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Archive for the ‘Food in France’ Category

Our new toy.

The latest kitchen appliance to enter my house came not from Sur la Table or William Sonoma.  No, no, this particular gadget, a raclette machine, traveled far and wide to grace my Brooklyn abode.  Mais, qu’est-ce que c’est la raclette, you say?  The short answer is raclette is a delicious cheese, which is served melted upon bread and vegetables as a hearty winter meal.  The long answer, in case you are curious, can be found on Wikipedia.  My boyfriend Jeff first tasted raclette at a Christmas market in Germany last winter, and as an avid consumer of bread and cheese, he was thunderstruck by this particular European treat. His mother took note of his infatuation, and lucky for me she decided to purchase Jeff his very own raclette machine this Christmas.  We could scarcely contain our excitement upon unwrapping this unexpected gift!

This past Sunday we invited a few friends to our apartment to give the raclette machine its first tour of duty.  We researched the traditional format for raclette parties and quickly realized our machine, which I would describe as “apartment sized,” required a different approach.  While a classic raclette machine serves six to eight people simultaneously, we decided it would be best for one person to continually operate our machine, and for guests to come up individually for a smattering of melted cheese.  We did offer the traditional side dishes of boiled potatoes and gherkins, we also sliced up fresh tomatoes and apples and blanched a couple of heads of broccoli.  Finally, we served up plenty of fresh bread and set out some grainy mustard and a buttery garlic spread for guests who wanted a more minimalist experience.

I felt a bit of of my typical hostess anxiety at the start of the party.  The combination of an open source of extreme heat, cheese and alcohol seemed to be potentially disastrous, but I am pleased to report there were no raclette-related injuries.  In fact, everything went quite smoothly, and by some miracle we seemed to have the perfect amount of food.  Our guests were quite adventuresome, and discovered many exciting combinations of bread, fruit, vegetables and cheese – really, only the gherkins failed to please.  Everyone seemed to embrace the spirit of the party, and several people had sought out wines that would pair well with a cheesy meal.  Really, I could not have asked for a better crowd; thank goodness for cheese-loving friends.

The spread.

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I mentioned a few posts back that I have the good fortune to spend my summers in the south of France, so I thought I would take this opportunity to talk a bit more about my experiences in Nice. Before you harbor too much resentment that I get to bask in the Mediterranean sun each June and July, please bear in mind that during my sojourns in Nice, I am responsible for the safety, well-being and happiness of nearly ninety temperamental high school students. Before my students arrive, though, I usually have a few days of preparation with my staff, during which time I can experience one of the most important facets of French culture: la cuisine.

My first meal upon arriving in Nice is not particularly memorable because it occurs at the Nice airport, shortly after terminating an exhausting red-eye flight from New York. I usually grab a croissant and a café au lait at a sad airport brasserie before making my way into the city to meet up with my colleagues. By noon I’m typically starving and on the verge of collapsing from fatigue, so we take a quick break in our preparations to patron our favorite crêperie, which also serves an impressive array of paninis and salads. I have a difficult time resisting a warm, gooey crêpe jambon fromage when I am tired and cranky, but I occasionally opt instead for a crisp, tangy salade nicoise, coupled with several slices of crusty baguette to sop up the excess dressing.  Regardless of what I consume, this meal must be followed by a double espresso if I am to remain conscious long enough for my next meal.  The patron of this particular establishment, god bless him, usually has the consideration to place a single, tiny macaroon on the saucer beside my coffee. This is why I love France.

The real culinary pièce de la resistance on this first day in France is dinner. Before I describe the meal, I should say a brief word my colleague, Michel Remy, who is a professor of art history and literature at University of Nice. He is equally brilliant and zany, and like all French people I know, incredibly knowledgeable of food and wine without any formal study of these topics. He plays a vital role in many aspects of my life in France, but particularly this first dinner. Each year, Michel and I discuss the question of where to dine at length, even though for all six years I have traveled to Nice, we have always had taken our first meal together at the same Niçois establish, Restaurant du Gesu.  For reasons I can’t explain, we always fail to acknowledge that we have gone through the same first dinner rituals every year in recent memory. I can’t speak for Michel, but for me, there’s something extremely comforting about going through the same motions year after year.

Michel and I continue this charade of pretending we don’t know exactly how the meal will unfold throughout the evening. We all gaze seriously at our menus, as though we have not committed its simple selection of Nicois specialties to memory. After a few moments of contemplation, Michel will inevitably propose that we share a mélange of appetizers, including roasted peppers drizzled with local olive oil, a plate of beignets (a variety of vegetables delightfully battered and fried) and mixed farçis (usually zucchini flowers, peppers and tomatoes stuffed with tasty ground beef and fresh herbs). At this point, he usually launches into a lengthy, extraordinarily French explanation of several items on the menu that he considers to be “typiquement niçois,” even though we have all consumed these delectable dishes multiple times. When Michel has finished waxing rhapsodical about the merits a a truly excellent daube, we order our entrées, which vary very little from year to year, and we consider the question of what to drink, even though there is absolutely no possibility we will order anything other than a cold bottle of Badoit and a carafe of house rosé.

The food is always beautifully presented, elegantly understated and unquestionably delicious. The vegetables are crisp and flavorful, probably purchased at the farmer’s market that morning, the pasta and gnocchi are delightfully fresh, made in-house on a daily basis, and the beef in my bubbly pot of daube is tender and cooked to perfection. Restaurant du Gesu is a decidedly no frills place with mediocre service, but the excellence of its food means there are usually locals clamoring for a table every night of the week. I have personally dined there a dozen times or more, but I have little interest in going further afield for my first dinner in France.  There is nothing better than simple, local, good French food to give me the fortitude to face a month of chasing after teenagers; after so many years, I should know!

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