“I like butter, cream and wine,” and not “peas cut in four,” wrote Paul Bocuse, the French “pope of gastronomy,” who died Saturday, just shy of his 92st birthday.
The father of Nouvelle Cuisine, Bocuse influenced how most of us eat today. Despite his penchant for butter, cream and wine, he gave dishes a lighter twist that is now taken for granted. Lighter doesn’t need to mean bland; he also said that good cuisine isn’t about fancy products but about seasonings, which should be added using one’s fingertips: “Touch is fundamental.”
The story about the birth of Nouvelle Cuisine (New Cooking) is that Henri Gault et Christian Millau, of the restaurant guide that carries their name, had dined–very well–at lunch at his restaurant and it was so good they came back for dinner, asking for something light. Bocuse served them a salad of green beans, cooked but still crunchy, with shallots and olive oil, followed by lightly cooked rock mullet. Gault and Millau were smitten, and declared Bocuse’s style of cooking “Nouvelle Cuisine.”
While the world’s press has given honors to Bocuse’s obituary, the French are, understandably, even more detailed. Here are some nuggets you might appreciate:
Nouvelle Cuisine was one thing, molecular cuisine was too far. Asked in this excellent interview from 2007 what modern thing he refused, he said, “Nitrogen. I don’t see the point. All this foreign food where you have to explain what’s in the dish to the point of indicating in which order it should be eaten: it’s not my thing.” SLAM! Which is kind of too bad, because I’ve talked to Ferran Adrià and he is completely charming.
He added that he liked to cook by instinct, smelling when the meat is done rather than using a thermometer.
Bocuse learned to cook from his father, who taught him to make veal kidneys when he was nine. After serving in the French army during World War II (where he got the tattoo of the coq gaulois on his shoulder, something he liked to show off), he took on several apprenticeships before returning to his family’s inn, l’Auberge du Pont de Collonges, in a suburb of Lyon. It was owned by his maternal grandfather, and where he was born Feb. 11, 1926.
He got his first Michelin star in 1958, his second in 1962 and his third in 1965, which he always maintained. He eventually renamed the restaurant “Paul Bocuse.”
He was a showman who appeared on television as early as 1976. In 1987, he created the “Olympics of Gastronomy,” the Bocuse d’Or, an international cooking competition that was televised from the start. He was one of the first French chefs to expand overseas: to Japan in 1979 and Disneyworld in Orlando in 1982, followed by many more.
He was out as a trigamist–that’s bigamy plus one. He met his wife, Raymonde, before the war when she was 16; they married in 1946 and had a daughter. Raymonde runs the original restaurant. He added another partner, Raymone, who bore him a son in 1969; the son, Jérôme, has headed the family empire since last year. All I can say about the names is: ?!?!?!? How did he keep that straight? Or maybe it simplified life.
In 1971, he brought in companion No. 3, Patricia, who had a daughter with him. Patricia runs Paul Bocuse Products and handles his image.
It is not clear how he juggled all the restaurants, not to mention women. Although his companions (? partners? lovers?) had serious business roles with him, he had a reputation as a male chauvinist, with a raft of appalling quotes.
One of his signature dishes is Soupe V.G.E. Bocuse made it in 1975 for President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing–VGE–for the dinner celebrating Bocuse’s award of the Legion of Honor; how about that–win an award and you have to cook the dinner! You could call it a chicken pot pie, BUT….
It’s a chicken and beef soup, with foie gras and black truffles replacing potatoes, covered with puff pastry. I found a number of recipes for it:
This one uses 60 grams of truffles, whereas this one uses 80 grams. That’s a difference of €14 euros just for the truffles. This one also uses 80 grams, but I doubt Bocuse used bouillon cubes. You can watch the master himself make his Soupe V.G.E. here.
It is extremely rare that I use any photos but those I took myself. However, I don’t have any of Bocuse; these are from the press packet on his corporate Web site.
Parting words from the master chef: “Classic or modern, there’s only one cuisine: the good one.”
From what I’ve read, for some people even an IRS audit would be less stressful than ordering a meal from a French waiter.
Yet one of the Top Things to Do While Traveling in France is eating. It doesn’t have to be stressful. Here’s how.
First of all, get the restaurant right. If you go to the big place right on the waterfront or whatever the main tourist draw of your destination is, then you can almost be sure that it isn’t going to be good, and the waiters aren’t going to care. This is true worldwide.
But if you’re in France, it’s doubly a crime, because France is a place where you can have absolutely heavenly food, from the finest of haute cuisine to humble yet delicious dives. Bad food is practically criminal here.
