The Displaced Nation

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Tag Archives: French cuisine

Bon appétit, really? A TCK’s encounter with French cuisine — and culture

Our Third Culture Kid columnist, Charlotte Day, regales us with stories of encounters with France and French cuisine that piqued her curiosity somewhat more than her palate.

My experience of France and of French food consists of a miserable trip to Paris and the Loire Valley with my mother and stepfather in cold, drizzly March, and an even more miserable language exchange to Lyon last February.

The first experience saw us through innumerable cafés au lait, pains au chocolat and frothy miracles of haute cuisine in the Loire Valley. Afterwards, my mother went on her first raw food diet.

The second was a mandatory school trip for all French-language students at my boarding school in England, which I faced with more optimism than most. Two weeks in Lyon, two weeks back in England, dramatic language improvement and cultural interchange — why ever not?

From the moment we boarded the Eurostar, however, things did not look promising. Two boys arrived sporting Union Jacks and carrying paper cut-outs of Wills and Kate. The rest had already scoured their exchange partners’ Facebook pages and resolved to dislike them.

I suppose I ought to have anticipated this Anglo-French clash, given the historical precedents. Yet the English contingent’s narrow-mindedness unsettled me.

Yes, we were sacrificing a holiday to spend two weeks with a stranger. But their genuine unwillingness to learn, Anglo-supremacist attitude and lack of curiosity were a little disturbing.

As we descended into the arrivals hall of Lyon Part-Dieu station, the smiles of expectant correspondents ought to have rebuffed the querulous English students. Yet each went through his or her initial greeting with as pronounced an English accent as possible.

You are what you eat

My exchange partner and her mother drove me back to their beautiful old farmhouse, in a village known for horse breeding. My bedroom was large and warm, my French not as bad as I’d feared it to be.

And yet one anxiety still plagued me: sustaining a gluten-and-dairy-free diet in England was sufficiently difficult, but in France, I imagined, next to impossible. I sat in my room, weighing the relative merits of two weeks’ stomach cramps against starvation — and how to explain in French the effects of wheat, barley and rye on the small intestine?

What I found in the dining room occasioned raw joy: steamed vegetables, fish and salad. Likewise in the kitchen: a refrigerator shelf full of yahourt au soja. To their question “Ça marche?” I would have poured forth encomiums had I mastered a suitable vocabulary set. But I could not move beyond “Oui, c’est fantastique” before we sat down to eat.

This first meal was to be the most talkative of my two-week sojourn. As the breakfasts and dinners succeeded one another in an endless cortège of fresh fruit, perfectly steamed broccoli and silence, I felt that either starvation or stomach cramps around a more convivial table would have been preferable.

My exchange partner was kind, but icy. Her fastidious and sparing eating habits made me feel a glutton in comparison. Her mother ate protein powder in yoghurt more often than a solid meal. Eventually, my mornings were characterized by a solitary repast of fruit salad — no one else seemed to be eating.

Ghosts at the feast

The occasional apparition flitted around the dinner table — some closer to human form than others. The first was Pierre, the former lover of my exchange’s mother, with whom she was still sharing living expenses. He was tall and corpulent with a thunderous voice. She had cast him from her life — but only driven him out as far as the other end of the house, where he entrenched himself in a study strewn with half-smoked cigars.

At least he ate like a Frenchman — belonged to the cult of taste, before that of health. Yet he vanished soon after his first appearance, driving off to see his mother in a neighboring town. He returned after five days, at two o’clock one morning, and left again the next day.

The second apparition was my exchange partner’s boyfriend, Samson — a thin, pale young man with an unruly mass of curls; a maths prodigy who’d set his sights on attending one of the grandes écoles.

Samson, too, was slightly less given to subsist on lettuce and pumpkin seeds. My exchange partner lovingly provided him with a baguette and chocolate — which he would munch while explaining to me the superiority of the French educational system.

He cross-examined me on my plans for the future. I had got as far as a spectral PhD in Russian Literature, when he stopped me with a shocking rejoinder:

Il faut réfléchir, Charlotte! La vie est sérieuse. (In essence: “Life will pass you by before you have accomplished anything.”)

I refrained from pointing out that he had not planned beyond the classes préparatoires, or prépas — two hellishly difficult years spent preparing for university entrance tests. Instinctively, I commended his ambition and drive — yet felt him ill qualified to condemn my lack of perspective given his own determination to sacrifice two years of his youth to a virtually unattainable goal.

My tryst with moules frites

Midway through my stay, our funereal meals were interrupted by my exchange’s mother taking us on her weekend-long tryst in Brussels. She’d discovered that a childhood sweetheart was living in Belgium’s capital, and over the past months, they’d re-cultivated their relations. My exchange and I were invited along as third and fourth wheels.

José, the new lover, was almost as much the gourmand as Pierre, his predecessor.

Yet of his guests, I was the only one who ate at all.

Our meals together included lunch in a traditional Belgian restaurant, where I unadvisedly ordered moules-frites without the butter, causing a scandal in the kitchen.

We had Thai for dinner — a first for my partner and her mother — after which I turned around to see the latter and José kissing passionately on the curb.

Resolving to see something of Brussels at all costs, I accompanied the couple on a walk to the markets, while my partner sat sullenly in José’s penthouse apartment. There, I stared mournfully at beautifully packaged jams, cheeses and Breton biscuits — knowing that we were to leave for Lyon that evening, where another week of salad and silence awaited.

I returned to England appreciably thinner, with an improved French accent and a block of Belgian chocolate for my mother.

Though my experience of France did not come floating in butter, it was more French than I could ever have anticipated.

Readers, any questions or suggestions for Charlotte, should she have any future encounters with France?

img: Charlotte Day surveying Trafalgar Square in London.

STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, offering a few last-minute Halloween costume suggestions for Displaced Nation citizens.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe to The Displaced Dispatch, a weekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation, plus some extras such as seasonal recipes and occasional book giveaways. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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A Julia Child for our times: Expat author & French cookery expert Elizabeth Bard

Et voila. In a little less than a month, The Displaced Nation has gone from reminiscing over American expat in France Julia Child to engaging with American expat in France Elizabeth Bard.

Move over Julie Powell. At a pace rather like a simmering le Creuset pot of Child’s signature boeuf bourguignon, Bard is on the way to becoming the 21st-century’s answer to that towering figure of 20th-century cuisine Française.

The similarities between the two women are intriguing. Child went to France as a trailing spouse for an American diplomat. Bard went to France trailing a Frenchman.

Child was seduced by France. She found herself through French cuisine. Bard was seduced by France (after being seduced by a Frenchman). She found a way into French culture through the markets and cooking — and found herself in the process.

On this point, the line between the two women gets a little blurry. Which one, Child or Bard, said the following:

More than the museums, more than the ancient streets, these stalls of fruits and vegetables and spices were the Paris that inspired me.

