When one is new in a French ville, expat or visitor, it’s wonderful to be invited to a private home where a native Frenchwoman promises to cook a la Francaise…
In my little village of Collioure, in the far south of France, there are many artists and sculptors, they add color and vitality to the community. I was lucky enough to be asked to dinner at a sculptor’s amazing home by the sea. I arrived with warm focaccia in hand and a bottle of the local Dominican cuvee Matisse.
My hostess started by showing guests her dazzling atelier lit by tiny fairy lights strewn across the vast ceiling. It was furnished with work tables filled with clay and stone (the finished pieces awaiting their trip to her agent in Paris). In the kitchen there was a long communal table heaving with bounty from the Pyrenees Orientale, it looked like a work of art. Silver anchovies marinated in olive oil and vinegar, tapenades of black and green olives, crusty bread from a local bakery and tiny hot hors d’oeurves of puff pastry stuffed with shrimp and beignets of salt cod.
I, a cookbook writer and professional baker, was awed by this and the next course. Lovely plates of fragrant rice and Thai chicken in a coconut sauce, steamed snow peas and baby carrots in butter with mint. For dessert, there was an impressive fruits des bois topped with Madagascar vanilla ice cream.
It was a brilliant supper from someone who had told me just days before not to expect a feast. She really did not like to cook she said, and would just throw something together. It was just a casual evening, un verre avec autre, and not a gourmet spread.
When coffee was served, I stayed behind in the kitchen to offer help. I discovered that unlike some countries, in France, one does nothing in the kitchen for the hostess. When she comes to your house, you too should reject offers of help and let your guests enjoy themselves. But before I left, I had to ask.
“This was an amazing dinner, Jacquie, so delicious. How, with your busy life did you manage to cook like this for six people and have time to make magic out of clay?
“Oh, cherie, I was not going to say anything, but I can’t help it. I can’t take the credit. Let me show you.”
And with that, she sheepishly pulled out of the poubelle the various boxes from every Frenchwoman’s secret source. Picard, a frozen food shop that will drive you mad. I am a purist and love fresh ingredients but my new friend assured me everything is picked and frozen straight away whilst still very fresh. I had to see it for myself!
Tiny petancles of Normandy, tender peeled spring feves, sweet potato frittes and so much more will dazzle you. If you suddenly have several guests arriving at the same time, or you’re working on a deadline this place is a savior. Also it’s great, I might add, if you hate to cook
Suzanne Dunnaway is the author of No Need To Knead, Handmade ItalianBreads in 90 Minutes (Hyperion); Rome, At Home, The Spirit of la cucina romana in Your Own Kitchen (Broadway Books); No Need to Knead (Metric/American version-Grub Street Publishers, London)