The French diner uses the power of the purse to punish restaurants for bad cooking, or to help them succeed for good cooking. That is, away from the most obvious tourist spots, where the restaurants don’t have to care about the French diner. In order to get the best of French cuisine, you have to eat where the French do.
Things to look for:
Multilingual menus–they are often a clue to a high level of tourist trade.
This is not a fail safe measure. Even for establishments without personal translators, it takes minimal effort to get the job done online. (Sometimes with comic results; however, bad translations don’t mean bad food–they mean bad translators.) So on the one hand, let’s give restaurants credit for being welcoming to tourists by providing translations, since it really shouldn’t be a big deal.
On the other hand, the tough judges aren’t the tourists but the locals. You want to eat where they do. And if a restaurant is good enough, it will have so much business with the locals that it won’t need the tourists. This is the ideal restaurant. Reservation cards on tables are one hint that a place is good. Locals don’t walk in; they reserve.
Let’s say you’re walking around, looking for a place to eat. How can you tell whether a restaurant will be satisfying? One tip: look for chalk.
Pre-printed menus, like translations in many languages, aren’t a huge effort or expense anymore. But they can (as in sometimes) indicate that the menu doesn’t change with seasons. And that the menu is too big. There’s a risk they’re out of this and that, especially if you’re not traveling in high season, or you’re going to be served pre-cooked or industrial stuff, not freshly homemade.
Instead, look for a chalkboard with the day’s menu written in chalk. That means it changes, possibly daily.
A small menu means the chef pays attention to each dish and each ingredient.
Another key to your dining satisfaction is to know that an entrée is a starter/appetizer (not the main course). Entrée means entry, after all. The main dish may be called a plat (plate, or dish) or else you’ll just see viandes/poissons (meats/fish) in a separate category. I have noticed more vegetarian choices lately, but that’s a new trend. Even salads tend to have meat. Salade gourmande usually includes foie gras, gizzards and slices of dried duck breast. Just so you know. Usually these kinds of big salads are considered a meal and aren’t in any “prix fixe” or set-price menu. A “salade composée” is just a lot of ingredients laid on a bed of lettuce, not tossed. The French are not big on tossing. They like each item to be distinct. Just so you aren’t surprised.
Often, the menu will have separate dishes in their separate categories–five or six starters, then five or six main courses–and then a variety of “menu” choices, where you can get a good deal. It might be choose among entrées, plats, desserts for one price. Or it could be entrée + plat or plat + dessert for one price, and entrée + plat + dessert for another price.
Cheese, at least a nice wedge or round with a bit of bread, usually is included in a menu. Sometimes also a small pitcher of wine, especially at lunch.
Seriously. This IS France!
On to the waiters. They are professionals. The tension is not really about them and their alleged rudeness but about diners’ expectations. What French diners expect from waiters is not at all what Americans expect.
The French waiter is not supposed to be your friend. He (and it very often is a man) is supposed to serve you. This is not rude; he’s supposed to leave you alone. He will not tell you his name; he may describe the day’s specials, but not to the extent that is fashionable in the U.S. He won’t stop by to see whether everything is OK.
But if your water pitcher is low, it probably will be whisked off the table and refilled without you asking. If you drop your napkin, a new one will appear next to your plate as if by magic. The French waiter is not a participant in your meal but an invisible guardian angel ensuring that your meal goes flawlessly.
This continues right up to the end. Because in France, especially outside big cities like Paris, your table is yours and yours only for the entire evening. You can reserve for 8, but if you show up at 7:45, they won’t say it isn’t ready yet. If you show up at 8:30, you won’t be scolded and then rushed through your meal, because another party is scheduled to take over the table at 10.
Since the French love to linger at the table, there will be a pause between courses. This is expected; the service isn’t slow because the French don’t want their dishes to arrive one right after the other. When diners finish eating, their plates stay on the table until everybody in their party has finished, so that the slow eaters don’t feel pressure to rush. And, if they don’t see anything awry at your table, the waiters won’t come unless called. This is because you have every right to stay at the table and yak with your friends until the restaurant closes, without being pressured to continue to order drinks or coffees or whatever. So when you do want to leave and pay, you have to get their attention. The easiest way is to start to leave; they’ll come quickly with the check.
I have been to restaurants in France with visitors, and they have judged the service as bad, because it didn’t meet their American expectations: the waiter didn’t chat, the waiter ignored the table (though we never needed him), dirty dishes weren’t whisked away upon the last bite, the check took forever to arrive.
