Hosting a dinner party is hard work. Hosting a vegetarian dinner party is a test of creativity. Hosting a vegetarian dinner party for a group of French people is a cultural education like no other.
Of all the luxuries I anticipated upon our arrival to our house in southern France, it was surely the large fully-equipped kitchen I was most excited about. Cooking in (or, outside, really) Totoyaya is an exercise in space management and patience. Fishing out ingredients and cooking tools involves lifting our bed mattress and digging around in our storage boxes to retrieve the necessary items. With a single gas cooker, an electric burner (when we have electricity), a single pot, a single pan, and a small picnic table, cooking a meal becomes a perpetual dance of re-arranging dishes and foods. And, though I love many aspects of cooking outdoors, rain, wind, bugs and cold can sometimes mar the experience.
I admit to doing a lot of simple cooking in the camper van, focusing entirely on tried-and-tested recipes. In France, with my triple-stovetop, ample chopping space, plethora of pots and pans, nearby sink with unlimited warm water, and (best of all) oven, I let my creative juices in the kitchen flow as readily as my water tap.
I made hummus and black bean dip; quinoa and broccoli veggie burgers; millet quiche; my mom’s macaroni casserole; minestrone soup; empanadas, roasted veggies; Thai tempeh and kale salad; pesto cannelloni vegetable patties; paella; swiss chard and herb crepes; samosas and Nepali curry; fennel, pear, and herb salad; sweet potato gratin; ramen noodle soup; homemade spelt pizza and homemade bread; quinoa, tomato and mozzarella bake; penne pasta with peas and creamy carrot sauce; spicy breaded tofu and spring rolls with Asian peanut sauce; Moroccan couscous; Thai curry and pad thai; arugula pesto, vegetable, and walnut puff pastry; fried rice and roasted cabbage; stuffed peppers; bean and veggie chilli; caramelized fennel and spicy couscous; pasta salad; and fruit crumble.
These meal ideas came easily to me, and I thoroughly enjoyed prepping something healthy and home-cooked for Bruno and me. After a day filled with work, there’s nothing like unwinding together with food by candlelight or, when it was warmer, on our terrace overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
It’s interesting that, when it came to cooking for my French community, food ideas didn’t flow quite as freely.
The French are renowned for their haute-cuisine, the pride with which they hold their gastronomy up to the world, and the importance they place on food. Food is culture in France, and as with any culture, there are a set of unspoken but all-important rules and rituals associated with its preparation, presentation, and degustation.
You need to actually eat with French people to internalize their subtle rituals: to know, for instance, that cheese is eaten only after the meal (with plenty of camembert and Roquefort, long white baguettes, but no cheese knife). Or that dishes are served one at a time rather than all-at-once, family-style (a matter of plating aesthetics, of the leisurely pace one should eat with, and so as to experience the flavour intensity of the dish at hand as it is intended).
Take bread: it is absolutely the staple of the French diet, sliced and eaten (never toasted) with butter or Nutella for breakfast, and placed on the table from the first moment of lunch and dinner until dessert. Though I may have learned these facts without my French community, I wouldn’t have known that, in order to do like the French, one’s slice of bread must be placed directly on the table beside one’s plate.
I find the customs associated with food fascinating (as readers of my blog can attest to in my recent splatter of food posts), but I’d never had to cook for countrymen from such a strong – and proud – food culture before. My funky meal salads and spicy curries wouldn’t really cut it here in France.
I suppose I could have just served my food my way – cheese as an appie, salad on the table with the rest of the meal, bread distinctly absent from the table. But two years ago, when my parents and I cooked an American-style barbecue for Bruno’s family, it was met with almost as much incredulousness as leftovers. This time, I decided I was in France and that it was up to me to conform to French food culture.
Unlike my other trips to France, when we’d wined and dined at fancy restaurants, the majority of our eating out this time was in cafeterias. Like a park in the Middle East or a local market in Africa, the cafeteria experience in France enabled me to observe the French in their natural habitat and to understand their eating habits.
