Here’s a helpful hint from the kitchen: don’t learn to cook after age 70. Bonus tip: definitely don’t try it in France. The result could be Cordon Blecccch.
I should know. We recently bought a home in Southwest France where we spend half the year. Though retired and living overseas, cooking has become imperative.
That’s because we couldn’t carry our six-month-supply of kipper snacks into the country. We tried. Customs said mais non. Turns out they’re against salted fish immigration. So, we cook…sort of.
The French are wonderful people. They even tolerate Americans who ask which grocery aisle has Velveeta. But they don’t make it easy in the kitchen. Especially for those of us who think crème fraiche means Cool Whip without chemicals. Wait…then it wouldn’t be Cool Whip, would it? See the problem? The French are playing mind games with us.
Food in France is a cultural thing
Some of it is cultural. Did you know they eat salad after dinner here instead of before? “Now finish your liver, Francois, or no celery root.”
Some of it is the English/French language barrier. For example: in French, the word avocat can mean an avocado or a lawyer. There’s only one way to tell them apart. One has a pimply, bitter skin that rots in the sun. The other is an avocado.
There’s also the problem of pilot error. It took a week to figure out how to turn on the oven in our French house. We still haven’t found the off switch and it’s been two months.
With such challenges, it’s best to accept that the French adore food and don’t want us mucking it up. But if you insist on cuisiner au Francaise, which is chocolate éclairs in a blender, here are some rules:
Don’t use chicken broth from a can. For one thing, you can’t find it at groceries. For another, the French only accept stock made from a chicken you raised and butchered yourself.
Don’t ask for butter at a restaurant. It’s already baked into everything, including the chair you’re sitting on.
You’d better like duck
Learn to like duck.
That last one is crucial. We live in the Dordogne Valley two hours east of Bordeaux. There’s a saying here: if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…it’s your dinner.
Americans often don’t like duck. But in Southwest France, it’s everywhere. There’s smoked duck, pate with duck liver, and canard confit, which is duck cooked in duck fat.
Pretty much everything is wonderful in duck fat. To prove it, take off your shoe. Fry it in confit. Now eat it. Delectable, right? So go ahead and order it. But for God’s sake, put your shoes on. This is France, not a barn.
Top tips for learning to cook the French way
Step 1 in French cooking is: go to a marché.
These are the bustling outdoor markets that have everything from vegetables to the raw material for stock: live chickens. There’s a marché in nearly every French village with indoor plumbing.
Shopping at the marché is the entertainment highlight of the week for many of us. But there are language barriers. I asked a vendor for zucchini. He replied: “ah oui, la courgette!” I said no, I didn’t want Queen Elizabeth’s female dog. I wanted zucchini. He gave me chicken broth.
Step 2 is: learn the metric system.
I converted 325 degrees Fahrenheit to Celsius. I turned the oven to 275 centigrade. The oven melted the handle right off my skillet frittata. Crème fraiche helped the frittata, but Cool Whip would have been better.
Step 3 is: don’t watch Julia Child on YouTube.
She made French cooking look easy. It’s not. Celery stalks are so long, they’re sold by the yard…sorry…meter. A pomme is an apple, a pomme de terre is a potato. No problem if you want latkes with applesauce, but otherwise, watch your language.
As if that’s not bad enough, they cook with turnips in France. And they’re good. Bet you couldn’t do that.
For all the kvetching, it must be said: French food is sublime…when I’m not cooking it. The proof: I’ve gained 20 pounds in two months here. But no problem, I’m swearing off Cool Whip tomorrow.
Mike Zampa is a media relations consultant and former newspaper editor and columnist who splits his time, along with his wife, between the San Francisco Bay Area and the Dordogne Valley’s Golden Triangle.
Three easy to make French dishes
Truffade – simple to make delicious to eat, a feel-good potato and cheese dish
Tarte de Soleil – looks amazing, tastes scrumptious and super easy to prepare
Salted caramel – irresistible, more-ish and easy to make