do you know the history behind your national dishes? Let’s take a look at some popular French cuisine and see where it came from.

Boudin noir

photo credit: carredeboeuf.com

photo credit: carredeboeuf.com

Blood sausage has been made in France for many centuries. Until World War II, many French families raised their own pigs for slaughter, with each family member playing a role in making the hams, sausages and patés that ended up on the dinner table. Boudin noir is often grilled or pan-fried and served with roasted potatoes or apples.

When my husband and I lived in Paris, I went to our neighborhood butcher shop on rue du Faubourg Saint Martin in the 10th arrondissement to buy some boudin noir to cook for dinner. I enjoyed the meal, but at 3 am my husband woke up with heart palpitations so bad he thought he was having a heart attack. I called SOS médecins (thank God French doctors make house calls 24 hours a day!) only to find out it was a serious case of heartburn. Needless to say, my husband won’t touch boudin noir again.

Cuisses de grenouille

photo credit: froglegs.org

photo credit: froglegs.org

According to The Guardian, the French began eating frog legs in the 12th century. Catholic church authorities in France were concerned that the monks were becoming overweight, and thus forbid them from eating meat on certain days. Some monks were able to get frog to pass as fish, not meat. Famished peasants caught on to the trend, and it eventually spread throughout the country and even became à la mode in the 17th century.

While visiting a French family in a small village an hour north of Montpellier, I was dutifully served cuisses de grenouille à la provençale (with butter, garlic and parsley). I found the tiny translucent legs to taste like something in between fish and chicken. I was also surprised by all the tiny bones.

Escargot

Les escargots repas de Noël 2011

Les escargots repas de Noël 2011

When Julius Caesar invaded Gaul in 54 BC, his Roman army was eating snails. According to Ed Pearce, the Gauls came to enjoy eating them for dessert. In medieval France, monasteries and convents farmed snails for consumption. By the 16th century, they were being served at banquets and were very popular with the masses. Just like our friend the frog, they too were considered fish and thus could be consumed on Fridays and during Lent without upsetting the church.

The first time I sat down to a French birthday lunch in the garden of a French family in Orleans, we were served generous, golden slices of quiche aux escargots. It was a bit chewy, but I enjoyed the buttery flavor and proceeded to finish my slice very quickly. Not yet understanding the traditional progression of the French meal, I assumed we were finished. My host brother smiled at me and kindly let me know that this was just the first course. I learned a valuable lesson that day: how to make room for more.

In Paris, my husband ordered escargots à la Bourgignonne (also with butter, garlic and parsley). They came in a special dish with little compartments for the shells and a tiny fork with which to dig out the snail. He ate them all up and wanted more. At Christmas dinner with my French host family in a small city near Montargis (about an hour south of Paris), my host mother served escargots as an appetizer. My husband was absolutely delighted.

Foie gras

Foie gras au Petit Bordelais

Foie gras au Petit Bordelais

Passed down from the 5th dynasty in Egypt, the Romans in the 2nd century BC had their Jewish slaves force-feed geese in order to obtain fatty goose livers, which later became a key part of the Jewish diet in the middle ages. This Wall Street Journal article states that when Jews immigrated to France and Germany in the 1100’s, they brought this practice with them. Just before the French Revolution, the governor of Alsace gave King Louis XVI foie gras in exchange for land in Picardy. The king enjoyed it so much, he began offering foie gras de Strasbourg (the capital of the Alsace region, which is said to have the best foie gras) to leaders all over Europe, ensuring its international success.

Although foie gras has been banned in many countries due to animal cruelty in the force-feeding procedure, it is still very popular in France due to its deliciousness and its star roll in French culinary tradition. At the Christmas meal, many French families serve it as a starter course. During my last Christmas dinner in France, we enjoyed a slab of foie gras on toast sprinkled with a few red peppercorns and accompanied by a crisp white Alsatian wine. During a fancy farewell dinner at Michelin-starred Le Petit Bordelais in the regal 7th arrondissement (a generous gift from my husband’s colleagues) we feasted on foie gras on a plate of red plum jelly served with thick slices of freshly baked brown bread and a glass of white wine from Alsace. The mélange of fatty liver, sweet jelly, soft bread and dry wine created a perfectly harmonious symphony of flavor.