As everyone knows, Child returned to the United States to launch a career in television. Whereas Bard has become a long-term resident of France — and has launched a brilliant writing career with the publication of Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes, a New York Times and international bestseller, a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” pick, and the recipient of the 2010 Gourmand World Cookbook Award for Best First Cookbook. NOTE: We are giving away copies to two lucky DISPLACED DISPATCH subscribers. Sign up today!

Child inspired Julie Powell to make all of her recipes. Bard has inspired, among others, two Displaced Nation writers — myself and Anthony Windram — to try out her recipes.

But here the comparison ends. A key difference is that Bard’s recipes are nowhere near as difficult as Child’s — which is exactly what makes Bard so perfect for our times. She’s approachable, and her cooking suggestions are doable. She also has a rich life outside cooking — the life of a woman who has displaced herself into another culture — and enjoys sharing that part of her story as well.

Mesdames et Messieurs, I would now like to offer you the fruits (not to mention veggies) of my exchange with expat author, chef and lifestyle muse Elizabeth Bard.

Tell me a little more about your background.
I grew up in Northern New Jersey and spent weekends with my father in New York City. I studied English Lit as an undergrad at Cornell, then art history at Christie’s and the Courtauld Institute in London. My dream was to be the chief curator of the Pierpont Morgan Library in Manhattan. I was always convinced I’d been born in the wrong century. I love old objects, lost worlds, so, of course, I was instantly seduced by Paris (and of course, my French husband).

Over the years, I’ve written on art, travel and food, and digital culture for the New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Harper’s Bazaar, Wired, Time Out and Huffington Post, among others. Lunch in Paris was my first book.

In July 2010, my husband and I and our baby son Augustin moved to a small village in Provence, to live in the wartime home of the famous poet and WWII Resistance leader René Char. At the time, we had no plans to leave Paris — it was a date with destiny. You can find the complete (completely crazy?) story of how we found the house on my blog.

How are you finding life in Provence as compared to Paris?
As a city girl, village life is a discovery for me. I’m still adjusting to hanging my undies in the sun, and learning the names of the local birds (they can’t all be pigeons…). I’m surrounded by wonderful cooks and gardeners; last week, I went on my first saffron harvest. The move has been a wonderful transition for us as a family — it has made me question many of the things I believe about work/life balance, health, and being close to nature. All things I hope to share (along with my neighbor’s recipe for Provençal soupe au pistou) in my next book.

Turning to Lunch in Paris: What made you decide to write a book telling the story of your transition to living in France?
I hope Lunch in Paris captures something real about what it means to build a life in another culture. As an American, I follow generations of women who all came from somewhere else. They learned to cook with new ingredients, speak a new language, manage in a new world. My Jewish grandmother learned to make spaghetti sauce with pork ribs from the Italian ladies she met on line at the butcher shop during the war; I’m simply another in a long line.

Did you ever think of writing a novel instead? I ask because in reading the book, I kept noticing your facility with dialogue and description.
It never occurred to me to write Lunch in Paris as a novel. Fantasy lives in France are easy to imagine — but I wanted to express some of the things I’d learned personally, about what it means to take risks, to put happiness first on your checklist. That’s not a fictional decision — that’s something we struggle with every day.

Why did you decide to include recipes in your book?
Almost as soon as I arrived in Paris, I knew that I wanted to write about the roller coaster of international living, and the richness of intercultural marriage. When I sat down to think about the moments that really helped me discover French life, I kept coming back to the dinner table, the markets, the recipes — so it seemed natural to structure Lunch in Paris around those experiences.

Do you still use the recipes from the book and which one is your favorite?
I’m always trying new recipes, which I share on the blog or Facebook page, but I do use my copy of Lunch in Paris as a cookbook — I keep it handy in the cabinet with the pasta. The recipes I go back to again and again: for summer, it’s the haricot verts with walnut oil, for winter, the lentils. The tagines are great for a party — and the molten chocolate cakes work anytime.

Which portion of your book — Paris, the love story, the recipes — have readers responded to most?
I’m so surprised, humbled, gratified by the fact that Lunch in Paris has found such a wide audience. I’m so pleased that the book has been a vivid piece of armchair (or bathtub) travel for those who love Paris — and a temptation for those who’d like to go. I’ve had many young readers say it inspired them hold on to their dream of living abroad, or simply doing something a bit outside the box with love or career.

I’m also thrilled that people are getting their books all greasy, using the recipes — and posting photos of their creations on the Lunch in Paris Facebook page. I’m a home cook; I tested all the recipes myself. I was determined that readers take as much pleasure (and as little stress) in preparing them as I did. Maybe the nicest thing anyone has said came from a friend in London:

“It’s nice for Augustin to have such a wonderful record of his parent’s romance.”

I’m proud to be passing that on.

The thing that has surprised me the most is the wonderful online community. Though the readers are all over the world, it really feels warm and personal to me. I love that social media allows people to share recipes and stories from all over the world. A few months ago, I got an email from a New Zealander living in Crete. I now follow her blog to learn about traditional Cretean cooking.

As I mentioned in my intro, Julia Child was the inspiration for TDN’s October theme — and you remind me of a 21st century version of her in some ways. I’m curious, do you have her Mastering the Art of French Cooking — and do you actually use it?
I have my mom’s copy of Mastering the Art, but at the moment – I’m too busy trying recipes from my French neighbors to actually use it!

What did you think of Julie Powell’s blogging about making all the recipes from that encyclopedic book?
I love a good project — especially one that gets a girl out of a rut — it was fun to read about how the random adventures we set for ourselves can change everything.

How about the film, Julie & Julia?
The film — well, it just proves that Meryl Streep can do ANYTHING.

We’ve been asking our Random Nomad interviewees this month if they identify with any of the following Julia Child quotes and why. Can we ask you as well?
I agree with the choice that both Mardi and Jennifer made:

The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking, you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.

I’d say this goes for goes for life in general — not just cooking. With all of our “Just-do-it” attitude, Americans are particularly prone to fear of failure: everything is possible, so everything we don’t accomplish is our fault. Fear is paralyzing. I work every day to get the hell out of my own way.

Quite a few of our readers are long-term expats who’ve entered cross-cultural marriages. What do you think is the biggest challenge about marrying someone of another culture?
The Franco-American combination is a very powerful one. I gave my husband a bit of the American can-do spirit, permission to pursue his dreams based on his own qualities, instead of family or class. He gave me a bit of the French joie de vivre — permission to live in the moment, to consider happiness, rather than some abstract (and culturally relative) notion of “success”, as my ultimate goal.

Was language an obstacle at all?
I speak fluent French now. It was a struggle at the beginning — you feel a bit invisible. That’s one reason cooking became so important to me. During the early days of our marriage, I used food to welcome people. My husband’s friends didn’t know if I was intelligent, charming, witty, or warm. What they did know is that I made a mean sweet potato puree. There were times when I used the kitchen to hide. French dinner parties are marathons of cuisine and conversation — 4 or 5 hours minimum. With the rapid-fire French buzzing in my ears, and my brain foggy from the wine, it was just easier to say, “I’m just going to check the roast” than “Dear God, I’m so bored and exhausted I’m considering sticking my head in the oven.”

