Secrets of Bouillabaisse

Bouillabaisse is one of those magical dishes that seems to capture the spirit of Provence. So when our friend Pascal, a retired chef, invited us over for homemade bouillabaisse, we came running.

Besides serving us a magnificent meal, Pascal shared some of his secrets. Like where the name comes from. And what kind of spices to use. And what to NEVER do when preparing bouillabaisse.

You can read my story about our dinner on page 106 of The Good Life France Magazine’s Autumn Issue.

Nutella: The Key to French Greatness?

Americans love peanut butter, just as Australians love Vegemite, and Brits love Marmite. We all have our national favorites.

For the French it’s Nutella, that sweet chocolate-hazelnut spread that kids grow up eating at breakfast. So it was shocking when French philosopher Régis Debray attacked Nutella , causing a national uproar. He might as well have gone after motherhood and the 35-hour workweek while he was at it.

Author and professor Mara Goyet responded with an essay explaining the ways in which Nutella is, in fact, at the very heart of French civilization. It’s very insightful and…hilarious!

You can read the full article at Frenchly.

The Best Value Wine in France? (and a secret picnic spot)

Just ten minutes from one of France’s most famous sites, the Roman aqueduct Pont du Gard, sits the tiny village of Estézargues.  There’s not much there – no charming cafés or famous monuments.  But on the edge of town you can find some astonishingly good wine— wine that you might consider the best value wine in France!

You can read the full article at France Travel Tips.

Benvengudo means Welcome

Just below the famous hilltop fortress of Les Baux sits the boutique luxury hotel Benvengudo.  The name means “welcome” in the local language and it couldn’t be more appropriate.

Walking onto the manicured grounds of Benvengudo is like stepping back in time, to a more simple and gracious era.  The hotel provides a rare mix of traditional and modern, and you’ll be reluctant to leave when your stay is over.  You’ll ask yourself – can’t we linger just a bit longer?

Benvengudo began fifty years ago as a simple, four-room country inn and restaurant, built by Daniel and Maryse Beaupied.  Daniel had trained as a chef under the legendary Paul Bocuse before earning a Michelin star of his own.

You can read more about Benvengudo here.

Going to the Butcher in France

A French town without a baker – can you imagine such a thing? Everyone would move away!

A butcher is almost as important to French village life. The butcher will sell the usual roasts and chops and chickens, as well as a variety of prepared foods. These really help when you are hosting a dinner party or are too busy to cook.

My wife Val and I live part of the year in St.-Rémy-de-Provence, a charming town between Arles and Avignon. We love going to our favorite butcher shop, a place that has been serving the good people of St.-Rémy for decades.

It is run by a husband and wife who take great care in the quality of their products and service. When you order a piece of meat, the butcher will ask you how you plan to prepare it. Then he will slice off any extra fat, trim around the bone and cut it into the size you want.

If you want hamburger, he will take a piece of beef, run it through his grinder and form it for you. Burger by burger.

Our butcher offers many things fait maison (home made) like patés, ratatouille, stuffed vegetables, salamis, and at least four kinds of sausage. The butcher’s wife dishes out the prepared items and runs the register while the butcher handles all the cutting.

Photo by Jusben at Morguefile.com

We love shopping there because the butcher takes the time to chat with every customer – waiting in line is kind of a free French lesson. How is the family? Are your bunions bothering you? How will you prepare the stew? For how many people? Do you salt your food? Here’s what my doctor says about salting food. Let me tell you, your husband puts too much salt on his food (then the butcher’s wife adds in that all husbands salt their food too much.)

It’s like watching a French sitcom.

Sometimes the phone rings and the butcher answers it – it’s usually an order for a big meal. This leads to a long discussion between the person on the phone and the butcher and his wife. How many people do they need to feed? What spices will they use? Should they pick it up at 11:00? No, maybe 12:00. No, 11:00 would be better. Okay, they’ll come at 12:00.

Once we went to the butcher to get a gigot d’agneau (leg of lamb.) We were having some friends over and figured a gigot would be easy to make in advance and would feed a large group.

We explained what we wanted. For how many people, the butcher asked. Ah, the gigot in my case is not large enough for your dinner for ten, he said.

So off he went to the back to get a larger one. He appeared two minutes later, not with a larger leg but carrying the entire back half of a lamb. Oh, my. But at least the wool had been removed.

This doesn’t happen where we live in California.

The butcher turned on his electric saw and in a couple of minutes the lamb was cut in half, feet removed, trimmed of excess fat, deboned, and tied with string.

Then came the cooking discussion. How were we preparing it? Our marinade and roasting met with his approval, but under no circumstances were we to use a temperature higher than 180 degrees Celsius. The butcher looked at us gravely to make sure we understood this important point.

And did we want the bones he had just removed? We should place them next to the lamb, cover them with some olive oil and butter, and add a full head of garlic, herbes de Provence, and salt. It would make a nice jus for the meat. This kind of advice is common in France.

