Gypsy Grub

A fine food enthusiast travels the world, and her own backyard in search of the best eats.

Month: January, 2013

Eating in a French Home

Part 2

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

First Times

Part 1

En France I knew I would have a lot of first experiences, and this entry only covers the first of the first. Of course some important firsts are not noted here because a camera was not accessible, or it would have been impolite to take a photograph . I respect the ways of the French, and whole heartedly am attempting to become one.

On my first visit into the city of Paris I was lucky enough to see the Christmas market on the Champs- Elysees. Beautiful twinkle lights glow in the dark around the market, and warm aromatic booths line the streets and promise to comfort you in the chilly weather. It was at one of these booths I tried my first ever Canelle which both delighted and confused me. The outside was firm and caramelized like the texture of the outside of a doughnut. The inside was the texture of a doughy flan, and together it made the perfect sweet bite. The Canelle is a specialty of Bordeaux and is made from five simple ingredients; vanilla, sugar, milk, egg, and rum flavored flour. It is a complex pastry to make, but can be found in many bakeries throughout Paris. The Canelle (or Cannele) can be eaten as a sweet treat alone, but is traditionally eaten with a drink; cocktails or syrupy wines. Usually in France a food item is pared with a special wine so the two can play off of each other’s complex flavors. However, this is not so with the Canelle, the flavor and type of drink does not matter seeing as it goes with both tea and red wine equally as well.

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A week after the first visit, I had the opportunity to venture into Paris once again where I had the first French crepe of my current stay. It was at a small cafe, and I was looking only for a meal to satisfy my belly’s moans, and not to satisfy my gourmand cravings. It was a savory buckwheat crepe with cheese, mushrooms and an egg inside. I did not find it to be at the high French-food standard, but nonetheless it filled me.

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One of the best charms of France are the street side markets. There is something in the air that makes them feel different from the farmers markets at home. The produce at this time is not at its best because of the weather, but the appeal is still all there. French produce promises a world of color and elegance that while false in its taste, is ever present in the culture.

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In order to immerse yourself in the culture of France it is vital to visit a boulangerie frequently. Yes, this comes with the common question “how do the French eat so much bread and stay so trim?” but that question is very complex and will be addressed in depth in another segment. Believe the cosmos when I tell you it is essential to eat frequently at the bakery not only because they are delicious and freshly made, but also because they are an inexpensive way to eat a filling breakfast. I recently was told it is not considered acceptable to buy a pastry at a bakery and then bring it into a cafe to eat it unless you are the only one in the cafe.

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Primary Culture Shock

I arrived to my hosts home on New Years Eve and therefore walked into a huge French party. Contrary to the classic American party where a newcomer arrives and everyone fake smiles half ignores them I was warmly welcomed and invited into their party. When I arrived not only was I welcome, but I was the focus of the party I was loved I was admired and I was most certainly happy to be there (despite the fact I had not slept in days). After being offered oysters I immediately retreated into my bedroom and fell fast asleep despite the booming music.

The next morning I awoke to strangers faces of delight to see me. Since this has never happened before and will likely never happen again as long as my home is America, I was quite astonished and a little self satisfied. For lunch there was bread, foie gras, an abundance of champagne and marinated shrimp with lychee. This last combination startled me at first but absolutely delighted every part of me. After a bit of champagne and a bit of coaxing I shamefully made my way for the foie gras. I am truly an animal rights activist, and at home I hardly eat any animal products. Therefore I painfully say that I enjoy every single moment it melted on my tongue. Next thing I knew everyone was up and dancing around unashamed proud and a little tipsy, and all I could think was that my time here would truly be well spent.

Kisses make me blush. Its a fact, and although I want to embrace the part of me that is a fun loving unembarrassed outgoing woman, I can’t help when someone kisses me to turn the color of a bad sunburn. Its humiliating; that feeling when you know its coming, the color rises to your face, cheeks get hot and the fact that your blushing makes everything twice as humiliating. Well the first twenty times I was “said hello to” (in France this entails a kiss on each cheek) I became a young girl who had just talked to her crush – in other words, I blushed. So much so and so often that people began to ask me if they should stop kissing me. If before my color had been a light sunburn it was now beet red, and came with a pounding feeling of guilt. Therefore I insisted that they continue to do it seeing as I was attempting (obviously rather desperately) to integrate myself completely into the French culture.

Speaking of blushing, whilst in the airport I had a pleasant encounter with a French boy at security. It was brief, but was my first French encounter. He was handing out bags to put liquids in for the plane ride, and I walked by and he asked if I had makeup. I said “no” and he replied “your right you don’t need make up you look better without it anyways.” The second after I had answered his question I realized that in fact I did have makeup – but after such a statement he had made, I would have to be a complete idiot to go back. As one could imagine I held up the whole line at security while they had to empty all my bags and look for the liquids.

Arrived in France

My first flight took me to London, Heathrow where I had a five hour layover. And trust me, it was one of the hardest five hours of my life, not sure if the airport was on wheels sliding down a hilly terrain, and unsure if the people where actually turning into just body – less floating heads I wandered the airport waiting for the “departures’ screen to show the gate my plane would be at. And I waited… and waited, and then my worst enemy flashed on the screen – the word ‘delayed’. So now rainbows where popping out of trashcans and it was raining indoors and I had to wait longer. Plus the people who where suppose to take me home were going to be worried.

After what felt like weeks, but was actually five minutes the beautiful little number under the heading ‘Gate’ flashed to A8 and I was off. While waiting to enter the plane this very stylish woman approached me and began a conversation in French with me. I made it through the first minute simply by acting confident (or what I thought was confidence in a sleepy daze). I probably came off drunk, but she was kind and spoke English well. My seat was beside a very distinguished French couple who I am sure were talking about how drunk and disorderly I seemed. I swam in and out of consciousness until I saw on the old fashioned airplane TV screen that we were only 30 miles away from my destination. I quickly got myself together and prepared for landing. I dragged my thousand pound bags to customs and went to meet my people.

Driving through the streets of Paris I remembered what I wanted my life to be about. I wanted this – more than the comfort that home gives you I wanted to be uncomfortable in a very foreign place with people who did not know me. There is something in being so lost you have nothing to hold onto but who you think you are. And so even then you question who you really are without anything and you get down to the real raw you.

So let me bring you with me to France, let me take you through the charming streets, and introduce you to the people, and let me delight your taste buds and fill them with phantom flavor for a while.