Do you think you could fit back into living in American culture after a decade of living in France?
I’ve been away for a long time — and like many expats, I find myself in a no-man’s land, not quite one or the other. Honestly, I think the hardest thing about moving back to the States would be the portions — even with a great farmer’s market nearby I think it would be a struggle to maintain our very healthy French eating habits. That and the hyper-competitive attitude about raising kids. I’m not sure I’m ready for preschool applications.

As it happens, on October 13 Travelers Night In (#TNI) was French inspired, and everyone tweeted their answers to 10 questions about the best of the best in France. Could you do us — and the traveling community at large — the honor of providing your own short answers?
Q1. The best thing about French people is…
Food is not fuel.
Q2. France is famous for food, what dish is your favorite? Best food city?
Give me a perfect, flaky, buttery croissant.
Q3. Favorite French countryside escape?
The rolling hills of Burgundy — with a stop at the cathedral in Vézelay.
Q4. What is the most overrated thing about France?
April in Paris (it rains)
Q5. What defines Paris?
PDA (does that still mean public display of affection?)
Q6. French museum or monument that shouldn’t be missed?
Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris
Q7. Perfect place to enjoy a glass of French wine? What varietal, region, winery?
People watching along the Canal Saint-Martin, any glass recommended at the Verre Vole (rue de Lancry)
Q8. Top way to spend a night out in Paris?
Walking along the banks of the Île Saint-Louis with a double scoop of Berthillon sorbet.
Q9. Best things to do on the French Riviera?
We avoid the French Riviera — over-crowded, over-priced, over.
Q10. Biggest misconception about the French?
French cooking is complicated.

Thank you so much for engaging in this tête-à-tête! Readers, do you have your own questions for this 21st-century answer to Julia Child? Hurry up, before she disappears into her kitchen or heads out to another saffron field!

Images: Head shot of Elizabeth Bard by Cindi de Channes (2008); book cover.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s installment from our displaced fictional heroine, Libby, who is taking seriously her friend’s advice to make time for herself, and enjoying her freedom while Jack is in nursery school. Someone had better remind her that small babies tend to put a damper on such wanton activities. (Speaking of which, Libs — isn’t it time you saw a doctor?) What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe for email delivery of The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of the week’s posts from The Displaced Nation, including seasonal recipes and book giveaways. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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A further Parisian lunch, à la displaced author Elizabeth Bard

As we’re continuing this month’s theme where we celebrate all culinary things Frenchie (well, you’ve got to really, the French are such a retiring lot — they’d never dream of singing their own praises), it seems like now is the time to let you into my shameful, dark secret. There is something in my past that I cannot escape from, no matter how much I may wish to. That secret, dear reader, is that I am, in fact, a quarter-French. Yes, some of my genetic make-up is Frenchie. Being a proud Englishman, this obviously churns me up inside.

Now my Gran, or Bonne-Maman as I called her, like many a Frenchie, thought of herself a good cook. Unfortunately for her she moved to England shortly after the end of the First World War. She left the bucolic center of France and found herself in the industrial paradise that is Teesside. It is somewhat redundant to note, but I will anyway, that England in the 1920s and 1930s was very different from the England of now. This is a time pre-Ainsley Harriot. Look at what passed for cookery films — not a single mention of Sally Salt or Percy Pepper. Even in the leafy climes of Islington you would be hard pressed to find a sun-dried tomato or a tub of hummus. These were dark, Ainsley Harriot-less times indeed.

So when I was instructed that as part of this blog I would be making a Parisian lunch using Elizabeth Bard recipes here in the Dennys-loving part of California that I call home, I thought back on my Bonne-Maman. Living in another country now is so easy. On my phone I can read English papers, I can, for the most part, try and approximate dishes that I’ve eaten in other countries. I can go into a supermarket in your average suburban strip-mall and I can guarantee I can find some exotic fruit or vegetable that it would have been unthinkable for this supermarket to stock 15 or 20 years ago. So when I received my recipes for an Omelette with Goat Cheese and Artichoke Hearts and for what Elizabeth Bard titles Better than French Onion Soup (after today’s Rugby World Cup Final, I’m guessing she means it should be called New Zealand Onion Soup), I’m struck by how easy it is to find all these ingredients and how easy it would be to find them in my hometown, where my Bonne-Maman spent the next 60 years of her life after moving there from France as a young adult.

But, for the most part, Bonne-Maman wasn’t able to get everything that she needed and so would make do with local alternatives. As a child in the early 80s when Bonne-Maman was still able to live in her own house and do her own cooking, I saw the end product of all of her years living in the north-east of England (hardly the gourmet capital of the world) and the compromises she had to make to recreate dishes from her French background. There was a whole repertoire that she had. One, in particular, that I recall was that when she would make a roast she would have a little side-dish to go alongside it that consisted of sliced onion doused in malt vinegar. It seems curious, though the way she made it, not at all unpleasant, and I am sure it has some French classic as its antecedents and for years could probably only buy malt vinegar in Hartlepool. The other thing I remember is steaks. Her steaks were bloody, which I think the neighbors rationalized as her being French (and they are such an odd sort). I seem to recall this being a source of contention in my parents’ relationship as my Dad favored the bloody steaks he had been brought up on, but my Mum insisted that they had to be cooked well-done. It was a debate that was only ended when the crisis over British beef in the late 80s saw my family dramatically reduce its beef consumption.

So as I follow Elizabeth’s recipes, I am just struck by how easy it is to buy and prepare all the ingredients that I need to recreate a delicious Parisian lunch, but my poor grandmother had to make do with malt vinegar, pease pudding and her own ingenuity.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post on classic displaced writing.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe for email delivery of The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of the week’s posts from The Displaced Nation, including seasonal recipes and book giveaways. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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RANDOM NOMAD: Jennifer Greco, Writer & French Cheese Specialist

Born in: Spokane, Washington, USA
Passports: USA and France
Cities/States/Countries lived in: Washington (Seattle): 1987-99; Louisiana (New Orleans): 1999-2003; France (Cesseras*): 2003-present
Cyberspace coordinates: Chez Loulou | A taste of life in the south of France (blog)
* A tiny village in the Languedoc-Roussillon region

What made you leave your homeland in the first place?
I’ve been a devoted Francophile ever since I was a teenager and knew that one day I would live in France. My husband and I bought a small holiday house in the south of France in 2001 and decided to move here permanently in 2003.

Is anyone else in your immediate family “displaced”?
I have no immediate family members who are “displaced”; however, my grandfather moved to America from Italy with his family at the age of 10.

How about your husband?
My husband was born and raised in New York City. He wasn’t a Francophile when we met, but as soon as I introduced him to Paris, he was hooked.