If you are in a hurry, don’t go to a French butcher because you’ll be there for at least a half an hour. But if you do, the food will be delicious and the floorshow can’t be beat.

Gluten-Free meets Gastronomy

How many great gluten-free restaurants are there?  I mean, really great?

The answer is…not very many.

And how many have won a coveted Michelin star?

That’s easy – just one.  L’Auberge la Fenière in Provence is not only one of the world’s great restaurants, it recently became totally gluten free.  And, oh my, is the food delicious.

You can read more about it here.

 

Secrets of St.-Rémy: Best Fruits and Vegetables

One of the glories of Provence is the fresh produce. And in St.-Rémy, the best place to get it is at the Wednesday market. Every week, dozens of vendors set up shop throughout the charming town center, selling fruits, vegetables, olives, cheeses, lavender – you name it. It is one of the best markets in Provence and a lot of fun.

But what about the other six days of the week? Where do the St.-Rémois shop?

Here’s their secret – Le Jardin des Alpilles at 8 Avenue Frédéric Mistral. It’s an unassuming place but the produce can’t be beat, with much of it coming from local farmers. And it’s open seven days a week!

We went there today and here’s some of what we found.

If you are staying in a place where you can cook, or if you just want some succulent fruit to enjoy during the day, it’s a great place to stock up.

And what’s better than a picnic in Provence? You can get everything you need here – breads, cheeses, olives, snacks and a nice selection of local wines.

For those of you on the other side of the Alpillles, there is a sister store in Maussane-les-Alpilles with an equally great selection.

Bon appetit!

For more information: http://tinyurl.com/m6bdech

Classic French Dinner Party – The Easy French Way

Before I moved to France, I thought that French dinner parties were formal affairs with too many forks.  I imagined elegantly dressed people sipping Champagne and discussing Molière.  And with all those complicated courses, I figured it must take days to prepare the food. Then I met actual French people and learned that it’s not like that at all.  In fact, it’s easy to put on a dinner party the French way.

Let’s see how it’s done.

The Ritual

A typical French dinner party follows a standard formula:

Aperitif
Entrée (starter)
Plat principal (main course)
Cheese and salad
Dessert
Coffee

Let’s take these one at a time.

Aperitif

This is where everyone relaxes and starts the evening, usually in the living room or on the patio. Wine is served – often a simple white or rosé – along with some munchies. These can be something like a bowl of olives, some peanuts, maybe tapenade spread on little toasts. It’s nothing complicated – the focus is on conviviality, not haute cuisine.

Find some fabulous French aperitif recipes here.

Entrée

This is usually a simple dish like soup, a quiche, or a shrimp cocktail. And many hosts make their lives easier by buying it at the store. There are so many delicious prepared foods in France, why not take advantage of them?  And in the US, lots of stores have deli sections with tasty dishes that will do the trick. Recipe for a delicious French onion soup here.

Plat Principal

This might be roast lamb with potatoes (great recipe in the spring issue of The Good Life France magazine – it’s free to read online/download/subscribe), a baked fish, or a stew of some kind. Plus a vegetable.  Ok, it takes some work.  But it may be the only course that is cooked by the hosts.

And don’t forget the bread. A few crispy French baguettes and everyone is happy.

Cheese and Salad

This could hardly be easier – go to your local cheese shop or deli, pick out a few favorites and put them on a plate. Make a green salad with vinaigrette, cut up a baguette and voilà.

Dessert

This is usually bought from the local baker. French bakeries are so wonderful, how can you resist? Fruit tarts are especially good in summer and fall. Also popular is getting a selection of individually-sized desserts and letting everyone pick their own. If you’re not in France, you’re bound to have a favourite cake shop where you can get something to delight your guests. Let the baker do the work!

Coffee

This is the time to get up, stretch your legs and move to the living room.  And all you have to do is put on a pot of coffee or tea.  If you want to fancy it up a bit you can open a box of chocolates, but it’s not necessary.

And Don’t Forget the Wine

No French dinner party would be complete without wine, and France has an incredible selection of delicious, moderately priced bottles.  So get a few of those.  If you are in the US, go to your favorite wine shop and get something good and reasonably priced.  Sure, you can serve a grand cru on a special occasion, but there’s no need to break the bank.  As the French say, the best bottle of wine is one that you enjoy with friends.

So there you have it – a classic, six-course French meal with only one course that takes much work.  If you have plenty of time and like to cook, you can prepare everything yourself.  But take it from the French, buy most of the courses, keep it simple and spend more time with your friends.

Cheesy Lessons

Photo by MaxStraeten at Morguefile.com

The Good Life France is a great blog about all things French. They also do a quarterly magazine – check out the current issue for my article on what I’ve learned about French cheese (page 88.)  You can also enter your name to win a copy of my book (page 86.)

You can check out the magazine here