Many people who travel to France look forward to eating in restaurants — either because they want a break from the routine or because they like to experience the kind of virtuoso performance one sees at a Michelin-starred establishment. I prefer to shop in local markets and prepare my own food.
During the past four years my husband, Ken, and I have spent a total of nine months in France and lived in 18 homes or apartments, most of them rented through Airbnb. The kitchens have ranged in size from a little larger than a closet to almost as big as some New York City apartments I have occupied. Our house in Domme, a medieval village in the Périgord, had previously been a restaurant, and the enormous kitchen, with a stainless steel worktable at its center, had been left intact.
In these spaces I have prepared meals that rival most of what I have eaten in restaurants. In the Dordogne, I feasted on veal scallops in cream sauce with fresh mushrooms. I harvested basil from our garden in the Loire Valley, to add to my meatless tomato sauce, and mint for a velvety carrot-and-ginger soup. The rosemary that I found growing like a bush outside our rental in Alsace helped season a stovetop turkey breast simmered in a local Pinot Blanc.
One thing that makes these foods taste so good is the ingredients that I am able to buy at local markets. The French call this terroir – the flavor that food and wine derive from the soil, atmosphere, weather and other factors associated with their production. For example, the flowers on which cows graze could affect the taste of cheese made from their milk.
Though we consume few walnuts back home in New York, in the Périgord last year we caught walnut fever as the nuts were being harvested. After buying them at the market and harvesting many more ourselves, I used our stash to make Amanda Hesser’s recipe for Haricots Verts With Walnuts and Walnut Oil and developed a concoction of my own using other locally acquired seasonal ingredients: a salad of mixed greens, endive, figs, clementines and goat cheese, topped with roasted walnuts and served with raspberry-walnut vinaigrette.
Sure, I enjoy a nice restaurant meal, too, but inevitably one overpays for it. Between the price of food and the cost of labor, it is hard to find a good value at a French restaurant. The cost of meals at fancy places is obscene. And at more modest ones, the offerings tend to revolve around inexpensive ingredients — like mussels. As I overheard a French vacationer recently say, while perusing a menu at a beach resort featuring these crustations, “moules, moules, moules.”
In the fish market, a kilo of mussels (2.2 pounds), which is the recommended portion for one person, sells for €6 (about $7 at current conversion rates), which is about a third of the going rate to order them in a restaurant. If, like me, you still struggle to pronounce the word, the fishmonger might patiently correct you until you get it right, without any regard for the number of people waiting in line.
Procuring ingredients has led to some joyous interactions with other customers, too. A woman in the Friday market in Turckheim, where we spent the month of September, speculated that I must learn a lot by cooking during my travels. I noticed that the vendor, who had just helped me with my vegetable purchases, was beaming as he listened to our conversation. At a roadside farm stand where I stopped to buy a small quantity of the Alsatian plums known as quetsches, I met a woman loading up on 5 kilos (about 11 pounds). When I asked her if she had a patisserie (pastry shop), she laughed and described the process she uses to freeze the plums so she can make plum tarts all winter.
In a country of avid cooks and food lovers, it seems like everyone has some advice or moral support for the foreigner who is making an effort to speak their language in the market. And the subject of food brings us all together.
What I cook in each location depends not only on seasonal ingredients but also on the equipment that I find in the homes we rent. Though I’m not deterred by battered frying pans or the lack of sharp knives, I can’t make soup without a pot big enough to hold all the ingredients. I once asked our landlord, who lived nearby, if she had a tool she could lend me to purée it. (She promptly appeared with the necessary item, which I have found in many other French kitchens.) And having been inconvenienced by malfunctioning coffeepots or those that required pods of a size I wasn’t carrying, I find it easiest to take along my own 8-ounce French press.
Some of our kitchens had cookware that I coveted, like the Staub cast-iron Dutch oven I used to make the stovetop turkey, but I get most excited when a kitchen has a gas stove. Unfortunately, induction cooking hobs are much more common in France, and though they are sleek-looking, I do not enjoy using them: Among other things, when you tilt the pan — say to evenly distribute melting butter or while preparing an omelet — the heat automatically goes off.
The most charming kitchen was in a rambling old family home we rented in Le Puy-Notre-Dame, a tiny Loire Valley village surrounded by vineyards. The kitchen had a vintage butcher’s table that served as a work surface; an antique armoire that held a collection of mismatched bistro-cast-off dishes; and a high-performance stove installed in the old hearth (see photo above).
That stove, a Godin Souveraine fueled by a propane tank that sat under the kitchen counter, was not for the faint of heart or mechanically challenged. To turn it on, you depressed and turned the knob that corresponded to the burner you wanted to light, cocking your head toward the burner until you heard the hissing of gas. Meanwhile, with the other hand, you depressed the igniter switch, being careful to move your head away from the burner so that your hair did not catch fire when the flame came on.
Three times, while operating a combination of electrical devices, we tripped the circuit breaker and the house went dark. In Le Puy, it happened when we set the electric grill on the stove to medium-high. (Who knew it couldn’t be used on anything but a low setting?) A neighbor helped us flip the necessary switches in the control box, which was situated in the vestibule. On two other occasions, the control box was behind a locked door, and we had to wait for the owner to arrive. Once this took only two hours, but on the other occasion we were inconvenienced for nearly a day, as the owner returned from a pilgrimage on the Camino de Compostela.
Now, whenever we check into a new house, we inquire about the location of the circuit breakers – just in case.
As for recipes, my approach is generally to keep it simple. With such fresh ingredients, the food can speak for itself, as it does with my recipe for meatless tomato sauce, below. When I am not sure how to cook items foraged at local markets, I consult Mark Bittman’s book How to Cook Everything, which I carry as an app on my iPhone. Julia Child’s magnum opus, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1, which I have on my Kindle, is my most frequent reference book. Recently, I followed her directions for preparing the perfect sole.
When something doesn’t come out quite right, I recall Child’s reassuring words regarding culinary mishaps, which she reiterated on her popular PBS television series The French Chef. As she dropped a lamb roast, a turkey or an omelet on the floor, she would tell her audience, “If you’re alone in the kitchen, nobody will know.” In France I, too, am alone in the kitchen. It just doesn’t happen to be my own kitchen.
Recipe for Quick and Easy Meatless Tomato Sauce
Most vendors in French markets won’t let you select your own tomatoes. But if you tell them how much you want for your sauce and when you will be cooking – for example, pour faire le sauce aujourd’hui (to make the sauce today) or pour faire le sauce demain (to make the sauce tomorrow) — they will choose tomatoes of the right degree of ripeness.
2 pounds fresh tomatoes
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped
- Skin the tomatoes, extract the seeds and core, reserve the juice and roughly chop the pulp.
- In a medium saucepan, heat the olive oil over a medium flame, add the garlic and sauté until fragrant.
- Add the tomatoes, lower the heat and simmer, stirring frequently until the tomato reduces, adding reserved juices as necessary to keep it from drying out.
- Once the sauce has reached the desired consistency, add chopped basil and cook for 5 more minutes. Serve over pasta with grated cheese. Freeze any leftovers for future use.
Deborah L. Jacobs, a lawyer and journalist, is the author of Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home and Estate Planning Smarts: A Practical, User-Friendly, Action-Oriented Guide. Follow her on Twitter at @djworking and join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.