Monday, October 19, 2009
France Trip 2009 – Food
Market day in Sarlat
We're not foodies. While David and I enjoy tasty food — at home, I make almost everything “from scratch" - it's what's on sale this week that dictates our menu, not the latest recipes from gourmet magazines. On this trip to France, in the fall of 2009, we hoped to eat well, but, unlike many of our friends, we were more interested in using our funds to pay for museum tickets, not restaurant meals.
David's photo of the fish counter in the market
When we told people that we actually planned to use the kitchens in our rented apartments, several said they would not want to be stuck in the kitchen; a vacation meant freedom from cooking. We can understand that point. Still, since David's and my agreement is that one person cooks and the other cleans up, we didn't think it would take long, or be too much of an imposition, to prepare delicious meals.
Besides, there was simply no way to finance this trip if we ate in restaurants for three meals a day. With breakfasts consisting of a croissant, coffee and juice for 6 euros ($9 US) and fixed price lunches and dinners 11-18 euros ($16.50 - $27 US), three restaurant meals a day would have exceeded half our allotted daily budget per person! (We actually averaged $13 US per day for both of us.) When it came down to taking the trip and cooking ourselves or not going at all, the choice was easy.
David's photo of the cheese counter
Breakfasts were delicious. We usually had eggs in some form—fried, scrambled, or in an omelet with some herbs and cheese, or slices of quiche from a bakery—orange juice, hunks of excellent French bread with butter and strawberry jam, fruit, and either coffee or iced tea. It takes no more than five minutes to prepare or clean up after this breakfast, and we thought it a much more enjoyable and leisurely way to begin the day than going out in the chilly mornings to find a restaurant. Actually, although restaurants and cafes were nearby in Paris, we would have had to drive five miles or so in the Dodogne for a restaurant breakfast. It was much easier to eat at home!
Bakery in The Marais section of Paris
In Paris, lunch was usually whatever looked appealing in the bakery windows. Between 12-2:00, bakeries serve from a window that opens on to the sidewalk where you can order a croque monsieur, an open-faced sandwich of ham, cheese and bechamel sauce, pizza, or choose from several other finger foods. The bakery heats (chaud, s'il vous plait) your choice and you can sit on a bench or the steps of a building and enjoy your meal while watching the people pass by. If you've brought your water bottle, you don't even need to buy a drink, so the cost of your lunch is minimal. By the way, the French seem to love street-picnics. There were always a lot of them in line with us.
In the Dordogne, we took a different approach because we had a car which could conveniently hold the little cooler, a collapsible, insulated fabric model that we bought at a yard sale in the States for a dollar, until we were ready for a picnic. Our lunches didn't vary. You may think we'd tire of croissants, slathered with a Dijon mustard/mayonaisse, topped with ham (The French have wonderful ham products!) and Emmentaler cheese slices, but we didn't. Since we never have this type of sandwich at home, it was a treat the first time as well as the tenth time we ate it in France! We rounded out our picnics with fruit and a dessert of some sort that we'd picked up from a bakery.
I must confess that dinner, a couple times in Paris, consisted of no more than bread, cheese, and wine, not because we weren't hungry but because we were too exhausted to do more. On those days we almost had no energy left to eat! Still, given the diversity of French cheese and the quality of their bread and wine, this was not a bad way to end a day. Usually, though, we were more energetic and managed to spend a few minutes preparing very good dinners. We either bought frozen entrees from the grocery store (I maintain that any frozen French entree will always beat the best frozen American entree in a taste test.), took home a particularly interesting-looking main course from the market, or grilled a chicken breast or pork loin in a wine sauce. To that we added a salad from a prepared bag of greens we got at the grocery store or some vegetables, and more of that French bread and butter. Delicious!
A chocolate shop in the Latin Quarter, Paris
I suppose, if we had eaten this way much longer than three weeks, we might have craved a steak or a casserole, but our meals were nutritious, inexpensive, and satisfying. The ease of preparation and the inexpensive cost of our own cooking more than compensated for the slight lack of variety.
We discovered other advantages to cooking our own food, besides the pleasure of having breakfast in our pajamas. Because we shopped in the local markets, bakeries, and grocery stores, we got to know some of the shop owners. The woman in my favorite patisserie in Paris frowned and corrected my French the first day, but soon she was smiling when she saw me opening the door. The grocery stores, three within a few blocks of our Paris apartment, were endlessly interesting to us because of the items they did, or did not, stock. We could not find fresh cream for coffee, but there were at least six kinds of butter. Eggs were clearly labeled as being from chickens raised in “fresh air” or from chickens raised in pens, and prices were accordingly quite high or very low. We also got a kick from loading our own grocery bags, and had new appreciation for all the services we received in the US. When we discovered the Carrefour grocery store in Sarlat, we wandered the aisles for hours. While only half the size of American stores, it was three times the size of the Paris places and stocked a lot more items.
But perhaps the best advantage to shopping and cooking our own food was that we felt, however briefly, as though we were French. We could pretend that we actually lived in this wonderful country, that we shopped the markets like everyone else, and that we prepared our meals using French cutlery, cookware and appliances. That was a feeling we couldn't have gotten any other way.