The other thing is if you order something that’s not “done.” Two possibilities might ensue: First, in France and much of Europe, the customer is not always right. Sometimes the customer is sadly mistaken (not the same as wrong). Take the menu above; the last item is veal sweetbreads with a morel cream sauce and risotto. But the waiter might have seen several non-francophone diners confronted with ris when they were expecting riz, having misread the menu. And he might try to see whether you know that ris isn’t rice, even though it’s pronounced exactly the same way as riz. And you might easily take it as the waiter being rude.
Or the waiter just can’t comprehend what you want. On a family trip to Italy years ago, my brothers routinely ordered coffee with their meals. Coffee lovers, they couldn’t wait to taste a vaunted Italian venti. The waiters would nod, “sì, sì, signore,” but the coffee wouldn’t come, despite frequent pleas by my brothers. The waiters would reply something in Italian that probably meant “we didn’t forget your coffee.” Eventually, the toddlers in the group had enough of sitting still and we would rush to get the check and leave before tantrums began. And my brothers never got their coffee. Because in Italy, nobody drinks coffee with dinner; it’s for after dessert. (They finally went to a café expressly to have an espresso. “There was a little cup, about the size of a thimble,” one brother recounted. “The bottom of it was barely covered with some brown foam. But I tell, you, it was enough!”)
When we lived in New York, the Carnivore suffered grievously every time we went out to eat. It was the same problem of clashing expectations, but in reverse. Why are these waiters telling us their names? Look, here they come again! Can’t they leave us in peace? Why do they bring the main dish so quickly? They don’t give us a minute to breathe! They give us the check before we’ve even had coffee!
He would send the main course back and tell them to wait until he had finished with the appetizer (or worse, the aperitif). And he would completely lose it when we would be told we needed to finish up and get out because the next party was waiting for our table. Once, he hadn’t finished the appetizer when the main course arrived, and the waitress grabbed the appetizer plate as he was still stabbing food with his fork. He pointed out that he hadn’t finished, so she just dumped the remaining food onto the main course dish.
But what do you expect? In New York, waiters are actors or singers or some flavor of Future-Successes for whom waiting tables is unworthy of their Greatness. They play the obsequious role only up to a point, then rebel as soon as it looks like they might not get a maximum tip. In France, waiting tables is an honorable métier, paid a living wage (with health coverage and retirement, of course), worth doing for an entire career.
Also, forget about the 20% tips over here. Usually service is included, but one is polite to leave a little extra–10% would be generous.
So those French waiters aren’t ignoring you. They will know if you drop your fork before it even hits the floor and will slip you a new one before you think to ask. Their job is to work magically, without you noticing. They aren’t being slow or inefficient; they are letting you take your time.
We don’t have a food processor but we do have a special apparatus for melting a giant half-wheel of cheese. This specialty, called a raclette, dates to the Middle Ages, when shepherds set half of their round of cheese on a sone and turned the cut face toward the fire so it would get all bubbly and yummy. They would scrape off the melted part, and melt the next bit. They ate the melted cheese with bread, potatoes and dried meats.
Today, we have a large heating coil, similar to a toaster, that beams down on the cheese. You can lower the heating element as the cheese grows smaller. The cheese itself can be pulled out and tilted, for easier scraping. Raclette comes from racler, to scrape.
More common today are round appliances with little drawers (check this out: 117 choices here!). Supermarkets sell the particular cow’s milk cheese pre-sliced that’s just the right size. The heating element also heats the top, where you can cook little sausages, in what’s known as a pierrade. We also have a pierrade, but it’s a real slab of slate stone that you put a Sterno flame under, like back in the Stone Age. But that’s for another time. For one thing, it takes up most of the table. And so does the half-round of cheese. So chez nous, it’s raclette or pierrade, but not both.
We do the charcuterie.
We do the potatoes, going for little ones called grenailles (named after lead shot because of their size, about like a thumb). Managed to get a photo of a couple of leftovers.
We do the bread. Duh. We also do a big green salad with a simple shallot vinaigrette.
For dessert, we stayed with the cheese theme and had triple-chocolate cheesecake. Inspiration and recipe from French Country Cottage. However, we’d all eaten so much cheese, that the next time I will go for a lighter dessert. This one is perfect for a midafternoon snack, especially if dinner will be late, or a followup to a lighter meal.
A raclette has a nice rhythm to it, because you have pauses while waiting for the cheese to melt. The plates of cheese and all the trimmings are passed around and around, so it’s pretty convivial and relaxed.
The wine also contributes.
Years ago, the Carnivore belonged to a civic group whose winter fundraiser was a raclette. Imagine a banquet hall with a couple of these monster melters on each table of 20 or so. A very elegant, massive cheese-scraping dinner.