Stay tuned for Part II…

© Jessica’s Franglais 2015

Pain au Chocolat vs Chocolatine

When I lived in Paris, I would walk into my local boulangerie and order un pain au chocolat. During my year in Toulouse, I always asked for une chocolatine. Pourquoi cette différence?

As you probably know, we are talking about chocolate croissants. Pain au chocolat is the generic term in French. So why, as soon as you enter the southwest of France, does one say chocolatine?

source: culinaryescapades.com

source: culinaryescapades.com

According to one source, we have the English to thank for this. During the 15th century when the English controlled part of France, they would enter bakeries and, not speaking French, ask for “chocolate in bread please!” The French, trying to understand, retained the “chocolate in” portion, which became “chocolatine.” This term is also used in Quebec, possibly because of the region’s proximity to English speakers.

Another source asserts that chocolatine comes from a word belonging to the regional language occitan, chicolatina. Which story is correct? What do you think?

If you understand French, please see this blog post from Adrien VH. His article goes in-depth about the regions that use each term.

If you are a music fan, check out this classic French song by Joe Dassin, “Pain au chocolat”

What is your preference: pain au chocolat or chocolatine? Pourquoi?

© Jessica’s Franglais 2015

A Nautical New Year’s in Paris

My husband and I had never shucked our own oysters before. Quite frankly, I was a bit scared as the last time we ate raw seafood in France a couple years ago we both become ill. Granted, it had been during the month of August, not exactly oyster season. And it wasn’t just a dozen oysters; it was a whole platter of raw seafood. Not our best choice.

A bourgeois French woman (my English student) once explained to me with Gaulic authority that oysters are in season every month that has an “r” in it. Who was I, naïve American, to argue? This works in French and in English. Since it was the end of December/décembre, we were safe.

Our local fish shop had set up a special booth for oysters as it seems to be traditional in France to serve seafood on New Year’s Eve. We admitted to the fish mongers that it was our first time buying oysters and asked them what we were supposed to do. The guy pulled out a short smooth blade which he gestured to. That was it? He recommended getting 6 “fines claires” which seemed to be the basics, and six of a more expensive type called Gillardeau which were a bit larger. The other types he described as a bit “gras” (oily) and were more for connoisseurs. Since it was our first time, he threw in a couple for free.

Back at the apartment, my husband found a tutorial on You Tube with a chef that demonstrated how to shuck oysters. He recommended wrapping the oyster in a towel to avoid stabbing yourself with the knife. You stuck the knife into a little crevasse in the back of the oyster, then turned the knife to open it, jiggling back and forth until the shell gave. Next, you ran the knife along the ridge of the shell touching the top on the inside in order to disconnect the flesh, leaving the bottom alone. We didn’t have a special knife, just a small pointy one which did the trick but was ruined after my husband succeeded in opening all of the oysters. It was worth it.

The fines claires were salty, while the Gillardeau were smooth and a tad sweet. We gulped them down with a red wine vinegar sauce and lemon slices. Since it was New Year’s Eve, we popped a bottle of champagne to go with them. Absolutely délicieux. And we did not get sick!

Careful Oyster Shucking

Careful Oyster Shucking

Our plan later that night was to take the metro (free all night in Paris on New Year’s Eve) down to quai de la rapée on the Seine and board the old paddleboat Le Louisiane Belle for a night of dancing with friends and other internationals.

We were late. We got to the foot of the Charles de Gaulle Bridge where the boat was supposed to be docked at around 11:30 instead of 11. The boat was doing a dinner cruise until 11pm so it should have been back by then. We saw two large boats, and, since there was no signage, approached each individually, only to find that neither was the boat we were looking for. Where on earth was the Louisiane Belle?

Finally, at 11:45, the Louisiane Belle came cruising down the Seine, nearly an hour late. Sooo French. A group of us stood on the quai, impatient for the boat to dock so we could celebrate midnight with a little bit of class.

I assume the captain had been drinking because he took fifteen minutes veering back and forth to dock the boat. Or else they were stalling and wanted to punish those who only bought tickets for the party and not the dinner. My husband ended up doing a countdown on his own and yelling Bonne Année! in a pissed off tone. It was midnight, and there we were waiting on a dirty quai. Not exactly what we had paid for.

