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

My First Cheese Course

Ladies first! But be careful who you trust.

epoisses

My wife Val and I had just moved to Switzerland, to the French-speaking canton of Neuchâtel. Switzerland is a beautiful and civilized country, but it was still a shock – new jobs, new language, new customs. Who knew that you had to buy special “weasel insurance” for your car?

After a month of settling into our jobs, we were pleased to see a long weekend coming up. “Let’s go somewhere!” we said to each other. “How about Burgundy?”

Burgundy was only a three-hour drive away, so off we went to visit the fabled vineyards and wineries. And why not try some fine dining while we were at it? After all, we had been subsisting mostly on frozen meals from the local Migros supermarket.

We booked a table at Le Cep, a famous restaurant in Beaune, which boasted a Michelin star. The meal started at 8pm and would go until almost midnight. Course after course of wonderful food arrived. We were stuffed! But then they wheeled out the cheese cart.

This was our first experience with a cheese course and Le Cep’s cart was the biggest we have ever seen, before or since. It looked like an aircraft carrier, topped with dozens of different cheeses. Without labels, of course.

The waiter indicated that we should choose what we would like. We were flummoxed, as our knowledge of cheese was very limited back then. Monterey Jack, Cheddar and Parmesan pretty much covered it.

Luckily for me, the lady chooses first in France. I would let Val sort it out and follow her lead.

Val, always clever, explained that we were new to this game and would the waiter please recommend a nice selection? Which he kindly did, choosing seven different cheeses and making a circle of them around her plate. He told Val that she should start with number one and work her way around to number seven.

I asked for the same selection and soon we were munching happily away. The cheeses were delicious! The first was a mild chevre and the others got progressively fuller-bodied.

Val eats faster than I do and she was the first to taste cheese number seven. She smiled with pleasure and said, “Oh, this is good. Take a big bite!”

I should have known better.

Have you ever eaten Époisses? It’s a cheese from Burgundy and incredibly strong. It’s usually described as “pungent” – now there’s a word! It sears the inside of your mouth so that you can’t taste anything else afterwords.

Yes, cheese number seven was an Époisses. This is definitely not something you take a big bite of.

I love Époisses now but let’s just say it’s an acquired taste. And I had not yet acquired it. So as I took a gigantic bite and started chewing, my eyes began watering and I urgently looked for a way to spit it out.

But here we were in Le Cep, an elegant Michelin-starred restaurant and that’s just not done. So I wiped my eyes and kept chewing while Val covered her mouth and tried not to giggle too loudly.

I survived that episode and we laugh about it today. And I got my revenge when we went to a wine tasting a few weeks later.

But that’s another story.

The Power of Cheese to Sway French Elections

runny-cheeseElections are different in France.

A few years ago my wife and I were there during the election for seats in the European Parliament. About a dozen political parties had slates of candidates running.

A few days before the election, the conservative party had a televised rally to fire up the troops and get out the vote. We decided to watch it, figuring it would give us insight into the important political issues of the day. Plus it would be good for our French.

Most of the speeches were boring, with the usual applause lines. There were shout-outs to dignitaries in the audience, potshots at the competition, promises to lead France boldly into the future. The crowd clapped politely but there wasn’t a lot of real enthusiasm.

Then things got exciting.

The final speaker was wrapping up his speech and wanted to go out on a high note. “We will work together with the European Union on initiatives like the electric car,” he thundered, “but we will defend ourselves against those bureaucrats in Brussels when it comes to important French interests like”…(dramatic pause)…”RAW MILK CHEESE!”

Suddenly, the crowd went wild, cheering and stamping their feet, throwing things in the air. It was like Charles de Gaulle had just liberated Paris from the Nazis or something.

My wife turned to me. “Did he really say raw milk cheese?” she asked. “That’s crazy!”

The next day we asked some French friends about this. It’s true, they said, and they were outraged. They explained that there was a move afoot to force cheese makers across Europe to pasteurize their milk. “This will make the cheese tasteless!” they cried. “Tasteless food – the English must be behind it! “

Sometimes it is in the most unlikely places that you find what really moves French hearts.

A few days later the results came in and the conservative party was the big winner. They far outperformed the pre-election polls.

Never underestimate the power of cheese.