Speaking of convivial, the next day was gorgeous and just demanded a Sunday promenade. The entire village seemed to have the same idea. Everybody wanted to see what damage the river had done (not much–see below. Some neatly plowed gardens got a new layer of mud dumped on them. The jogging path through the woods is mostly gone. But honestly, those things belong in a flood plain, because they’re easily righted).
The most striking thing to me was the number of multigenerational groups out walking. Three generations strolling, time and again. There also were kids out alone, because we live in a time warp where kids play unsupervised, and elderly villagers, some alone and a few couples. Some parents with kids. But over and over I saw knots of five to seven people, from kids to grandparents, including aunts and uncles and cousins. And the kids included teens. How many teens do you know who go for a walk with their parents and grandparents?
The various groups would stop and chat as they crossed paths. Discussing how high the water had gotten. How it was nothing compared to ’99. Some reminiscing about the travails of that time. Then they continued on their ways.
I think about the neighborhood where I grew up, the one where my parents moved to later, where my siblings live, where friends live, and I cannot remember seeing as many people out for a walk (not a jog, solo or with a buddy, but a stroll), especially these multi-generational, extended family groups. It was like Halloween, but in broad daylight, without costumes or candy.
The French even have multiple terms for it. Se promener is to take a walk, either for exercise or distraction, while marcher is to walk (kind of the generic brand). Randonner is more hardcore, a hike. The loveliest is flâner, to walk without a goal, just for the pleasure of it.
At one garden, owned by an elderly couple, four cars were parked, taking up most of the road, but it didn’t matter because the river flows over the road there (passage à gue), and crossing wasn’t yet possible. Maybe 20 people were there, all ages, picking out stones deposited by the torrent. Clearly the extended family mobilized to help out. They weren’t grim about it. Everybody seemed to be having great fun.
I felt such affection for these neighbors, who themselves have such affection and respect for each other. J’aime la France.
Here’s the promised recipe for a neglected winter vegetable: Swiss chard, or blettes. Recipes usually treat this vitamin-rich vegetable like spinach, and that’s fine, too.
But you can take advantage of the large leaves to do something special. And of course, cream and cheese make everything delicious, right?
This is a recipe I found in a French decorating magazine before Pinterest. That means I have it ripped out and stuck in a file folder. And too bad for the magazine, because it didn’t print its name on each page, so how am I to know which of the 20 magazines I bought a decade ago was the one with this recipe?
Being a loosey-goosey gourmet, about the only thing my version has in common with the original is the idea of Swiss chard as a wrapper for a cheesy custard filling.
This is very, VERY easy but it gets lots of points for presentation. It’s a great idea for a dinner where you want to impress. Plus you can make it ahead and pop it into the oven at the last minute. And you’ll seem so cool, being somebody who actually knows how to cook with Swiss chard. And you even know the French name is blettes (pronounced blett–can it get any easier?).
Swiss Chard Pillows of Bliss
a bunch of Swiss chard
one onion, diced
20 cl (a cup) of heavy cream (whatever–our village grocery didn’t have heavy cream so we took the whole cream, and I am sure it would work with low-fat cream or even milk. Just get something from the milk family.)
a cup (about 80 g) of grated hard cheese like parmesan or gruyère
a cup (about 80 g) of nuts. The magazine says pine nuts. Around here pine nuts cost so much that they are kept behind the cash register. So we went with chopped almonds.
1 tsp of oregano (not fresh because it was raining cats and dogs–see below)
salt and pepper
chives, fresh and nice and long. Ideally. For tying up your little packages. But if you don’t have chives, don’t worry!
Preheat the oven to 120 C (250 Fahrenheit)…unless you are making ahead to serve later….it doesn’t usually take long to get an oven to just 250 F.
First, you chop the stems off the Swiss chard and dice them like the onion. Heat a skillet with a little olive oil (enough to cover the bottom) and get them started to brown softly over medium-low heat. Sprinkle with oregano, salt and pepper. Stir, then put a on lid so they don’t dry out and keep cooking them slowly so they soften.
Blanche the leaves by plunging them into a pot of boiling water for a few minutes. This will make them pliable for rolling. You want them to be flexible but still bright green. When they are ready, remove them and pour cold water on them. Then spread them out so you can stuff them.
Beat the egg and the cream in a little bowl. Pour this into the onion/stem mixture. Turn off the heat. Stir in the nuts and the cheese. You don’t need for the mixture to cook; just get it mixed.
Prepare a cookie sheet with a silicon liner or parchment paper. Put a spoon of the onion/stem/cream mixture on a leaf and then fold it up like a burrito. My blettes were on the small side, so I used the smallest leaves as wings, and wrapped the bigger ones around that and they held. No waste. If you have chives, use them like ribbon to tie up your packets.
Set them on the cookie sheet and brush with a little olive oil (I used my finger; it only takes a couple of drops).
