Living with a French family is as good as it gets. Yes, exploring France as a tourist exposes you to the ways of the French, but being a part of the complex entanglements of a family lets you experience not only the personal, but the inside scoop on all things French.
The eating habits of the French have baffled me more than I expected. I was most shocked by their lack of nutritional knowledge and their poor eating habits. Regularly I am a nuts and berries – juice cleanse type of person. I was brought up on nori, brewers yeast and prunes and therefore was unaccustomed to the traditional assumption that Americans eat Wonder Bread, burgers, and Twinkies. The fridge and pantry of the average American and average French family looks fairly similar. I will go into more detail – on the various courses of food the French consume as opposed to the one course meal American families tend to eat – another time.
Also, contrary to many books I read before coming to France, not all French women know how to cook well. They are just like everyone else, and use recipes as references (then add cups of Crème Fraiche). Yes, Crème Fraiche is a constant food staple in the French diet along with the baguette. I have found that most cultures have certain flavors that define their preference, and don’t steer away from those familiar tastes.
So lets talk fire. I have been cooking rather regularly for this French family in order to give thanks to them for allowing me to experience their way of life for a while. Since this change of events, they seem to have been inspired by me, and have began cooking often themselves (and then waiting for my approval). They seem to be enchanted by the suspense (the time between when I am served a dish, and when I have consumed it) and like to hear what I think. Of course I do not critique as if I were at a restaurant because truly, who wants to spoil relationships over food.
I was fortunate enough to be present this night when a recipe was conjured up from imagination and put into practice with a show included. Here we have flamed duck (with cognac) and black pepper sauce.
Shamefully I must admit, I had never had duck before. I had heard and read many things about the infamous meat, and was unsure who I trusted to cook it for me. Because ducks are birds of the water, they have a thick layer of fat between their skin and meat in order to keep their heat insulated. This layer fat is well known and often disputed about in the culinary world. Most chefs see it as a beautiful thing, but often times customers are more unwilling to consume it.
In the French household there is always and I mean always a baguette on the table. If for some bizarre reason there was a freak accident and a baguette shortage I do believe that every French native would give up on life, and refuse to eat until the baguette returned. If there was not enough time to head to the boulangerie in the morning, they do so in the evening, if the boulangerie is closed, they walk to a distant one all to get a long crusty piece of bread. Ok, I am not giving the “long crusty piece of bread enough credit here.” Yes, I admit a good baguette is a simple delight in life. But contrary to popular (foreigner) belief, a good baguette is hard to find, and most bakeries use pre-made dough which makes for a bland and dry baguette. Thankfully the baguette next to my home is the best I have had and makes their dough from scratch each morning.
An average French dinner looks like this. There is always a vegetable (of sorts) on the table, usually as an entree (appetizer) and always a baguette. The most frequent vegetable served is lettuce in a salad. Their salads are far more simple than any ones I have tried throughout my life, and are only lettuce and vinaigrette. Once I asked if I could add anything else to the salad and they seemed to be very confused, so I dropped the subject. Endives also play a big role in France, they are cut up and made into their own salad, never mixed in with lettuce and also only accompanied with vinaigrette. More often than not there is a small variety of wines to choose from depending on what you are trying to pair it with. Then for the main, there is usually a starch or meat, and sometimes both.
As I have been told many many times by French men; the wine is the most important part of the meal. Next, comes the baguette and then everything else. The duck sauce was finished with spoonful after spoonful of crème fraiche which made me cringe after seeing such a huge amount of fat on the meat. There were also mashed potatoes which they call “potato puree” and two other pureed vegetables. I have found that they are very keen on pureed carrot, and pureed spinach which personally I find less visually appealing than looking at a bathroom floor. Nevertheless the meal turned out to be marvelous and the duck was especially perfect. It was cooked just right, flavored well and creamy enough to make me crave it for the next year.