French Chef Comes to Your Kitchen

Version 2I met my Frenchman after losing in the semi finals of the European basketball championship, so I was in no mood for romance. But that clever man persuaded my teammates to drag me to his dinner party, and I’ll be darned if I didn’t fall in love at first bite. I still remember that meal a fondue bourguignonne.

On our first date, he invited me to dinner and served poulet aux pommes, a baked chicken with apples sauteed in fresh cream, a specialty from his Normandy region. I had never seen a chicken served whole let alone known a man who would cook one. So that pretty much sealed the deal, although it took me another year or so to make up my mind.

Since then, try as I might to pick up pointers in the art of cooking, me in the kitchen is like a bull in a china shop. I lack that French je ne sais quoi when it comes to timing, textures and flavors. I threw in the towel long ago and forfeited command of the kitchen. Why try to compete with ze French when it comes to cooking?

Gérald’s culinary expertise developed early on. He won his first cooking contest as a boy creating his omelet supreme over an open fire, no less, using the only ingredients available to scouts – eggs, potatoes, milk, salt, and pepper.

For decades, I have been spoiled by his vast repertoire of specialties. Our weekly fare varies from sole to trout, duck to quail, rabbit to lamb prepared in a variety of taste tantalizing ways. I could make a small fortune by renting out his services.

I am so spoiled; he cooks up a storm on a daily basis. Oh no, not burgers and dogs, but gourmet meals with hard to pronounce names like blanquette de dinde, agneau de 7 heures, and lapin en gibelotte as well as simple fare like salmon grilled in olive oil and herbs, sausage and lentils, beef and a carrot gratin.               .

But I have good news for you. I decided to share. In addition to my usual gamut of fav topics, we will “serve” food. Stay tuned as we share not only cross-cultural living, but also favorite French and European recipes.

Bon appetit!

And Happy Halloween.

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Half Board and Silent Hotels A Good Combo

IMG_4443_copyIf you enjoy being away from the crowd and love fine dining, booking a night in the Hostellerie de L’Ardève is a win/win situation. Perched at 1350 meters, adjacent to Ovronnaz and Les Mayens de Chamoson, this hotel offers a stunning view overlooking the Rhone Valley and the Alps. The annex to the hotel, le Chalet de Kalbermatten, was built at the beginning of the 20th century and is IMG_4453_copyprotected as a historical landmark.

In 1968, several hoteliers, who believed noise is a social intrusion undermining our health and happiness, created the Relais de Silence. Hotels listed in this guide are often difficult to find, they are hidden in the countryside, by the sea, along the banks of a river, on an island, at the edge of a mountainside or along a side street in a busy city. They are known for their peace and quiet. Located in a natural environment, in comfortable buildings with unique character, Silent Hotels must offer a warm welcome stressing quality of life and gastronomy. Each is reflective of the unique style of the country where it is located.

It is usually a gamble, but to reserve a room with demi pension (half-board), a fixed rate that includes breakfast and the evening meal, is a better deal. Our hotel, a 3 star, also known for its gastronomy, was a good bet. We were not disappointed.

Friday we were served a Russian salad followed by sea bream in lemon sauce with mini potatoes and zucchini au gratin. Desert, an apricot cauflirori, an egg flan with a scoop of rhubard/honey ice cream was served on plates of ardoise, which looked like the old chalk slate we wrote on in grade school. On our walk the next day we found unfinished pieces of slate chipped off the mountain side.IMG_4433_copy

Saturday night, our starter was the traditional “assiette valaisane”, which is a plate of artistically arranged cold cuts – salami, dried beef, cured ham served with pinky sized pickles and baby white onions. The main course was chicken in cream sauce accompanied with risotto and scalped zucchini.

Dessert, a vanilla ice cream soufflé, was the house specialty. The Frenchman charmed the waitress into trading the menu fare for a wild blueberry tart. Why does your husband’s dessert always looks better than your own? Souffléd ice cream – not for me. It was tough and chewy, but Gerald’s tart was exquisite.

We were in the Leytron and Chamoson wine territory, so naturally a glass of Humagne Blanc or Johannisberg Grand Cru, local favorites, were recommended. Every spare inch of soil on the mountain ranges, southern flank was filled with vineyards.IMG_4480_copy

I am not sure what it is about that mountain air the wets your appetite, but, no matter how much you devoured the night before, the next morning you are hungry again.

IMG_4441_copyIn Europe breakfast is often included and in mountains it is usually copious. On a self-serve sideboard an enticing display of cereals, fresh fruits, paper thin slices of salami and ham, and thick chunks of cheese of local cheese as well as a choice of bakery fresh breads and croissants and homemade preserves awaited. All to be savored with piping hot coffee or tea.IMG_4442_copy

Over breakfast, from the brasserie we had a panoramic view of the mountains enticing us to go hiking, if only to work up our appetite for the next gourmet meal.