Cook them for about 15 minutes, just enough to get warm and so the filling sets.
Vegetables aside, we had quite a week. Late Saturday, I think, it started to rain. The pace stepped up on Sunday, with lots of wind for drama. By Monday, it was pouring rain and the wind was howling and our electricity was out more than it was on.
A little nervous, I inspected the river next to our house, but it was unimpressive despite the downpour.
But Monday night, some meteorological firetruck parked in the skies above our village and let loose with water cannons. I didn’t sleep for the racket. The next day, I got a message that a package had arrived in Carcassonne. Fine–we set off to pick it up. Pulling out of our driveway, we were shocked to come almost nose to nose with the river. THIS river, that was bone dry in August. Most of the time, “river” is an exaggeration, because it’s about ankle-deep and two feet wide.
We headed to town, gasping at the water everywhere. We got our package, headed back home and found that the river had risen even further. “We’re leaving,” I said. And within half an hour we had packed up clothes and food to take to our apartments in Carcassonne, which were high and dry and with electricity and running water–in taps only.
Our village had been hit hard by floods in 1999, and everybody still talks about it. I had no desire to live through such an event with our kid. Even if our house is high enough to have escaped the 1999 flood, it was tiresome to be without electricity.
Amazingly, in Carcassonne, it wasn’t even raining. The parking lots along the Aude river, which is a real river, much bigger than the usual trickle next to our house, sometimes flood but they were dry and in no danger.
Today, the sun was out, the weather was warm and we had the windows open. And the river was way down. I haven’t been to the park or to my usual jogging route to see the effects, but I suppose they will be temporary. A big drink.
Most people think of fondue as bread dipped in hot cheese, or fruit into chocolate. But fondue bourguignonne involves cooking cubes of meat in hot oil.
The name indicates it’s a specialty of Burgundy, and those guys know gastronomy. But it’s typically French as well in the total lack of concern about a pot of hot oil on a table (and I’ve been at fondues where the table was less than stable), with a cord running between somebody’s legs and across the room, and nobody seems the least concerned that someone might trip and send boiling oil into the laps of half the diners. And the oil–vegetable oil like rapeseed–must be very hot, or else the meat doesn’t get a nice brown crust and instead comes out gray and soggy.
They are equally unconcerned about splatters. When the pot starts to thrum and gurgle, I am ready to head for the next room with a phone in hand so I can call the fire department and ambulance quickly. In Belgium 911 is 100, but in France, there’s no centralized number–you have to call fire (18) and ambulance (15) separately. Just another reason to take precautions! Also, I make sure I know where the baking soda is.
A few months ago, after the Carnivore had cooked fries, we had a hot fat incident. Fries are the Carnivore’s domain. I have never in my life cooked them, partly out of terror of deep fryers, partly out of respect for my arteries. But the Carnivore is Belgian, and Belgians are the originators of French fries. I think all 11.2 million of them carry a chip on their collective shoulder over the fact that the French got credit for fries. It’s possibly the only thing the Wallons and Flamands agree on. When I moved to Brussels many eons ago, I actually saw, during my hunt for an apartment, many kitchens with BUILT-IN FRYERS. No stove, no fridge, no dishwasher–those must be supplied by the renter–but never fear, the fryer is as integrated in the apartment as the furnace or toilet.
So the Carnivore was in charge of fries, cooking them per Belgian regulations, with blanc de boeuf, or pure white beef fat, smuggled back from his homeland. The French cook fries in oil, which sends the Carnivore into paroxysms of horror. He cooks them in cow fat to almost done, then lets them rest for two or three minutes so the grease drips out, then cooks them again to brown. The result, I must admit, is excellent. Crisp on the outside, tender on the inside. I consider fries a waste of calories that could be better spent on chocolate, but I will eat his.
We were blissfully stuffing our arteries faces when the fryer (turned off) started making strange noises. Now, our house is nothing like our rental apartments. It’s small and not grand at all and used to be the village showers, which means there was no kitchen. We stuck an open kitchen in a corner of the living room/dining room, which means it’s one of those oft-despised “great rooms,” despite its proportions being somewhat south of great.
Thanks to the layout, we were extremely aware that something was going on with the fryer, yet a reassuring distance from it. Suddenly, POW! It exploded. Grease everywhere. The wall, the ceiling, the sofa whose back butts up against the kitchen counter–a not-so-great side effect of a great room is that cooking disasters have nothing to keep them from spilling into the living room. The kitchen floor was a patinoire of blanc de boeuf.
The mess was cleaned up, and we laid off frites for a while. The incident only reinforced my conviction that anything more than a tablespoon of oil/grease at a time is a deadly enterprise.