Describe the moment when you felt most displaced.
It wasn’t just a moment, but every single frustrating minute I had to spend in the the sous-préfecture, arguing with the woman behind the desk who didn’t want to do her job by helping me with my carte de séjour paperwork [visa for staying in France longer than a year].

Describe the moment when you felt least displaced.
The summer night that my husband and I sat at a long table in the center of the village with our neighbors, sharing wine, food, stories and laughter.

You may bring one curiosity you’ve collected from each of your adopted countries into the Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase?
From Seattle, Washington: If it wouldn’t spill, a caffè macchiato from Caffe Ladro.
From New Orleans: Mardi Gras throws and Crystal Hot Sauce.
From France: An olive wood Laguiole corkscrew.

You’re invited to prepare one meal based on your travels for other Displaced Nation members. What’s on the menu?
We’ll start out with a specialty of the Pacific Northwest: cracked Dungeness crab and clarified butter. Then we’ll each have half a Charentais melon filled with Muscat de Saint Jean de Minervois — a wonderful dessert wine from Narbonne, close to where I live in the south of France. For the main course, I’ll serve a jambalaya from New Orleans. Then we’ll have (mais oui) a Languedoc cheese course — including Roquefort, Pélardon and Tomette des Corbières. Dessert will be a New Orleans classic: bread pudding with Bourbon sauce.

You may add one word or expression from the country you’re living in to The Displaced Nation argot. What will you loan us?
From New Orleans: Makin’ groceries — meaning going grocery shopping. It’s one of the many colorful expressions that’s part of the local vernacular. I simply love it!
From France: Oh la vache! (Oh my gosh!) This one cracks me up — the literal translation is “Oh the cow!” I can’t say it without smiling.

It’s French Cuisine month at The Displaced Nation. Who is your favorite French chef of all time?
I love Jacques Pépin. He is an honest, down to earth chef, writer and instructor, and his recipes are always delicious. One of my favorites of his is the Skillet Apple Charlotte, a melange of Tarte Tatin and French toast. C’est délicieux!

Like you, Julia Child was an American who moved to France and fell in love with the food. (We have just now inducted her into our Displaced Hall of Fame.) Of the following three Julia Child quotes, which do you most identify with?

1) The only time to eat diet food is when you’re waiting for the steak to cook.

2) The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking, you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.

3) Until I discovered cooking, I was never really interested in anything.

I most identify with: “The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking, you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.” I believe in living life to its fullest and sometimes that means taking risks and ignoring the fear, whether it be in the kitchen or in life. Our decision to move to France meant leaving our comfort zone and embracing the challenge of learning a new culture. It hasn’t always been easy, but it’s definitely been worth it! As for the kitchen — readers of my blog will know that I’m now on a mission to taste every single French cheese. I’ve now tasted 205 (there are 600-1,000, depending on who’s counting).

Readers — yay or nay for letting Jennifer Greco into The Displaced Nation? Tell us your reasons. (Note: It’s fine to vote “nay” as long as you couch your reasoning in terms we all — including Jennifer — find amusing.)

img: Jennifer Greco in Paris, in front of the Louvre (April 2010).

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s installment from our displaced fictional heroine, Libby, who is taking last week’s advice from Maggie to heart and discovering that Woodhaven is her oyster. (A good thing she’s not allergic to shellfish like her husband, Oliver!) What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation. Includes seasonal recipes and book giveaways. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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CLASSIC DISPLACED WRITING: Proust — The Way by Swann’s

There is a  discernible whiff of Frenchiness to the blog this month. Doubtless you can smell it too, it’s that heady scent of garlic, Gauloises and ennui. Like any true-blooded Englishman it has certainly got my nostrils flaring and my back up too, but don’t worry, I’ll contest it as best I can with pig-headed jingoism and outrageous displays of xenophobia.

However, we did have a specific request to bring back this rather irregular series on Classic Displaced Writing with a post on Proust, and specifically (as French food is a topic this month) one featuring “the incident with the madeleine.”

Some of you may, however, may recall that this series has touched upon France, or more specifically Paris, previously. We looked at an esssay by Saul Bellow and a New York Times article on James Joyce’s Paris.  Now there’s no prizes for noticing that both of those posts are concerned with France as seen and lived by a foreigner. Indeed, considering the nature of this series of Classic Displaced Writing and its semi-regular appearance on an expat-centric blog this is pretty much what you would expect.

The question is, is Proust displaced enough to merit an appearance? While not displaced by geography, as most of our featured writers have been, Proust is displaced by time, by the present. A sickly child who grew into a man who always suffered with his health (the last years of his life were spent mostly confined to cork-lined bedroom), a closeted homosexual, at heart a nineteenth century aristocrat struggling with the France of the twentieth century, there’s plenty to Proust’s life that sets him at odds with his present time and announces him as a stranger to his homeland, and so it isn’t surprising that he retreats into the past.

The famous “incident with the madeleine” is one of many moments In Search of Lost Time where the Narrator of the novel has an incident of “involuntary memory.” It is based on an experience Proust had in his own life, though more prosacially it involved the dipping of a piece of dry toast rather than a madeleine. Up until the dipping of  the cake into his tea, the only memory that the Narrator has of his family’s country home in Combray is of his parent’s friend, Charles Swann, visiting. Due to the visit of Charles, the Narrator is denied of his usual goodnight kiss from his mother. It is only years later when he dips his madeleine cake into his tea that he remembers doing the same as a child at Combray with his Aunt Leonie — and from this, other memories return:

… It is the same with our past. It is a waste of effort for us to try to summon it, all the exertions of our intelligence are useless. The past is hidden outside the realm of our intelligence and beyond its reach, in some material object (in the sensation that this material object would give us) which we do not suspect. It depends on chance whether we encounter this object before we die, or do not encounter it.

For many years already, everything about Combray that was not the theatre and drama of my bedtime had ceased to exist for me, when one day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, suggested that, contrary to my habit, I have a little tea. I refused at first and then I do not know why, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump cakes called petites madeleines that look as though they have been moulded in the grooved valve of a scallop-shell. And soon, mechanically, oppressed by the gloomy day and the prospect of a sad future, I carried to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had let soften a piece of madeleine. But at that very instant when the mouthful of tea mixed with cake-crumbs touched my palate, I quivered, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening in me. A delicious pleasure had invaded me, isolated me, without my having any notion to its cause. It had immediately made the vicissitudes of life unimportant to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory, acting in the same way that love acts, by filling me with a precious essence: or rather this essence was not in me, it was me. I had ceased to feel I was mediocre, contingent, mortal. Where could it have come to me from — this powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected to the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it went infinitely far beyond it, could not be of the same nature. Where did it come from? What did it mean? How could I grasp it? I drink a second mouthful, in which I find nothing more than in the first, a third that gives me a little less than the second. It is time for me to stop, the virtue of the drink seems to be diminishing. It is clear that the truth I am seeking is not in the drink, but in me. The drink has awoken in me, but it does not know that truth, and cannot do more than repeat indefinitely, with less and less force, this same testimony which I do not know how to interpret and which I want at least to be able to ask of it again and find intact, available to me, soon, for a decisive clarification. I put down the cup and turn to my mind. It is up to my mind to find the truth…