Chez Mamie -To Grandma’s House We Go

DSCN1477_copyEven though I knew the 7 hour drive from Geneva to Trouville would be arduous, I am glad I went. Our bittersweet trip down memory lane was made all the more meaningful because our daughter was along.

Mamie answered the doorbell at midnight wringing her hands with worry that it took us so long. We fell into the lumpy old beds and slept, the sleep of the dead. The next morning, we threw open the shutters of our attic nest for a bird’s eye view of the cloud-covered sky, casting melancholy shadows over the spindly old village. Trouville was built where the Touques River meets the English Channel.

Mamie lived in the gangly, 18th century fisherman’s flat chiseled on the side of the cliff that DSCN1453_copyopened onto the Quais Fernand Moureaux. Her front door – three stories up – was on the rue des Ecores on the street above. Underneath her house was a clothing boutique, Blanc de Nil, which sold only white clothes.

Baby yellow rose buds and purple pansies grew in flower pots behind the wrought iron balcony railing where Mamie and Papie stood in their robes waving goodbye as we began the long trek to Switzerland with wind burned faces and stuffed bellies. On that very same balcony our children and their cousins searched for eggs falling from the skies when the Easter bells rang on their way to Rome. In France the Easter bells delivered chocolates instead of the Easter bunny.

DSCN1449_copyOn sunny days, we opened the French doors and let the warmth seep into the small sitting room/dining room. An oak table with folding leaves expands for family was squeezed into that 12” by 14” space. A love seat and matching chair faced the TV screen. An antique Normand armoire, storing Mamie’s wine glasses and wedding china dating back 64 years, was tucked against one wall. Every spare inch of wall space was covered with photographs of her 3 children and her 5 grandchildren.

The focal point of any French home was the dinner table, where families shared meals over a lively repartee of word play, heated debates, biting sarcasm, and endless discussions about food: what we ate yesterday, what we are eating today and what will eat tomorrow.

DSCN1476_copyIn Normandy where the land meets the sea, dining was of the finest quality in France. On the wharf, fishermen sell mackerel, sole and bar – caught the night before.

At the open market, the locals offer free-range chicken, as well as lamb and veal that romped on lush green pastures only days before. Tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, artichokes, asparagus – all locally grown – looked as if they sprouted out of the ocean blue tablecloth.

Mamie, a woman who never served a sandwich in her life, will ask, “What would you like for lunch?”

Lunch meant dinner in the old-fashioned sense – a five-course meal with a starter, main course, cheese platter, dessert and coffee with chocolates that she had hidden for special occasions. Then she would set out thimble sized glasses and poured “just a taste” of her homemade plum liquor. As soon as one meal over, Mamie started preparing for the next DSCN1482_copyone, scurrying around the village filling her wicker basket with fresh supplies from the butchers, the bakers and the creamery.

Like Trouville, Mamie lived in rhythm with the tides and seasons. She served tart apples and blackberries in the fall, fresh scallops and oysters in the winter, succulent strawberries and melons in the spring and lush peaches and cherries in the summer. Once again Mamie filled our stomachs with local specialties and our hearts with happy memories making us always feel welcome back home in Normandy.

I’m Baacckkkk!

https://www.dreamstime.com/-image1188925Back from the brink. Again. I felt like I had one foot in the grave and the other in quicksand. Though I sure don’t feel like dancin’ yet, I can hear the music again and it sounds oh so sweet. I am recovering from what could easily have developed into a life threatening illness. Ever the athlete, I gallantly battled forward sucking up the pain until I was very ill. I’ll spare the details cause diarrhea is not the sort of thing one wants to know details about. Suffice it to say, it’s scary when no matter what you eat goes through you as fast as it hits your digestive track.

Food is life; the human body is a miracle machine.

I never stopped to think how a chomp of that apple could turn into a cell-fueling vitamin. From teeth to tongue, down the gullet to the stomach through the intestines, with the liver, gall bladder, and pancreas adding to the mix. What bio chemical processes allow enzymes to disassemble macromolecules, to take whole foods, and turn them into nutrients, to allow the body to function, grow, and repair itself? Ingestion. Secretion. Mixing. Movement. Digestion. Absorption. Excretion. Wow! The digestive system is an amazing assembly line with so many bit and bobs that can break down anytime.

I lost 15 pounds in a week while kind offers poured in from around the globe of people willing to part with spare kilos. Alas, no one would agree to allow me to choose of which body part I took the weight from.

For days, I dragged from couch to bed doubled over. Clostridium difficile colitis rates right up there at the top of the pain pyramid alongside acute sciatic and late stage labor.

I couldn’t write a blog. Heck, I couldn’t even string words together and speak a coherent sentence.canstock8394947

In the middle of the night when my intestines turned inside out and twisted into a fiery knot, I succumbed to fear. With the devil looking in me in the eye and laughing, I whispered prayers. Oh yea of little faith.