The Carnivore’s mother, however, was known for her fondue bourguigonne, which she served at all family gatherings. This is a little like being known for one’s way with heating up frozen pizza or one’s skill at calling for takeout. With fondue bourguigonne, the host goes to the butcher to buy meat and then heats up the oil. It’s up to the diners to cook their cubes of meat themselves.
Mother-in-law passed away a few years ago, but the tradition continues: we have fondue bourguignon every year at Christmas time. It’s considered a light interlude between the Gargantuan orgies of Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, not to mention all the visits to friends and relatives in between. “Light”: cubes of beef (or chicken, because I’m nearly a vegetarian but one can’t put water-laden vegetables in fondue bourguignonne, so chicken is almost the same thing, or so goes the logic), cooked in oil and served with cold rice mixed with parsley and cream, maybe a green salad, possibly fries (yes, fries and rice, which don’t add up to fried rice) and certainly a huge array of sauces, most notably cocktail sauce (ingredients: bourbon, mayonnaise and ketchup, with proportions in that order).
Sauces are another typically Belgian thing. The French mostly content themselves with mayonnaise or tartar sauce, and sometimes, if they want to put on American airs, ketchup. But the Belgians have aïoli, Andalouse (my favorite–spicy), barbecue, béarnaise, curry, Hawaiian, Samouraï, and more (yeah, aïoli is from the south of France, but you don’t see it on the menu with fries here). There are little stands everywhere devoted to frites, the way you see ice cream trucks or taco trucks in the U.S. Except these aren’t trucks. They might be storefronts or they might be makeshift shacks on the edge of a parking lot, the smell of grease wafting down the street. Friteries seem exempt from food and building inspection. The menu of sauces is longer than the menu of dishes, which usually consist of fries, fries or mitraillette–literally a machine gun, but in this case a long sandwich with kebab meat, a liter of sauce and FRIES INSIDE THE BAGUETTE! A heart attack on a plate wrapping paper.
We had fondue bourguignon twice this holiday season. There was one mega-splatter, but luckily it hit only the empty chair of a niece who had gotten up to get something from the kitchen.
So if you have good health and home insurance, bad cooking skills and a penchant for danger, try fondue bourguigonne. Served with wine, of course!
The French saying, occupe-toi de tes oignons means “mind your own business.” This post takes the literal translation: “take care of your onions.” It’s a recipe for real French onion soup.
At my evening gym class in the village, a regular topic of conversation is food (are you surprised?), specifically, “what’s for dinner?” And the answer, especially in winter, tends to be “soupe.”
In olden times in France, and still in Belgium, Switzerland and Canada, supper is “le souper.” You can’t miss that it contains the word “soupe.” It’s probably related to the adage: Manger comme un roi le matin, comme un prince le midi et comme un pauvre le soir–Eat like a king in the morning, like a prince at noon and like a pauper in the evening. Paupers got soup.
In France, it’s more common to call dinner “le dîner,” even when soup is the main course. (Souper tends to be reserved for a really late-night meal, say post-theater.)
Many of my friends go on a soup “cure” after an excessive weekend. With the holidays coming, a cure will be needed, though this soup is anything but “lite.”
A friend of ours shared his recipe for delicious onion soup. He protested that it wasn’t a recipe at all. Everything is measured “à vue de nez,” or intuitively/approximately, also often expressed as “au pif” or by the nose.
Onion soup for a crowd (about 8 servings)
About half a stale baguette, in 3/4 inch slices. “Not too much because it gets big”
Beaucoup (about 6 cups sliced) onions. It doesn’t matter what kind the onions are. Just slice them thinly. You need a lot because, contrary to the bread, the onions shrink.
Beaucoup (about 200 grams! 7 oz.) of butter. He would have put more but that’s what was left of the stick. He originally had less, but he dropped in the rest of the stick as soon as his wife stepped away. Don’t tell!
Flour–about two tablespoons
Beaucoup (about a pound) of grated emmental or gruyère cheese
Melt the butter. Stir in the onions and cook until they get a little brown, or at least rosy. Keep stirring so they don’t burn. You’ll see the volume decrease. Don’t cover.
When they’re a light brown, sprinkle 2 tablespoons of flour over them, one spoon at a time, and work it in. Keep stirring. Let the flour brown a little so the soup gets a nice color.
Add water bit by bit. This is flexible, but he put in about 5 or 6 liters (about 5 quarts), stirring all the time.
Add salt (three pinches from a pot) and pepper (freshly ground from a mill). Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and let it simmer about 30 minutes.