And suddenly the memory appeared. The taste was the taste of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because that day I did not go out before it was time for Mass), when I went to say good morning to her in the bathroom, my Aunt Leonie would give me after dipping it in her infusion of tea or lime-blossom. The sight of the little madeleine had not recalled anything to me before I tasted it; perhaps because I had often seen them since, without eating them, on the pastry-cooks’ shelves, and their image had therefore left those days of Combray and attached itself to others more recent; perhaps because of these recollections abandoned so long outside my memory, nothing survived, everything had come apart; the forms — and the form, too, of the little shell made of cake, so fatly sensual within its severe and pious pleating — had been destroyed, or, still half asleep, had lost the force of expansion that would have allowed them to rejoin my consciousness. But when nothing subsists of an old past, after the death of people, after the destruction of things, alone, frailer but more endearing, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, smell and taste still remain for a long time, like souls remembering, waiting, hoping, on the ruin of all the rest, bearing without giving way, on their almost impalpable droplet, the immense edifice of memory.

And as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine dipped in lime-blossom tea that my aunt used to give me … the good people of the village and their little dwellings and the church and all of Combray and its surroundings, all of this which is assuming form and substance, emerged, towns and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.

Extract from Lydia Davis’ translation of The Way By Swann’s from Penguin’s In Search of Lost Time, edited by Christopher Prendergast. This is a fairly new translation of A la recherche du temps  perdu, and it’s one I’ve had more success with than Scott Moncrieff’s more famous translation. You can buy it here. And you should, you know.

STAY TUNED for Wednesday’s RANDOM NOMAD interview with an expat in France.

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Image: MorgueFile

A Parisian lunch in Manhattan, à la displaced author Elizabeth Bard

I have a confession to make. I have a bit of fluff on the side. I’ve had it for many years now — and the flame of my passion never diminishes. The love burns in my soul, aches in my flesh, and ignites my nerves.

Why am I revealing this now, and in such a public way? As you may know, the Displaced Nation is dedicating many of its October posts to the joys of moving to France and learning French cooking.

I take this as a sign that the time has arrived for me to own up to my own rather torrid relationship with La Belle Cuisine Française — she of infinite variety, who makes hungry where she most satisfies.

Admittedly, I do feel a little guilty talking so openly about our affair while my husband, who is Japanese, is away on a business trip. (Because I’m so practiced at hiding it, I think he assumes that, like him, I would always choose Asian food over Western, Italian over French.)

But there you have it, my little secret. And now that it’s out in the open, allow me to report on my most recent tryst — a Parisian lunch I hosted in Manhattan yesterday using the recipes of Elizabeth Bard, who will be featured on this blog next week. A former New Yorker who now lives in Provence with her French husband, Bard is the author of Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes.

Friday, Oct 7 — plotting my assignation

I download Bard’s book to my Kindle and retreat to bed — mais oui! — for a read.

I am instantly enchanted. Bard is a woman after my own heart: she went to Europe to study and then fell head over heels for the culture, a man, the food…

I’m having a hard time choosing among Bard’s recipes, though.

The guest list is easy: my sister (who will go into the hospital on Wednesday for an operation, after which she won’t be able to enjoy food for a while) and two foodie friends, a couple, with whom I’ve collaborated on some lovely meals.

Except this time I’ll be going solo, especially as my husband is away (though maybe that’s just as well as he tends to dismiss French food out of hand, and therefore out of kitchen, for being too rich and creamy).

Actually, it’s the main course I’m dithering about — not the starter or the dessert.

I know I want to do mussels for the opening course as that’s one of my sister’s favorites, and Bard has a classic recipe for Mussels with White Wine and Fennel (and fennel is now in season).

I see that on her Web site, Bard has a recipe for Spicy Chocolate Pots with Fresh Figs — and quickly decide to make that my dessert. Like most sane people, I consider chocolate (along with champagne and oysters) to be the perfect food for revving up the libido.

And figs — Bard says that every autumn, around this time, she stages her own mini Figapalooza. I like the sound of that orgy. The more I think about it, the more convinced I become that the Bible got it wrong: Eve must have seduced Adam with a fig, not an apple. Didn’t he cover himself up with a fig leaf afterwards?

Speaking of apples, the recipe of Bard’s I’m most attracted to for the main course is her Pork Tenderloin with Four Kinds of Apples. The only thing holding me back is that my sister has a pet pig. For a moment, I imagine being able to persuade her to partake of this forbidden meat. “Oh, go on, just one little taste…” But then I realize how offended I’d be, as a dog owner and lover, if I were invited to lunch at a Korean household and they were serving dog.

No, not a good idea. So I opt for Bard’s Pasta with Fresh Peas, Arugula, and Goat Cheese for my main. To be honest, I feel a little sheepish about it. Surely my infatuation with La Belle Cuisine should drive me to my boldest feats of exploration and invention?

But then I remember Bard’s story about her husband-to-be inviting her to lunch at a Parisian restaurant that specializes in du porc noir de Bigorre. She refuses to indulge, even (especially?) when the waitress tells her he’s a happy pig, ordering the cassoulet instead.

Pasta it is, even though the only thing French about it involves topping the pasta with extravagantly big gobs of goat cheese.

Saturday, Oct 8 — shopping for just the right ingredients

I head to the green market in Union Square very early, my two dogs in tow. Just before I reach the Patches of Star Dairy stand, which sells fresh goat cheeses and goat cheese ice cream, one of them, my cocker spaniel, scavenges a brussels sprout and someone asks me if he is a vegetarian. (I wonder if his English springer spaniel heritage is kicking in, and he’s registering his disapproval of my love affair with France?)

Other green market finds include freshly picked arugula (also for the pasta), onions and fennel (for the mussels), and heavy cream (for the dessert).

I see some blue salvia at the flower stall that remind me of postcards I’ve seen of Provence, and appropriate these for the table decor.

I still need to get peas (they aren’t in season), so leave the dogs at home and go out again. Bard makes a curious observation at the start of her pasta recipe:

Five years ago, if someone told me I would take this much satisfaction in shelling my own peas, I would have laughed out loud. How times have changed.

I guess I’m not quite there yet (or perhaps I was there when I was younger — am I getting too old for these affairs?), as I find myself heading to the Trader Joe’s on 14th Street for a bag of freshly shelled English peas (yes, English — apparently there are limits to my love).

Actually, waiting on the line at Trader Joe’s on a Saturday is almost as tedious as shelling peas, and I almost laugh out loud — but then console myself by noting that I’ve also managed to score the bow tie pasta. It’s not whole wheat, though, as Bard recommends. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen whole wheat farfalle, TBH. (I wonder where Bard gets hers?)