Once on the boat, I got us a couple of well earned drinks and then went to find the coordinator who was supposed to have a surprise birthday cake for my husband. While my husband was checking our coats, the rest of us gathered around a table and waited. A few minutes later, the coordinator came up with the cake, sparklers lit, singing “Happy Birthday!”

Wait!” we told him. “Not yet!” He looked a little perturbed and nearly burned himself putting out the sparklers, but he retreated and hissed at us to give him a sign next time.

Five seconds later, my husband joined us at the table and I gave the coordinator a signal. This time, everything went smoothly. He brought over the cake with the sparklers and we all sang “Happy Birthday.” My husband was surprised, and the cake was tasty: raspberry and white chocolate.

We finished our drinks up on the mezzanine and then went downstairs to the dance floor to dance the night away. No, it hadn’t been a perfect evening, but we did get to eat oysters with champagne and spend the first morning of the new year dancing on a paddleboat on the Seine. Not bad at all.

© 2015 Jessica’s Franglais

Originally posted on Pasa’s Paris blog in 2012

A Blue Christmas Part II

On Christmas day, we arrived a bit late to my host parent’s house quite tired from the previous evening of gorging. After everyone had opened their gifts and the children played with their new toys, it was time to sit around the table again. It was my host mother’s turn to showcase her Christmas meal.

Another champagne toast started things off correctly. Cheese puffs and pigs in a blanket fresh from the oven. I did not make the rookie mistake of eating too many of these although they were delicious, but the brothers devoured the contents of the tray within minutes anyway. I think they had been training for this day for a long time. It may have been a competition among the brothers to see who could eat the most.

We had our foie gras on toast of course, accompanied by smoked salmon. I got to experience the wonderful combination of crisp white wine with the foie gras again. Next was a lovely coquille Saint Jacques still in its pink shell served with a carrot and ginger purée. The flavor popped. My host mother admitted it was the first time she had made this dish, but we never would have guessed it. To my surprise, one of my host brothers sat this course out. Another one bites the dust.

LesEscargotsChristmas 2011

Next were escargots with butter and garlic. Everyone was very excited about this one except the Danish wife who very recently stopped being a vegetarian. Not surprisingly, the foie gras hadn’t been a hit with her either. My husband and I enjoyed them, although I find snails to be quite chewy.

The main course was stewed beef served with pommes de terre noisettes. After giving it my best shot, I discreetly passed my husband some of my meat but finished all of my potatoes. I passed on the cheese course as well. One of my host brothers started eating the blue Santas left over from the night before. After a short break, he was remarkably able to continue on.

The crown jewel of the meal was the bûche de noel. Two actually: one caramel and one chocolate that my host mother had of course made herself. They were excellent, with bits of crunchy granulated sugar in the frosting.

La Passerelle Victor Hugo

La Passerelle Victor Hugo

The next day a group of us went for a well needed walk in downtown Montargis. While most of the shops were closed as it was a Monday, the sun shone beautifully on the waterway that cut through the center of town. We explored small medieval streets and crossed footbridges over the water. I found out that La Passerelle Victor Hugo was even constructed by Gustave Eiffel’s team in 1891.

We soaked in the sun and the crisp light that was so often fogged over in Paris. The naked trees lining the canal looked like hands reaching towards the sky. Their shadows were long, even though it was around midday. We passed the praline boutique and the café where I had gone for a drink with my host brother and classmates on my first visit to France nearly ten years ago.

Praslines de Mazet, Montargis

We happened upon a fair where one of the little boys and one of the not so little boys went on a ride together, and then we all stopped for lunch at what I’ll call the Potato Palace, since the menu revolved around potatoes and the interior had a farm theme.

After lunch, our time had run out. We had to return to the train station and head back to Paris. We weren’t quick enough to get seats this time, but after that Christmas weekend with my host family, I hardly noticed.

What did you eat for the Christmas meal this year? Were you somewhere in France?

© Jessica’s Franglais 2014

A Blue Christmas Part I

For Christmas, I thought I would share my experience spending the holidays with my French host family when my husband and I were living in Paris back in 2011-2012. This story was originally posted on my blog Pasa’s Paris in January 2012…

We were leaving Paris for the countryside again. The plan was to spend Christmas with my French host family for the second time in my life, this time with my husband as well.

