A girl and her cat take on the world with nothing more than a cup of tea and a good book and enough dreams to fill the universe.
Normally, I am a vegetarian who likes to eat fresh vegetables and fruits in the privacy of my own kitchen, but when I am in France, I abandon all of my normal habits. I eat everything anyone sets in front of me with great gusto and pleasure. As a result, I always come home a little bit (okay, a lot) heavier than I left. Yet, exchange students have a saying that every pound gained is the result of several good memories around a table. The table is the French’s domain. The French have created art with their food, even though most of what we know of as French food actually stems from French peasant food. The French enjoy their meals and take the time to savor every bite, which sometimes means that a lunch or dinner can span six or seven hours, but when you taste French cooking, you get to know the French a little better. You understand why people went to war because they couldn’t afford bread. You understand why France has remained so agricultural. You understand why perhaps the French have a bad rap for winning wars; they must have been waving their white lunch napkins.
My first meal in France consisted of a fresh salad with cubed red peppers and cherry tomatoes. I also had a few shrimp and some smoked salmon and, of course, bread. In France, the shrimp always come with everything attached. They have little black beady eyeballs that stare out at you like “How did this happen to me?” and their spindly legs break off as you try to break their shell so you can get at the fresh meat inside. I am always slightly disturbed when I twist of the shrimp’s head and my pinch isn’t tight enough and the shrimp brains or guts come oozing out, but I eat them anyway.
The next day, I went in to Lyon to do a little bit of shopping and I stopped at the bakery chain Paul and decided to treat myself to a small sit down lunch. At this point in my trip, I was still a little unsure of my rusty French, so ordering was a scary ordeal and I just kind of stared down the waiter until he came to help me because I couldn’t remember the way to sit down and order in a French cafe, but I survived anyway. I ordered a Nordique sandwich which consists of smoked salmon and fresh veggies on a delightfully crunchy and fresh mini baguette thing.
That evening, my host dad, Thierry, returned from his business trip. Thierry should become a master chef, but instead he works for one of the largest nuclear power centers in France. He decided to take our taste buds to Spain and made an excellent homemade paella.
Skip forward a couple of days and we headed to Annency which is located up near the French Alps and is famous for a very large man-made lake. There, I had a traditional dish which consisted of lots of melted cheese and potatoes. It was delicious, but a little heavy and warm on a hot day, but I can see it’s appeal when you come off the ski slopes. Thierry had a traditional steak and fries. (You should all try french fries in France because they are all doubled fried so they are twice as crispy. And it’s just about the best thing you’ve ever tasted.) Thierry’s wife, Kiki, got a pasta carbonara which always comes with a raw egg yolk and a cream sauce with onions and lardons, which are little ham and fat rectangles.
On my last day in Lyon, Thierry pulled out all the stops for me and made a beef cutlet topped with fresh foie gras. Normally, I am not a big fan of foie gras. I have never really like liver, though I have tried it, and foie gras tends to smell like cat food and look like it too. Fresh foie gras is a totally different story. It’s a thick piece of fat that is incredibly tender and savory and lent itself so well to the flavor of the beef. It has to be one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten. With the beef cutlet, we also had both green and white asparagus and tiny squash things that were hollowed out and stuffed with grilled bell pepper and onion. For dessert, Thierry sliced up a cantaloupe and made a strawberry and speculoos tartlet with a homemade caramel sauce. It was divine.
When I made my way to Lille, my other host dad, Philippe, was waiting for me. That evening he made me “les mieulleurs pomme des terres du monde” (the best potatoes in the world) which were chopped up fingerling potatoes cooked in both butter and olive oil until they were perfectly crunchy on the outside and wonderfully tender on the inside. We also had a small steak with garlic. It was simple, but it was perfect.
When Philippe’s wife, Pascale, returned from England, we went out to eat at a creperie. I forgot to take a picture of the crepe, but I did get a picture of the cafe gourmand. What you see here is a selection of fresh fruit, dark chocolate fondue, vanilla ice cream, and marshmallows. It was so unbelievably delicious. When you visit France, always be sure to order a cafe gourmand after your meal for a selection of that restaurants finest desserts so you don’t have to worry about choosing.
Philippe is renowned for making crepes. When I was staying with him four years ago, every Sunday evening he would make all of the women in the house crepes and I have always loved that tradition. He makes savory crepes first, which are filled with emmental cheese, ham, and sautéed mushrooms. For dessert, it’s creme fraiche and brown sugar. I have tried to recreate these crepes for my family in the United States, but my crepe batter is never quite the same as Philippe’s and no matter how much I beg he won’t give it to me. Pascale says it’s because he doesn’t know it himself. He just makes crepes.
This little pastry delight is called a pain au chocolat. It’s pretty much a rectangle croissant that is filled with chocolate. I love these so much and they’re the best when the baker has just pulled them out of the oven. I used to get one almost every morning on my way to school because there was a bakery right outside my metro stop and I could smell them as I ascended the escalator.
This is tomato farcie. Tomato farcie consists of a tomato that has been emptied out and stuffed full of a ground beef and ground pork mixture and it is incredibly rich and I love it to death. I still have yet to make that here in the United States, but it’s on my list of things to do this summer.
For mother’s day, we all went out to a delightful little restaurant where we ate curried turkey and mashed sweet potatoes. It was all so delicious that everyone cleaned their plate entirely, exhausting the small pail of bread in trying to mop up all the sauce.
Here are the results of my first trip to a friterie, which is like a food car that only specializes in fries. I ordered a small fry and what you see here is only the tip of the iceberg. This picture includes only 10% of the fries that I was actually given. Friteries are specific to the north of France and Belgium and there is actually a long standing argument between the two countries as to who invented the french fry. The Belgians fry their fries in either beef fat or horse fat which lends a totally different flavor to a fry than vegetable oil and I’ve got to say, it’ll be hard going back to McDonald’s after this experience.
These are all pictures from one of those six hour meals I was mentioning before. It lasted from 7:00 PM to 1:00 AM. What you see are a traditional French sausage, chicken with a cream sauce and leeks, some sort of beef and carrots, and a cafe gourmand consisting of a vanilla creme with a raspberry sauce, a nut brownie, and a coffee flavored mousse.
And finally, my family made it to Paris where we enjoyed a delicious dinner in the heart of Montmarte together. My sister and dad shared the lamb and ratatouille that you see in the pictures while my mom had boeuf bourginon and I had a duck dish that I don’t remember the name of. It was the best meal of the whole entire trip and I think that was mostly due to the company.
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Brian Marggraf, Author of Dream Brother: A Novel, Independent publishing advocate, New York City dweller
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New York City based photographer STEFAN FALKE visits artists who live and work on both sides of the 2000 miles long U.S.- Mexico border to document the vibrant culture of the region for his ongoing project. All photos and texts © Stefan Falke (No use without written permission by the author)