It still remains to get fresh pesto (from the Italian specialty store on E 11th St), Green & Black’s 70% organic chocolate and ras el hanout for the dessert. I find both of these items at the Indian grocery around the corner from Little India. The ras el hanout is labeled “couscous spice” and smells appropriately exotic.

I stay up late infusing the ras el hanout in the heavy cream and melting the chocolate in that mixture for the dessert. Heaven!

Sunday, Oct 9 (morning) — final mad preparations

Another early start. I swing by the East Village Cheese store for a fresh whole wheat baguette, and then it’s off to the green market at Tompkins Square Park, to buy fresh mussels at the fishmonger’s.

There’s a spring in my step as I approach his stall. I am a woman in love, a woman possessed. Little do I know that disaster is about to strike — he had only a small supply of mussels and sold them all first thing.

Aïe. I stumble away from his stall trying to hide my tears. But then, American ingenuity kicks in: why don’t I try using Bard’s recipe but for little neck clams, which are in large supply? I go back and discuss with the fishmonger, who’s a friendly sort, très sympathique. He ends up giving me 40 clams for the price of three dozen.

But I’m not out of the woods yet. I have forgotten the figs — those delectable little fruits that ooze with flesh and seeds when you cut them open. Despite trying three grocery stores, I can’t find a single fig in the East Village — and this is fig season. Go figure!

On this ingredient, I cannot compromise. I text my foodie friends who are coming to the lunch (they live in the West Village) and ask them to scour the shops for the fleshiest, freshest figs they can find. They come through for me, confirming my long-held belief that West Village is the city’s epicurean center.

Sunday Oct 9 (1 p.m. onwards) — ah, quel plaisir!

My sister and friends arrive, the wine (initially the Muscadet I’m cooking the clams in) flows, and conversation does as well, ranging from tales of our misspent youths to the Wall Street protests.

I produce the first course, and it’s judged a big success. Does anyone mind that it’s clams and not mussels, I ask? All agree that it’s the broth that counts — and the broth, a mix of fennel, onions, garlic and white wine, is divine.

Despite being a little tipsy on the wine — we have now progressed to a bottle of red from the family domaine of Robert Sérol, au cœur de la Côte Roannaise — I manage to make the bow tie pasta al dente. I stir in the peas and the pesto, divide among four plates and then dollop on the lightly salted chevre. My guests and I gorge ourselves on this latest creation, exclaiming as several nuances emerge and caress our taste-buds — oh là là!

I suggest that we take a short break before the dessert. My cocker spaniel is nipping at my pant legs — signaling that it’s time for the guests to go home as he needs my full attention (and some treat toys with the leftovers).

But my other dog, who is mostly poodle, is having the time of her life (bien sûr), making several rounds with the guests for extended petting sessions.

Enfin, it’s back to the table for my chocolate dessert, which, I’m sorry to say, falls a little flat because — absolument incroyable! — it’s too chocolatey. Is that our fault (we don’t know chocolate from chocolate) or could the recipe use some sugar?

But the purplish-brown figs, which are ripe and ever-so-sweet, save the day.

Over little cups of coffee we all agree that my Parisian lunch at the hands of Elizabeth Bard has been an affair to remember.

Monday, Oct 10 — the morning after

My husband calls in the wee hours of the morning. He is now in Tokyo, with another week to go on his business trip.

“How was your Sunday?” he asks.

“Well, I had some my sister and some friends over for a little lunch,” I reply, thinking to myself: what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.

I go back to bed and awaken several hours later, at around 8:00 a.m. I lie there for a few minutes, basking in the afterglow of yesterday’s tryst.

When I at last rouse myself and face the mounds of dishes still to be done, I realize that this little flirtation of mine has its costs (not to mention my exhaustion at having to clean the apartment).

At least the hole in my pocketbook isn’t too bad. I reckon this particular fling has cost me around $80, including the wine — not bad considering what it would cost for four people to go out for a proper French lunch in Manhattan.

Hmmm… I wonder if I can fit in one more quickie meal before my husband gets home on Friday?

As Mario Cuomo, former New York State governor and father of our current governor, once said:

When you’ve parked the second car in the garage, and installed the hot tub, and skied in Colorado, and wind-surfed in the Caribbean, when you’ve had your first love affair and your second and your third, the question will remain, where does the dream end for me?

Touché — only I don’t think he’s ever been seduced by French cuisine à la Elizabeth Bard?

Images (top to bottom): Friendly fishmonger at Tompkins Square Park; little neck clams in fennel; an enthusiastic canine participant; chocolate pot with figs.

STAY TUNED for Tuesday’s post on classic displaced writing.

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12 French cooking terms — a glossary for kitchen dummies, or anyone not lucky enough to be an expat in France

Although Julia Child made a career out of teaching French cuisine to the masses, not all of us have had the opportunity to practice our culinary skills to the extent that good lady may have envisioned.

Still, the good news is, sometimes we use French cooking methods without even realizing it.

For those not lucky enough to live in France or to have studied French cooking for a dedicated period, here is a short glossary of common terms — as defined by culinary experts (Master Chefs) and dummies (whose experience tends toward Gordan Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares).

1. BEIGNETS
Master Chef Definition: Small lumps of fried dough.
Kitchen Nightmare Definition: Donut holes. (See: Dunkin Donut, Krispy Kremes, Fairground stands, etc.)

2. BEURRE NOISETTE –
MC Definition: Browned butter.
KN Definition: The realistic result of squabbling children and the following recipe direction: “Gently melt 1 ounce of butter over a low heat.”

3. CANAPE –
MC Definition: An appetizer consisting of a piece of bread or toast or a cracker topped with a savory spread (such as caviar or cheese.)
KN Definition: Ritz crackers and Marmite.

4. CHAPELUX –
MC Definition: Browned bread crumbs.
KN Definition: The contents of the toaster’s crumb-catcher.

5. CROUTONS –
MC Definition: Small cubes of toasted or crisply fried bread
KN Definition: The best part of a salad.

 6. DARIOLE –
MC Definition: A small cup-shaped mold used for making individual dishes.
KN Definition: A small cup-shaped mold in a set of six, bought in a fit of retail therapy enthusiasm in specialist kitchen shop. Used once for packet Jell-O. Now gathering dust at back of pantry, possibly with the addition of dead wasp or similar.

7. DEGLACER – 
MC Definition: To dissolve cooking juices attached to the sides of a pot or pan with a little hot liquid to create a sauce. 
KN Definition: A way of cleaning the burnt bits off a pan without using a Brillo pad.

8. ESCALOPE –
MC Definition: A piece of boneless meat, thinned out by using a mallet.
KN Definition: 1) A method of making the dregs of the freezer go further; 2) Friday night stress-reliever after aggravating week.