While it’s simmering, toast the bread (he put it on a tray under the broiler). You want it nice and brown, so the soup has a good color. Then heat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit or 200 degrees Celsius.
Arrange the bread in a large ovenproof dish. Put down one layer, sprinkle grated cheese over it, then another layer, more cheese, etc. Don’t over fill with bread! There was sort of a pyramid of bread, with empty space around the edges of the dish.
When the onions have cooked their half hour on the stovetop, spoon them onto the bread. Then pour in the broth. Don’t overfill or it will boil over and make a mess of your oven.
Sprinkle more cheese on top.
Bake for about 30 minutes. Serve hot with fresh bread.
He said that in his native Normandy, he grew up with onion soup made with milk, but since milk was expensive (it was just after the war) they couldn’t afford to use it for a crowd. I will have to try it with milk, but with real farm milk, not UHT pasteurized homogenized stuff.
Takeout isn’t a thing in France, at least not in the New York-millions-of-menus-under-the-door sense.
Aside from pizza and Chinese food, and of course McDonald’s, restaurants don’t usually do dishes à emporter–to take away.
The French have their own forms of takeout. You just have to know where to look.
This can be especially useful if you’re renting an apartment for your vacation and you have a kitchen at your disposal. After all, it can get to be a bit much–for the budget and the waistline–to eat all one’s meals in restaurants. Not to mention that doggy bags aren’t done in France. You can’t just eat half and take the rest home for the next day.
The top place for takeout is la boucherie, or the butcher. France still has lots of small butcher shops, which often have homemade dishes on offer as well as raw meat. I counted 24 mom-and-pop boucheries in the yellow pages for Carcassonne. And if the butcher has volaille–poultry–there’s a good chance they also sell roasted chickens.
Similarly, un traiteur, or caterer, might have dishes to go, though some only do banquets. You’ll immediately see by looking in the window whether takeout is a possibility.
The supermarket usually has a wide selection of prepared dishes as well as salads. Not a salad bar kind of salads–no lettuce is involved–but grated carrots with a white vinaigrette, grated celery root, taboulé, etc. In fact, I’ve never seen a deli-style salad bar in France, though maybe they exist in bigger cities.
The outdoor markets have stands, more akin to food trucks without the truck, selling prepared dishes from couscous to paella to Chinese dishes to traditional French specialities like cassoulet and aligot–yet another form of cheesy potatoes. There are trucks whose sides open up to show rows of rotisserie chickens, with the grease dripping onto a bed of potatoes at the bottom. Good enough to make you cry!
Food trucks make the rounds, especially of villages and roundabouts, selling pizzas, quiches, crêpes, and sometimes other things. One that used to come to our village had specialties of Sète, a town on the coast.
You can get a jar of homemade cassoulet from a market vendor or, at the butcher or the indoor market, called les Halles, a bowl of homemade cassoulet big enough for three or four people, ready to pop into the oven.
The day I decided to shoot at les Halles, I arrived late–around 11:30–and many of the offerings were nearly sold out. Proof they were good!
Living in France has overturned some of my long-held principles, including but not limited to a strong opposition to mushrooms.
Growing up, mushrooms were those rubbery bits that came out of a can, often in a thick, white “cream” sauce. They squeaked when you bit them. Irredeemably revolting.
I eventually made peace with raw mushrooms, and then opened up to others. (Chanterelles? YES. Truffles? Double YES.) The variety of mushrooms here is just amazing. According to the Société Mycologique de France, the country has 1,384 edible mushroom varieties out of about 16,000 species; 514 are toxic or deadly. The society has a semi-useful chart that matches the scientific name with the common French name.
We play it safe and buy our mushrooms at the market. Our No. 1 favorite, shown in the top photo, are thelactaires, also known as roussillous or russulacées, or, more specifically, the lactaire délicieux. Yup. The Latin name is Lactarius deliciosus, so it’s official.
If you think the name sounds related to milk, you are right–they emit a milky substance when the cap or spores are broken. Since the name of the Milky Way in French is la voie lactée, somehow my mind puts these mushrooms amid the stars, which I find fitting, because they are heaven on a plate.
There are a couple of ways to cook lactaires: straight up in butter or in a persillade of chopped parsley, garlic and butter. Here’s how:
Step 1: Clean them. You might notice that the wild mushrooms pictured above have pine needles and grass and dirt on them. Wipe off the tops with a damp paper towel and gently brush the underneath. Be gentle! Set them out to dry.
Step 2: cut off the bottoms of the stems. You can chop up the rest of the steps to cook.
Step 3.: Make your persillade, if you’re going that route: Finely chop a small bunch of parsley and a couple of garlic cloves.