A French cafeteria is nothing like what we know in North America. Instead of slices of pizza, hot dogs, pop, and mushy vegetables, you are greeted with a lovely, healthy spread of food choices: a salad bar, plates of cheese, mini baguettes, divine desserts, carafes of water and wine, and hot vegetable side dishes that haven’t been so overcooked as to be unrecognizable.
Most people come here for lunch in large groups from work, and they carefully peruse each section of the cafeteria, choosing a salad, a cheese plate or dessert, and a bread roll, picking out a wine, and then heading for the hot main dish section (which usually involves a fillet of fish or a slab of meat with unlimited access to the vegetable side dishes). Most people’s platters are filled with their three-course meal, and they sit down, eat slowly, chat, and linger before heading back to work.
(I definitely stood out with my plate of unlimited hot vegetable side dishes and carafe of water. No bread, no dessert, just a light meal of veggies.)
The cafeteria taught me a few things about the French way of eating: that lunch is the primary meal of the day, that happy hour starts at noon, and that without several courses, lunch is just not lunch. With this knowledge, I set to work perfecting the art of the French lunch party.
First up: the apéro. Thinking of a few munchies to whet people’s appetites was easy enough – it just couldn’t involve platters of cheese. I usually made a dip with veggies and offered finger foods like peanuts or olives. We made sure to have a reasonably stocked drinks cabinet – muscat (sweet wine), port, pastice (anise-flavoured liqueur that you mix with water), sirop (sweet fruit syrup that you also mix with water), and good ol’ French 1669 beer. I learned slowly that, contrary to my instinct, it’s polite to wait for everyone to arrive before offering anyone drinks.
Next up: the entrée. Since I love salad, I tried to go for what I knew, but I experimented with lots of types of salad – warm spinach salad with feta red wine vinaigrette, frisée salad with hazelnuts and orange slices, orzo pasta salad with mint and red onion. Despite looking at my complicated and strange salad combinations with slight suspicion (why wouldn’t I just serve frisée with garlic and oil like a normal person?), I found that as long as I placed the baguette on the table with the salad, people seemed to enjoy my entrées well enough.
It was with the main dish that I struggled the most. This is when the French generally eat meat, or at least a really cheesy, buttery, creamy veggie gratin. Since I’m a gratin-newbie I didn’t want to give them mediocre versions of their own food, but I didn’t feel confident serving my exotic concoctions.
Bruno’s cousin-in-law, Dimitri, helped cure me of that. He’s from Guadeloupe (a French colony) and cooks amazing French fusion dishes with a touch of spice from home. He’d cooked an unbelievable feast for me the previous year, and he agreed to show me how to prepare some of the dishes he’d served me that day, like caviar d’aubergine, daal, and plantain gnocchi.
From Dimitri, I learned to use sweet spices like cinnamon and cardamom to perfume and balance heat. I played with familiar (to me) Indian spices, but balanced them with French essentials like butter, cream, and cheese. I learned to use unripe fruit like mango and papaya in recognizable recipes like mango salad with okra and lime vinaigrette and green papaya gratin.
The day after our cooking lesson we served our gourmet five-course meal to the family. And when they ate it – and liked it – I realized that if I could serve my food with a French twist and within a French structure, I’d probably be ok. With that, I began serving things like Tex-Mex nachos, macaroni and cheese, bean burritos, pesto pasta, and Nepali curry as the main dish for my French community.
Even if my audience didn’t ooh and aahh as much as Bruno and I, as long as I followed the main dish with a cheese platter, a rich and sweet dessert, and a café espresso to end the meal, they were happy.
It might have been a challenge for me – a Canadian vegetarian – to host a lunch party for my French community, but it was a wonderful cultural education. I gained an understanding of the flow of a French meal, their essential ingredients, and the proper presentation of the dishes.
But more than that, I internalized the French attitude toward food – namely, that food is about pleasure, celebration, and quality over quantity. That a meal should be savoured slowly and with loved-ones.
And that, even if the meal is no good, there’s always dessert.