Without H2O and antibiotics, no wonder entire Third World villages are wiped out by this bad bug. With my head bowed to the porcelain throne, I praised the Lord for running water, toilet paper, and modern plumbing.

When I realized I survived another night, I offered thanks to those who stick by me during the toughest times.

To a BFF who hears my tears long distance and shushes me saying, “Nooo, don’t cry…it will make it hurt worse. Let me tell you a funny story.”

To a daughter who reminds me the latest studies show it’s okay to eat whatever sounds good when the thought of another banana made me nauseous.

To family members who drop everything to reach out with phone calls from across 6 different time zones.

To mon bonhomme who nursed me to back to health. Again. Oh, if only I could be cured by his sublime cuisine.

Never, never under estimate the power of the healing touch even through cyberspace.

Now I am impatient; I learned my lesson. I want to get in the driver’s seat and cruise back into the relentless pace of the living. But my legs still buckle under me, my head still spins and I have yet to gain a gram. Enough already. I get it.

Why me? Why not me?

Suffering does not discriminate.

I am discouraged, but my outlook will improve when I start gaining back strength physically. I’ve been down and out before especially in February. And this ain’t nothin compared to that car accident thirtysome years ago.

Ah, February, my month of reflection. I am reminded again: life is a gift. We are blessed with another day. Fill it with kindness. Surviving is tough enough. Think of the magic your body performs every bite “of life” you take.lake in winter

 

Viva La French Diet- Live to Eat and Lose Weight

15999751-french-iconssetAmerican women have long envied svelte, sophisticated French women who indulge in forbidden culinary pleasures yet remain slender. The French, who savor high fat chocolates, high cholesterol cheeses and high priced wine, to boot, should be role models for the rest of the world. Ironically, the society that lives to eat could set health trends. French focus wholeheartedly on food.

A French dinner party conversation is a lesson in verb conjugation. The discussion revolves around what is being eaten in present tense, what was eaten in the past and what will be eaten at the next millennium. Mealtime is still sacred. So much emphasis on food makes one less likely to eat anything, any time of day. Snacking is limited to once a day at 4 pm sharp. La gouter, which means taste, not gobble, not gorge, gives one permission to sample a sweet or savory treat.

French females remain lean by running the country, flitting from one chore to another, while balancing precariously on high heels. Not only do they work full-time, they collect the children from school, buy baguettes daily, and pick up fresh produce in open markets. They take time to fondle tomatoes, pummel melons, and squeeze nectarines testing for ripeness. They wait in line to order fresh cut chops, but butchers beware. No wrath is greater than that of a French woman’s who has been sold poor quality cuts of meat. French women are never more demanding than during transactions dealing with food.

The French savor foods with full flavor that pack a punch, pungent cheese that singe nose hair, Dijon mustard that puts hair on the chest, and coffee, so strong, that hair spikes straight up.10127676-cheese-composition

It is not so much what the French eat, but what they don’t eat. Deep-fried meats and fish, chips and crackers and our beloved sandwich are taboo overseas. Serving size does matter. Crackers, sold in tiny, palm-sized mini boxes are nibbled, but only at the aperitif. Petit fours, pinky sized tarts, éclairs and cakes are served in bite-sized pieces for dessert.

Petit aptly describes the French and their serving sizes. Food is served in mini courses on plates ascending in size from doll-sized saucers to starters to entries on full size dinnerware. Then the plates shrink again up to the grand finale, a sculpted dessert that leaves most of the plate empty for artistic effect.

Serving food in courses forces the diner to slow down. The traditional French meal lasts hours. A dozen plates will have been used for each place setting. By the time the first courses have been eaten, the brain will have hit the snooze button and no longer send those subliminal messages calling for cookies, cakes and ice cream.

The French are also major producers and consumers of yogurt and milk based products. Laitage is a standard dessert and there are 100 different varieties of puddings and yogurt products. The French got it right again. Recent studies prove calcium consumption reduces weight.

Chocolate, too, has gotten a bum rap in the past. Now the propensities of chocolate are being tooted for health benefits. The darker the chocolate, the fewer calories and more of those mood-boosting endorphins. French women adore chocolate, but rather than devouring the whole bar, they only indulge in one piece of rich, high calorie, ultra dark chocolate from a fancy box that costs more than my mortgage.

Another anomaly, whereas beer-guzzling Americans put on beer bellies, French wine drinkers remain lean and studies show that imbibing improves health. Red wine is beneficial for the heart, helps lower cholesterol and aids digestion.7992041-assortment-of-baked-bread-on-wood-table

Darned if those cultivated, French connoisseurs haven’t gotten the best of us of again.

Their savoir-faire and appetite for pleasure “à une bonne table” created a lifestyle where wellness is assured by living to eat right.