9. FLAMBE
MC Definition: Covered with liquor and set alight briefly.
KN Definition: A sinful waste of good alcohol.

10. MARMITE
MC Definition: An earthenware container for soup.
KN Definition:  Oh come on. Everyone knows what Marmite really is. (See “Canape”)

11. RECHAUFEE –
MC Definition: Reheated food.
KN Definition:  A fancy word to disguise the fact you’re giving the family leftovers for the third day in a row.

12. TERRINE –
MC Definition: A mixture of chopped ingredients baked in a loaf-shaped container, served at room temperature.
KN Definition: Day-old meat loaf

STAY TUNED for Monday’s Recipe Review – A Parisian Lunch in Manhattan.

Related posts:

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RANDOM NOMAD: Mardi Michels, Elementary School French Teacher, Home Cook, Writer, Photographer & Traveler

Born in: Adelaide, South Australia
Passports: Australia (by birth), Britain/EU (through my dad), Canada (I became a citizen in 2007)
Countries lived in: France (Paris): 1995-2000; Canada (Toronto): 2000-present
Cyberspace coordinates: eat. live. travel. write | my creative refuge from academia (blog); eatlivtravwrite (Twitter handle)

What made you leave your homeland in the first place?
I left Australia because I was working on my PhD in French literature and felt it made a lot more sense to be in the country of the language and culture I was studying. Soon after moving to Paris, I began working in a restaurant (Woolloomooloo Restaurant Australien — now closed) to supplement a meagre scholarship. About a year after moving to Paris, I got a job teaching English at Université Paris X and I was hooked on teaching English (I was already qualified to teach French) so I undertook my Dip TEFL [professional diploma in Teaching English as a Foreign Language] at the University of London Institute in Paris, eventually scoring a full time teaching job at the British Council. My PhD? Incomplete…

Is anyone else in your immediate family “displaced”?
My sister also left home when she was in her early 20s to complete a PhD at Oxford (which she did), and from there she worked in banking all over the world (England, Singapore, Japan). She has also traveled extensively in South America. She, too, has ended up in North America (New York City), teaching math!

How about your husband? Is he displaced?
He was when we first met — in Casablanca in December 1999. I was on a vacation in Morocco, and after that two-week jaunt, Mr Neil followed me back to Paris for a visit. He is the reason I am now in Canada. Six months after he visited me in Paris, I had a job teaching in French in Toronto lined up for the 2000-01 school year — and the rest, as they say is history. Neil is originally from Vancouver but has traveled the seven continents to some “out there” places. I mean, how many people do you know who have been to Easter Island?

Describe the moment when you felt most displaced.
The first time I had to do lunchtime outdoor yard duty the first year I was living in Toronto. I was ill equipped for the cold, wearing leather boots and a wool coat that was more than adequate in Paris. Not so much here. It was five years before I succumbed to the puffy coat and winter boots.

Describe the moment when you felt least displaced.
Honestly? Stepping off the plane this past summer when I arrived in Paris. I try to get back there every year or so (I completed my MA in Second and Foreign Language Teaching a few years ago, requiring me to take courses two summers in a row in Paris). Even though I have lived longer in Toronto now than I did in Paris (and I love my life in Toronto), and I don’t have any family there, Paris is still a place where I feel curiously “at home.”

You may bring one curiosity you’ve collected from each of your adopted countries into the Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase?
I’m thinking cookware from Mora (a treasure trove of ring molds, tart pans and other French pastry equipment) or A Simon (good selection of glassware and heavy-duty white French porcelain) — both on rue Montmartre; or else baking ingredients from G Detou, one of the world’s great food shops, in Les Halles.

You’re invited to prepare one meal based on your travels for other Displaced Nation members. What’s on the menu?
The meal I would prepare for you would include a dish inspired by each continent. My husband and I have visited all seven continents, and we actually hosted this luxury dinner last year, as documented on my blog:

  • Moroccan spiced chick peas
  • Vietnamese caramelized chili prawns
  • Italian polpette d’uova
  • Australian micro meat pies
  • Mexican tortilla chicken soup
  • Cuban ropa vieja
  • Panamanian (coconut) rice with pigeon peas
  • Jamaican jerk chicken
  • Île flottante

You may add one word or expression from the country you’re living in to The Displaced Nation argot. What will you loan us?
I couldn’t pick one specific one but some words that have crept into my vocabulary (and that of my students’) include hop là, aïeoh là là, et hop, and ouf — words that sound ridiculous removed from the context of everyday French vocabulary but that have turned out to be very useful in the context of my classroom 😉 Surely The Displaced Nation could use a few more interjections?

It’s French Cuisine month at The Displaced Nation. Who is your favorite French chef, living or dead, and why?
Whilst she is not French, it has to be Julia Child, mainly for her “can-do” attitude.

Julia Child is the role model for our posts this month — and has just now been inducted into our Displaced Hall of Fame. Of the following three quotes by her, which one do you most identify with?

1) The only time to eat diet food is when you’re waiting for the steak to cook.

2) The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking, you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.

3) Until I discovered cooking, I was never really interested in anything.

I have to say the quote I most identify with is “The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking, you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.”

I teach a once a week cooking class to nine-to-eleven-year-old boys, called Les Petits Chefs; and though my students are pretty young and cannot be expected to know a lot about cooking (yet!), I found myself thinking of them as I read this quote. What continues to amaze me about my group of little chefs is their willingness to try new things and their (mostly) complete lack of fear about being in the kitchen (well, science lab, in our case!). Yesterday, for example, I had five little boys cutting up raw chicken (thighs, no less, so much messier than neat clean breast meat), and I watched them attack the task with great gusto. No fear (though a few “ewws!”) — they just got on and did the job, trusting me that the icky meat would be turned into something delicious in about 30 minutes (it was!).

Readers — yay or nay for letting Mardi Michels into The Displaced Nation? Tell us your reasons. (Note: It’s fine to vote “nay” as long as you couch your reasoning in terms we all — including Mardi — find amusing.)

img: Mardi Michels and her mari, Mr Neil, at the Fêtes de Bayonne (2008).

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s installment from our displaced fictional heroine, Libby, who seeks advice on her unexpected second pregnancy from someone who is older…if not altogether wiser. What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.

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Finding Paradise in Provence, Part 2: Our expat foodie asks – Patisserie or Pudding?

In the second of her guest posts this month, Joanna Masters-Maggs talks more about her recent culinary discoveries in France, as we ask her, “Is the foodie capital of the world everything it’s cracked up to be – or does the emperor need to put his clothes on?”

“I’m tired of these perfectly-glazed French tarts”, my husband declared last night. “I want a big, fat, English pudding.”

I looked up sharply. Was he making some untoward comparison between chic French ladies and less well-presented English women, such as myself? I hoped not, for his sake. But he was ruefully regarding the Mille Fueille on the plate before him.

“Some custard too. That would be nice.” He looked at me sadly.

I wasn’t sure how to react. “Get me some Golden Syrup and I’ll make steamed pudding,” I offered. Sixteen years overseas, but how English we are!