Our train tickets to Montargis had no seats marked. It made me cringe to think about having to fight for a place to sit on a crowded train, but my husband was agile enough to find a couple of empty seats and store our luggage before I even realized what was happening. A woman eventually approached and told us that they were her seats, but she and her husband had already found a couple of unreserved seats, so she told us we could stay. A Christmas gift indeed! No conductor ever came around to verify tickets, even though ours were validated and ready. Maybe the SNCF assumed that no one would risk getting on a train without a ticket at Christmas. Hopefully someone got a free ride.

My host brother picked us up from the station, and we went to the hyper-marché to pick up a few things. My husband and I gawked at all the choice, quantity and low prices available at such a grand surface. Rows and rows of wine, giant displays of cheese, every kind of meat you could think of. Living in Paris, we are used to going to the little supermarket down the street every day and only buying as many products as we can carry. Here in the countryside, you had a car that you could fill up with products, as long as you had the money. I suppressed the urge to ride the cart down an isle of wine and push all the bottles into it.

That evening, the 23rd, the feasting began. We all went over to the gîte that the oldest brother visiting from Copenhagen had rented with his Danish wife and baby son. My host mother brought over a tartiflette, a sturdy dish from the Haute-Savoie region made with potatoes, reblochon cheese, cream and lardons, salad and some delicious white wine.

The next day, Christmas Eve, I ate very little for breakfast because I knew we would be having two large meals that day. My host mother fed us all at lunchtime, and luckily in the afternoon we went on a walk to get flowers for my host mother’s sister who was having us all over for Christmas Eve dinner, or le réveillon. Someone picked out some electric blue orchids, which I thought were pretty but a bit strange.

When we arrived at my host mother’s sister’s house, I understood about the blue orchid. Everything in the house was blue: the tables, the walls, the chairs, the Christmas tree and all of the table settings were blue. Even the chocolate santas sitting at each place setting were blue. The hostess wore what looked like blue silk pajamas, blue earrings and blue glasses. She really wasn’t kidding around.

After all the kissing hello and the introductory chatting was over, we sat down at the table at around 8:30. There were about 15 people in all. Each place setting had a little photo on it to indicate whose place it was: mine was a map of California, my husband’s a picture of a computer (guess what he does for a living), and on the back was written the evening’s 6 course menu.

12_23_14ReveillonMenu2011

We started out with a champagne toast, served with “mises en bouche” (literally put in your mouth) which included cherry tomatoes, French radishes which are petite, mild and long instead of spicy and round like the ones I was used to seeing in the states, cubes of surimi (imitation crab) and cubes of flavored cheeses.

Next was the traditional foie gras on round toast, except this time it was sprinkled with a few red pepper corns. This combination of peppery and fatty, accompanied by a crisp sweet white wine, is one of the best flavor combinations I have ever tasted.

More champagne and a trio of appetizers: smoked salmon, stuffed tomato and prosciutto. At this point my host brothers started getting a bit rowdy and poking fun at each other. The Franco-Danish baby shared his cubed cheeses by passing them to everyone around the table. I turned to my husband, who was engrossed in a conversation in English with the Danish woman, and reminded him to pace himself, as we were only half way through the meal. The hostess kept refilling his champagne glass and smiling.

After a pause, we were served the plat principal: carré de veau et son accompagnement de légumes, rack of veal with a bouquet of green beans held together with a piece of prosciutto. Of course, red wine was poured into a third glass for this. I admit that I had a hard time finishing this one, although it was very tasty.

People seemed to be drunk and happy at this point. The volume increased and there was laughter all around. I couldn’t imagine more food, but there was the cheese the platter and the salad, staring at me from the middle of the table and daring me to try. I took a few leaves of salad but passed on the cheese. There was no more room.

It was now past one in the morning. Everything was hazy. I thought I was hallucinating when I heard more champagne being uncorked and dessert plates being passed around. There they were: a fruit cocktail, chocolate mousse and two different kinds of cake. For each person. I took a deep breath and managed a couple bites of the fruit and the mousse. That was it. I gave the cake discreetly to my husband. I was officially done. Amazingly, everyone around me kept eating and drinking. My host father made his way over and asked us when we were thinking of starting a family. I replied that there was already a food baby in my stomach.