Step 4: Melt some butter (don’t be stingy) in a frying pan over medium heat. Prepare yourself for amazing fragrance. They smell a little like a white cake baking. They don’t taste sweet, but the flavor is delicate. Cook stem-side up. Don’t turn.
They’re done when they’re hot and have browned ever so slightly. We had them with pan-fried steak, roasted tomatoes (we still get garden tomatoes!) and little grenaille potatoes.
What you see in the pan above set us back about €4 (they were €13 per kilo, down from €14 the week before).
And now for a few beautiful, but not-for-humans, mushroom marvels:
The next one looked for all the world like a Thumbelina version of a chopped-down tree:
This one was also very flat, but the top glowed translucent, like polished stone:
While these might not be comestible, it looked like somebody had been nibbling:
Cabanel is a cathedral of alcoholic beverages. This Carcassonne institution not only sells everything imaginable from around the world, but also makes its own spirits. Founded in 1868 by Joseph Cabanel, it’s been in the same Belle Epoque building since 1905, making it not just a shop but practically a museum, or a step back in time.
Its signature product is micheline, which supposedly dates to the fourth century as a potion for eternal youth. Like other spirits, it originally was for medicinal purposes, and contains lemon balm, nutmeg, cardamon and many other spices. A framed box shows the different ingredients.
Other specialities of the house include Kina, an apéritif made of plants, including the cinchona bark, which is the source of quinine, and spices. Cabanel also makes Or-Kina (gold Kina), crème de noix (walnut liqueur) and Carcasso (walnut wine) among others. Today, they’re distilled on the premises by Jean-Marc Gazel. Another regional specialty is cartagène, a vin de liqueur, or wine of liqueur, drunk as as an apéritif. (Below, hover over the pictures for the explanation.)
Carcasso, a walnut apéritif.
Rigolo…the name means funny. It’s a vermouth.
Syrups, from left: mint, grenadine and lemon.
Dolin is a vermouth from Chambéry, France.
Mint cream liqueur.
This is a boutique to spend time in. The counter stands in the middle of the shop, as was the custom at the turn of the last century. A glass window separating the shop from the office has an opening marked “Caisse/Reseignements“–cashier and information.
The owners are more than happy to explain the different alcohols and liqueurs, from the ingredients to the history. It was fascinating. Did you know that alcohol comes from the Arabic word “al kohl,” or the metallic powder used to darken eyelids and provide relief from the sun?
A fountain in the corner.
The shop is full of cool old stuff, like the first phone they had–still with the same phone number, and many old photos.
I apologize for the rotten quality of the photos. I went in on a dark, rainy day and didn’t use a flash. Plus I can’t see a darn thing with or without glasses, much less in the gloom, much less on a little screen. My bad. I took the outside shots on a better day.
Cabanel is located at 72 allée d’Iéna, just south (uphill) of the Bastide. Don’t miss it!
How do you say “whipping cream” or “heavy cream” in French?
I had tried with crème fraîche épaisse, but that didn’t work. I forget what the recipe was, but my cream didn’t rise no matter how hard I whipped. In fact, we ended up with butter (and it was delicious).
Crème fraîche épaisse (thick fresh cream)is similar to sour cream, though not quite as sour. And it comes in full fat–entière–or light–légère. Sometimes even lighter than light. Usually it’s in a tub, but we recently saw it in these soft packages.
Then there’s crème fraîche liquide (liquid fresh cream), but it can have a wide variety of fat content, even when it’s entière. The one for whipping is labeled fleurette.
I cannot believe it took me this long to discover but there is actually a star system for crème fraîche.
Is it good for a sauce in a poêle (saucepan), or is it better in the four (oven)? Or for chantilly (whipped cream)? Four stars for whipped cream–bingo.
The dairy products section of a French supermarket is vast. There’s an entire aisle for yogurt, and sometimes two for cheese. Milk, however, tends to be sold in UHT (ultra-high temperature) packages that don’t need to be refrigerated. Crème fraîche also is available in UHT packages. The fresh crème fraîche section usually is near the butter.
There’s a sweet song about whipped cream that’s usually sung as a round (canon in French). While anglophone kids grow up singing “row, row, row the boat,” French kids sing an ode to whipped cream. That kind of sums things up. Here’s an adorable video of three teachers trying to herd cats direct a choir of little ones. Maybe you can detect the melody.
Battez la crème, Battez la crème, Battez la crème, Battez la crème De la crème fraîche que l’on fouette gaiement Parfum vanille, un peu de sucre blanc On l’aime à la folie, la crème chantilly
Beat the cream, beat the cream, beat the cream, beat the cream Some fresh cream that we whip gaily Vanilla flavor, a little white sugar We love it crazily, the whipped cream