Just desserts…every Sunday

We have only been in Aix for six weeks and have held to our plan of finding the best food and drink it has to offer. Part of this includes buying a cake or tart from a patisserie each week for Sunday dinner. I reflected on what we have so far sampled: a chocolate Opera for the weekend of my daughter’s birthday, an open apple tart, another filled with patisserie cream and topped with fruit and, yes, glaze. We tried the Tropezienne which hails from St Tropez and was named by Brigitte Bardot.

Now this “thousand leaves of pastry” sat before us. Like its predecessors, it was pedigree in origin. Only the most shameless “bring–a-dish” guest would try to pass this off as homemade. Perfectly cut, evenly browned, you just knew it would not suffer from a soggy bottom or any similar such indignity.

So why is it that with these desserts fastidious restraint is so easy to find? My husband is right. If we had a steamed syrup pudding and some custard before us, we would have been slavering for second helpings. With this aristocrat, to do so would seem uncouth and unnecessary.

The proof of the pudding…

Perhaps, dare I even suggest, in terms of flavour and texture, if not the skill required to make it, Syrup Pudding and its like are superior as a pudding to their French counterparts. I am ducking the missiles I feel may be coming my way. But if I am unrefined in my tastes, surely I cannot be alone? Syrup Pudding may be simple, comfort food but it is also a divine comination of textures and flavours. The addition of custard, Crème Anglaise if you will, serves to cut any possible cloyingness of texture or the risk of oversweetness. Surprisingly light, but pleasingly substantial, there always seems room for another serving.

I have, on occasion, offered to clean up after dinner, singlehanded. Not some heroic act of self-sacrifice, offered at the shrine of my family’s comfort. Rather, the siren call of the dish the pudding was steamed in, enticing me to scrape it out. Can the same be said for the tin in which a Tarte Tatin was made? I fear not.

Leave it to the experts – or leave it to Mum?

I have been told that no French person would take along homemade pudding as a contribution to a dinner to which he or she had been invited. Such a thing would be to insult the host with a poor quality, amateur offering. Why take some ramshackle amateur affair when there are professionals to do a proper job?

It seems that we English – well, at least, my husband and I – feel differently. The “homemadeness” is what we enjoy. The time spent making it, the compliment to the host. As I cast my mind back to adverts for cakes and packaging for various factory-made cakes and puddings, it is clear that supermarkets and manufacturers are keen to stress their product is “Just like home” or “What Mum used to make.” The Brits will remember Mr. Kipling and his extraordinary cakes, which he liked to bring out for village fetes and cricket matches. It’s just that Mr. Kipling was a factory, somewhere fairly industrial in England, churning out Battenbergs by the thousand.

I have enjoyed and will continue to enjoy my foray into French patisseries. However, I feel it will not end my love of the home-baked, and what I will enjoy in most French bakeries are the comfortable croissants and brioches.

The best of both sides (of the English Channel)

For me food seems less about style and more about comfort and general “toothsomeness”. Is this another difference between England and France? I think it may be. I count myself lucky that, at the moment, I can enjoy both attitudes. But this weekend, my husband will get his syrup pudding and custard. Not, not just custard — make that “Crème Anglaise”!

Related posts:

Finding Paradise in Provence, Part I: An expat foodie’s views on French cuisine for the very young

Displaced Q: in modern French cuisine, who wins the race — the slow-food tortoise or the McDonald’s fast-food hare?

When a Julia Child-like curiosity about French cuisine leads to a displaced life — bienvenue au October theme

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe for email delivery of The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of the week’s posts from The Displaced Nation. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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DISPLACED Q: In modern French cuisine, who wins the race — the slow-food tortoise or the McDonald’s fast-food hare?

In yesterday’s post on French cooking guru Julia Child, ML Awanohara wrote about the Slow Food movement, which began life in the 1980s in resistance against big international interests and, more specifically, the opening of a McDonald’s near the Spanish Steps in Rome.

Today, on its website, Slow Food states it aims to

counter the rise of fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world.

Valid and valiant aims in an eco-conscious world that nevertheless marches toward global homogenization.

Slow and steady? Or just slow?

Yesterday, ML also expressed her bemusement that the movement started in Italy, not France — a reaction I share with her, because if one traditional cuisine takes le gateau when it comes to drawn-out toiling over a hot stove, it’s the French.

Learning the nuances of French cooking isn’t something I’ve ever yearned to do. While I am full of admiration for Julie Powell and her quest to conquer all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s tome of French cooking, I have no desire to repeat the exercise myself.

Well, perhaps that is no more you would expect of me. I am British, after all — Brits aren’t famed for their good food, although of course I feel this reputation is undeserved — and I have lived much of my life in America, home of fast foods such as Burger King and McDonald’s.

Do I exist on cheeseburgers and fries, though? Absolutely not. Rarely, in fact. I cook most things, from traditional English cakes and roast dinners to an authentic variety of Indian, Chinese, and Thai dishes. When it comes to French cuisine, though, my repertoire is limited to creme brulee and cherry clafoutis.

My reason? I’m not prepared to spend vast swathes of my evening preparing an eighteen-ingredient, three-page recipe when I can get an enthusiastic reception from my family by cooking a Ken Hom stir fry in one-third of the time.

But no matter the nationality of food I cook, it’s rare that our family does not sit down together in the dining room and eat together. The way I see it, rather less time spent in the kitchen means more time eating and conversing as a family.

Could it be that French cuisine has shot itself in the foot with its complicated nature?

Winning by a hare’s breadbun?

In his 2008 article in The Times, Hugo Rifkind describes McDonald’s as

“France’s dirty secret.”

Three years ago, Paris had around 70 McDonald’s — or McDoh’s, as they’re known there — which is the same number as in London, in a city with a third of London’s population.

Rifkind says:

Stop any Frenchman on the street…and he will shrug and snarl and say that he doesn’t eat in McDonald’s.

But someone does, and it can’t be just the tourists.

Evidence suggests that the image of the French businessman taking a two-hour, multi-course lunch is gradually being consigned to the past, and instead of lingering over a bottle of fine red and runny camembert, Monsieur is adopting the regrettable Anglo-American habit of lunch on the hop.

One oft-quoted statistic is that the length of the average French meal has fallen from 1 hour 22 minutes in 1978 to a mere 38 minutes today.

A sad statistic indeed.

While McDonald’s is trying to cater to the French palate by introducing the McBaguette and the Croque McDo, I feel this is missing the point.

Food is not just about fueling the body.

It is about taking time out of your day to enjoy time and conversation with friends. It should be about savoring the taste of good flavors, not about stuffing a sandwich down your gullet as fast as possible so you can make that meeting at one o’clock.

In Aesop’s fable, the tortoise eventually won the race.

In this race, I hope the Snail does.

STAY TUNED for Wednesday’s guest post by a serial expat who has recently moved to Provence.

Related post:

When a Julia Child-like curiosity about French cuisine leads to a displaced life — bienvenue au October theme

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