Just after two thirty am my host family decided that it was time to go. I somehow got in a car and made it to bed. Before dropping us off, they reminded us that we had to be back at the host parent’s house by 11am the next day for Christmas, where we would do the whole thing over again.

To be continued…

How was your last Christmas in France?

© Jessica’s Franglais 2014

Part II: Mealtime: A Pleasure or a Pain?

L’Apéro

This pre-dinner drink takes place between 6 and 9pm. Whether you are invited to someone’s home, stopping at a cafe or simply chez vous, it normally consists of a drink to whet the appetite such as un kir (white wine with flavored syrup) Ricard or Pastis, a beer or Lillet. This is accompanied by finger foods such as olives, peanuts, chips, or canapés. I witnessed plenty of Parisians stretch the apéro into dinner, un apéro-dînatoire. Seated at tables on cafe terraces, they would slowly smoke their cigarettes and sip their glass of wine until the last small drop as the sun disappeared behind the Haussmannian buildings.

Le Dîner

After you’ve waited 8 long hours, you can finally eat again (les français, how do you go so long between meals?). Don’t show up at a restaurant at 7pm unless you have small children. Most likely, they won’t open until 7:30 or later. Dining takes place in France around 8pm, sometimes even 9 or 10. The composition of a traditional French meal is fairly rigid: entrée, plat, déssert. If you’re serious, you’ll also have a salad and cheese course after the main dish and coffee after dessert.

Being accustomed to American one-dish meals, the first time I attended a birthday dinner in France I quickly consumed the mushroom quiche served as the appetizer (nobody told me!) and proclaimed that the meal was delicious and that I was full. My host brother looked at me like I was crazy. “But that’s just the beginning!” He exclaimed. I would have to learn to pace myself.

Dîner chez ma famille française à Lunel

Un dîner chez ma famille française à Lunel/ Dinner at my French family’s home in Lunel

Unless it’s a special event, the French generally don’t eat cake or pie for dessert after dinner. Most nights with my host family, I was offered fruit or yogurt. I tried to learn to have my dessert in the afternoon like a child, but my craving for chocolate at night was not something that would just go away. At home with my parents, we ate dessert every night, whether it was chocolate mousse or ice cream. This is how I earned the nickname “la gourmande” from my host brothers. I was always sneaking cookies or accepting their bemused offers of Lindt chocolates at random times of the day. They laughed because they knew I couldn’t refuse. Hey, I’m American; I was raised that way. Just don’t tell my grandparents.

Pourquoi ces différences? Why these differences?

To put is simply, eating in France is associated with pleasure. The point of the meal is to take your time, enjoy the flavors of the meal and the company you’re chatting with at the table. Eating in the U.S. is associated with necessity. Americans focus on nutritional value and thus associate indulgences like french fries and cake with guilt. Blame it on our respective backgrounds, with Catholicism’s sensual relationship to food in France and Protestantism making Americans feel bad about how many calories they are consuming.

One luxury the French have is more time. In general, the French spend 2 hours and 22 minutes eating per day, compared to the Americans measly 1 hour. Could the 35 hour French work week explain this difference ? While in reality the average work week in France is around 40 hours, the U.S. average is still higher at 47 hours. That’s 7 more hours to spend eating or doing something else more enjoyable than working.

My grandparents respect French mealtimes and they certainly don’t snack, but after all those dinner preparations, the meal happens à l’américaine: all the dishes are put out at once, and everyone finishes eating in about 20 short minutes. My heart sinks as I think of the French way that I have grown to prefer: eating one course at a time, slowly over the length of the evening. One day, when it’s my turn to host these family dinners, we will have meals à la française. Why, you ask? Pour le plaisir, mon ami, pour le plaisir. Let’s prolong the pleasure!

© Jessica’s Franglais 2014

Part I: Mealtime: A Pleasure or a Pain?

Grand-père posing for an ad for the Sheraton Palace

Grand-père posing for an ad at the Sheraton Palace in the 1970’s. A glass of Korbel to go with that turkey, anyone?

