hen one is new to a French village, expat, visitor or vacationer, it’s wonderful to be invited to a private home where a native Frenchwoman promises not only to cook à la francaise but also to take on the role of future good friend.
In our little ville of Collioure, our home away from Rome, there are myriad artists and sculptors, all of whom add color and vitality to the community. When we were asked to dinner at a sculptor’s amazing home on the sea, we ran, warm focaccia in hand and a bottle of the local Dominican cuvée Matisse.
Start as you intend to continue, my mother-in-law used to say.
After a visit to our hostess’s dazzling atelier-studio lit by tiny fairy lights strewn across the vast ceiling and furnished with work tables filled with clay and stone (the finished pieces awaiting their trip to her agent in Paris), we moved to the kitchen. There, a long communal table was laden with bounty from the eastern Pyrenees: 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.
As a cookbook writer and professional baker, I was awed by the next courses. Our hostess appeared with lovely plates of fragrant basmati rice and Thai chicken in a coconut sauce, steamed snow peas and baby carrots in butter with mint. Dessert was 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, that she really didn’t like cooking and would just throw something together since our meal was intended as casual, get-acquainted evening, un verre avec un autre, and not a gourmet spread.
When coffee was served in the atelier, I stayed behind in the kitchen to offer help, but found that in France, one does nothing in the kitchen for the hostess, just as when she comes to your house, you will also reject help and let your guests enjoy themselves.
I liked that, particularly coming from an American background in which everyone pitches in and stacks plates and so on. (We once had a hostess say jokingly, “Oh, don’t put them on top of each other, I’ll have to wash the backs!”)
It was refreshing to be wined and dined without obligation, but as she urged me to go in and join the others, I had to ask.
“This was an amazing dinner, Jacquie, so delicious, but with your busy life how on earth did you cook all day for six people and have time to make magic out of clay?”
“Oh, chere, 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 Surgelés, a nationwide (and global) frozen food outlet whose product line would drive any cook mad with anticipation of a visit.
I am admittedly a purist and love fresh ingredients, but hearing about this amazing shop in which all is picked right off the vine and zapped, I took my curious mind to the source and was overwhelmed by the choices: tiny petóncles, scallops, from Normandy, tender peeled spring fèves, beans, sweet potato frittes (my favorite pomme de terre for grandchildren). It was dazzling to think of what you could put together if you had guests arriving suddenly, were working on a deadline, or just hate to cook.
I adore cooking. I’m also fast. So far I haven’t succumbed to the complete dinners that Picard has to offer, but my pasta with scallops depends on those little Normandy jewels. Put them in a hot oven brushed with a little olive oil along with the sweet potatoes and all’s ready in 20 minutes. Not to mention the frozen mangos I use in my sorbet.
Hey, wait a minute. That’s a whole dinner! Ah, what we can learn from our French neighbors.