Tuesday, February 17, 2009

La belle France OR 100 Kms.

In September of 1977, at age seventeen, three months after I graduated from high school, I went to live in la belle France. And that’s when my real introduction to, and ultimate love for food and cooking, began. After a few days in Paris where I turned eighteen, I landed in the town of Colmar in the Alsace region of eastern France. I lived there for the next year caring for four French children, avec la famille Zundel. I was an au pair or ‘mother’s helper’. My duties included looking after the children, as well as cooking and cleaning. In return I was provided with room and board, and a small cash stipend.

Au pair work was usually given to girls not boys; a fact proven by the work papers (carte de séjour) the local police department gave me. My job title on the permit read ‘jeune fille au pair’ which translates to ‘girl mother’s helper’. Luckily for me the family had four very active children and decided that a boy might be a good idea.

My immersion into the French way of life was immediate. Part of my duties involved daily food shopping. Each morning after dropping the children off at school, I’d consult with Madame Zundel about that day’s lunch menu (the big meal of day) then set off with a list and a large wicker basket. I went to the green grocer, the baker, the butcher, the cheese shop, and occasionally the pastry shop if guests were coming. The shops were all separate from one another and spread around the town of Colmar. I went from one to the next to the next – my basket growing heavier with each stop. My French was remedial at that point but I was able to communicate what it was I wanted by gesturing and pointing.

Each shop, and its attendant proprietors, was a unique experience. Most were family owned businesses handed down through the generations. This usually meant the people behind the counters were the owners or the sons or daughters of. A lesson I learned on day one: always say hello upon entering a French shop or business. As I opened the door, no matter how many people were in line in front of me, whoever was behind the counter always called out ‘Bonjour, monsieur’ – if I did not respond in kind I was met with a stony silence and helped begrudgingly.

My first impression of this new way of life and eating was how fresh and seasonal everything was. This was most noticeable at the green grocer. I arrived in France in the fall so there was an abundance of fall produce. Considering that the vendange, or annual grape harvest, takes place in September there were table grapes available until the end of October. Alsace is known for its white wines, Riesling, Muscat, and Gewürztraminer, so we ate a lot of white grapes always at the end of the meal right after the cheese course in place of dessert. I also discovered, long before this type of green was available in the U.S., something called mâche, or ‘lambs’ lettuce’. Hearty, a bit peppery and a huge improvement on the Iceberg lettuce I grew up with. Most French meals include a simple salad served before the cheese course, and mâche quickly became a favorite. In the spring white asparagus season started – another favorite dish we ate was white asparagus with la sauce hollandaise. White asparagus was grown locally so there were month long festivals celebrating the vegetable and its’ dishes; all the produce stands in the region had piles of it front and center throughout the season. There were many meals of steamed white asparagus with Hollandaise sauce only. Madame Zundel made a variation on the dish by wrapping the asparagus in slices of ham. Some crusty bread, a glass of Riesling, and volia, a meal.

I can’t attest to the fact that all of the produce we ate came from the region; in fact I know that we bought citrus that was from Spain and Morocco. What I do know is that it all tasted amazing -- fresh and full of flavor. I ate blood oranges for the first time, a revelation in taste and color: so juicy with a bright red-orange pulp. The other citrus we ate was always ripe and flavorful. And if memory serves the tomatoes we ate also came from Spain and North Africa – but given the distance they were still bursting with flavor. All of this reminded me of the fruits and vegetables my great-grandmother grew in her garden; and it was vastly better than the produce available at the time in the local Safeway back home.

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