With the holidays coming up, I can’t help but think about all of the times my family has sat around the table to share food. I am reminded of my hereditary “Frenchness” every time my uncle starts opening bottles of wine ceremoniously a half hour before the meal to let them breathe. Meal preparation sometimes begins days in advance, depending on the menu du jour: boeuf Wellington, Yorkshire pudding? These are the crown jewels on my grandfather’s repertoire, having served as the head chef of the Sheraton Palace in San Francisco during the 60’s and 70’s. Charming both the staff and guests with his French accent, it seemed only natural that a Frenchman steer the culinary ship of this luxury hotel. Although he has long since retired, we get to reap the benefits of this role at every dinner chez mes grands-parents.

Given my French roots, I assumed I’d be perfectly primed for meals à la française when I arrived in France for the first time more than 10 years ago. Little did I know all of the cultural confusion I was to experience, then and even now…

Le petit-déjeuner, credit to Haverford.edu

Le petit-déjeuner, photo credit to Haverford.edu

Le Petit-dej’

Breakfast in France happens around 8am. Most French people will simply eat une tartine, toasted bread with jam and butter with a big bowl or mug of coffee with milk (the tiny espresso usually happens later in the day). You won’t find eggs and bacon here: in France, these ingredients are most often used to make omelettes, salads or quiches for lunch and dinner. And if you happen to pull a grasse matinée (sleep in) like I did while staying with my host family, tant pis, you’ll just have to wait for lunch!

In the US, the time for eating breakfast varies, if it is eaten at all. Popular choices include yogurt, toaster pastries, smoothies, bagels, waffles and cereal, this last item of which is becoming more popular in France as well for its convenience. While many children drink fruit juice and most adults have coffee or tea, some Americans do drink soda in the morning (quel scandale!)

Manger à la cantine, credit to Collège Jean Bauchez

“What do I like best about the cafeteria?” “The fries? The couscous? The desserts? The organic dishes?” “No, eating with my friends!” Photo credit to Collège Jean Bauchez

Lunchtime

In France, le déjeuner is always between noon and 2pm. My husband and I found this out the hard way when we arrived in Paris at 3pm a few years ago and couldn’t find anywhere still serving a hot meal. In the workplace, everyone breaks bread together at the same time. I was pleasantly surprised while working at a French magazine in New York that all of my (French) collegues sat together around the table in the breakroom to eat lunch and share jokes and stories for around an hour in the middle of each day. At my husband’s workplace in Paris, everyone would walk across the street to la cantine (the company cafeteria) at noon sharp to enjoy subsidized lunches including an appetizer, main dish, bread and dessert for between 3 and 4 euros (4 to 5 dollars).

French meal times are a communal, not solitary event. In France, roughly 80% of meals are shared with others, compared to only around 50% in the U.S. In France, there is absolutely no eating in front of the computer ( WebMD reports as many as 70% of Americans do this) or in the car (Americans typically eat 1/5 meals at the wheel). It’s unfortunate that so many Americans end up eating lunch alone and as quickly as they can.

In France, only kids get a snack. Credit to sante.fr

In France, only kids get a snack. Photo credit to sante.fr

Le goûter

The French do not snack. At least, not the adults. This is hard news to digest for Americans, who are used to grazing and nibbling whenever we feel like it. During my study abroad year in Toulouse, I carelessly ordered a crêpe Nutella from a street vendor in the middle of the afternoon and continued down the cobblestones while munching on my treat. “Bon appétit!” an older gentlemen sneered at me disapprovingly. Oops. And don’t even think about eating a sandwich on the train. You’ll most likely get le regard (“the look”) as I did. This is how I learned many of the unwritten rules in France.

Children, lucky things, get a snack at 4pm after school. In Paris I often observed parents walking home from school with their children who would tuck into the corner boulangerie, most likely tantalized as I was by the sweet smell of baking bread, and emerge with glistening pains au chocolat or croissants. The children, that is. French adults must have amazing self discipline, as I never once saw them indulging with their kids. There is one exception. If you are invited over for afternoon tea, you may expect petits gâteaux or tartelettes. This petit pêché mignon (“cute little sin”) as the French say is always sucrée, never salty. This didn’t really leave room for my traditional apple and almonds snack, as I prefer to save my dessert for after dinner.

To be continued…