Lessons in Living a French Life

Bringing a touch of French culture to everyday life

Your Weekly Voilà: My Idea of the Perfect Summer French Meal 😋✨💗🇫🇷
I am often asked to compare life in France to life in Hawaii. It would take a book to delve into all of the differences. From the obvious - the welcoming aloha spirit compared to a more reserved but authentic engagement - to the more subtle difference of dealing with the feeling of both comfort and isolation of living on a small island compared to an entire continent of choices to navigate and explore. Each offers a variety of experiences and life lessons. For today's Weekly Voilà, I want to focus on a difference that I stumbled upon and that I wished someone would have told me prior to moving. It's important so listen up.

The French do not eat raw mushrooms.

I want to save you from the uncomfortable experience of presenting a large salad at an impromptu dinner soirèe that is filled with chopped veggies, hardboiled eggs, shredded cheese, and yes . . . sliced mushrooms. Even if you add a loaf of good french bread on the side, this does not constitute dinner in any region of France. First, you're missing about 3 additional courses and you just served eggs on a salad that is only matched in disgust by the sliced raw mushrooms. Oh - the French do adore mushrooms. But they are meant to be cooked and a part of some delicious cream and butter sauce. And before you say, "Well, there is a lot of nutritional value in raw fungi and it's how we eat them in the states." Remember, Americans also gave the world chicken nuggets and marshmallow fluff. Not standing on solid ground there.

As experienced expats living in France will tell you:

Mushrooms must always be cooked.

Cheese is its own course.

Salad is never dinner.

I get it now. Preparing and eating a meal in France is very different from preparing and eating a meal just about anywhere else in the world. It's time for me to figure out a new "go-to" French dinner option. I must admit that I am a bit daunted by the task. However, I've come to the place where I, too, prefer my mushrooms cooked. Funny how your tastes change and adapt to new cultural situations.
Some of my favorite meals have been enjoyed around this table with my French family over the past 30 years.
If I can be permitted a few broad sweeping generalizations about the nuances of cuisine: The U.S. is more focused on nutrition and ease of preparation. There is also a sense of investment to portion size. An American is quick to think and even sometimes too bold to exclaim aloud, "Am I getting my money's worth here?" when evaluating a meal. France is about the process and pleasure of consuming. Almost to a tedious fault. Careful consideration is given to the ingredients and their presentation. There is an unspoken degree in the way things must go.

You begin with an aperitif on the terrace. Bowls of olives and little soft cheeses topped with herbs are passed around and eaten with toothpicks. (I don't think I've ever bought toothpicks and yet my cousins go through boxes on a regular basis.) These delicious tidbits are enjoyed alongside a Kir, a drink made with a blackberry liquor and white wine, or on a hot summer day, a Ricard for pastis that is a strong liquor with a licorice taste but is surprisingly refreshing when served over ice and diluted with water. Lots and lots of water.
One of my favorite aperitifs is Floc de Gascogne. It is a wine of fruity liquor composed of 2/3 grape juice and 1/3 Armagnac from the property on which it is made. Armagnac is Gascony's brandy. Never ever say Cognac when you are in Gers. Never.
After an hour of nibbling and drinking, the madame of the house clears the table and goes into seclusion in her kitchen to prepare the next step of the meal. You do not follow. I repeat. You do not go into the kitchen of a French person without being invited. And it might take years before you are invited. This is sacred ground, folks. This is très difficile for those of us raised in a culture that you insistently must ask, "Is there anything I can do?" Or with a pleading whine, "How can I help?" You can't. You need to sit tight and continue with the conversation. To make a scene is considered very impolite no matter how polite your intensions may be.
One of my favorite photos ever. I might have shared it before when writing about European kitchens. This is my Aunt Gerti in her Austrian kitchen north of Vienna. The same rules apply. This is her domain. I was invited in just 4 months before her death in 2017. She was preparing kuchen - some sweet pastries - and coffee. She invited me in and handed me the dishes to set the table. It was her smile that came with the request that created a lasting moment for me.  
I need to clarify that dinner is the smaller meal in most of Europe. The big meal is more often served at noon. So I am taking on a manageable goal here. Let's review: I have the aperitif. I know that I do not serve butter with the bread. Yes - in the morning for breakfast. No - with any meal. Bread is merely a vehicle to soak up all the delicious sauce left on your plate and to eat with the next course - often my favorite - the cheese plate. Go wild. Offer at least 3 different types. And be sure you have enough. You never want to run out of cheese. That would be a big faux pas. Now comes the fruit or perhaps some not-too-sweet dessert. Coffee and a bit of eau de vie - a local brandy is a must. I just need le plat - or the entree in English. (Just to keep it confusing, l'entrée in French is the appetizer so keep that in mind when you are ordering.)

While the progression of the meal does not change, the menu does in keeping with the seasons and what is locally produced. I need a new menu for an easy to share, what-can-my-garden-provide-in-a-pinch sort of option.

Ratatouille. It's the perfect summertime meal.
Some folks like to dice all their ingredients and cook them together on the stovetop. I'm more a slicer. I like to see and taste each flavor. I also think it makes a prettier presentation. Yes, I'm turning on the oven in the summer. But it's so much easier to have something ready to pop out of the oven when you are entertaining guests compared to being chained to the stove stirring to avoid anything being burned on the bottom of the pan. An added benefit is that it is both vegetarian and vegan . . . just in case . . . but very doubtful it will be an issue in fois gras country.
Karen's Easy Peasy Ratatouille
1 c. crushed tomatoes
1 T. olive oil
1/4 t. apple cider vinegar
2 t. minced garlic
1 T. basil (4 large fresh leaves)
1 t. Herbs de Provence
1/4 t. salt
1/4 t. black pepper
1/4 t. chili powder

1 medium sweet onion, sliced
2 large zucchini, sliced
1 large abergine, sliced
3 large tomatoes, sliced
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. (180 C.) and lightly oil a baking dish.
2. Mix together the crushed tomatoes with the oil, vinegar, garlic, and spices in a medium-sized bowl.
3. Spread the tomato mixture on the bottom of the prepared pan in an even layer.
4. In rows, assemble the sliced remaining vegetables in alternating order. Slice of onion, zucchini, eggplant, and tomato. Brush the top with a bit of olive oil.
5. Bake for 1 hour or until the vegetables are tender when pierced with a knife.

Voilà! You are ready to serve. If you are lucky enough to have leftovers, this dish is divine cold. But never serve it cold to your guests. Another faux pas.
Ratatouille sounds like a complex French dish to prepare but it's really quite simple. This makes it the perfect recipe for me. I'm terrible at menu planning and I don't like my panty or fridge to be stocked too full. I can't find anything. Plus, I never want to waste food because it was hidden behind something for far too long. So for me . . . It's frequent shopping for fresh ingredients and being dependent on the garden and cellar to provide. This is a very different routine from many of my American counterparts. No Costco runs. No neatly boxed prepared foods in the freezer. No enormous refrigerator holding every condiment known to humankind. Just plenty of quick hor d'oeuvres when the moment arises and the ability to make a meal pop out of the kitchen when an aperatif with guests spontaneously turns into dinner. What a delightful French challenge to have.
This weekend, think about your signature dish for summer.

À bientôt mon amie,

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