Ask anyone who has returned from a vacation in France about their trip, and inevitably one of the first things they will share with you is their excitement over a memorable food discovery. “Oh, the bread! I’ve never had a better baguette!” or “I found the best macaron in this little bakery near the Bastille!” [...]
Ask anyone who has returned from a vacation in France about their trip, and inevitably one of the first things they will share with you is their excitement over a memorable food discovery. “Oh, the bread! I’ve never had a better baguette!” or “I found the best macaron in this little bakery near the Bastille!” We can rhapsodize over the Haussmannian architecture and admire how fashionable the Parisians are, but it is the meals that get carried back in our minds and described at length to the ones who had the misfortune of having to stay home. The culinary scene in France offers foodstuffs so unexpected and extraordinary, so wonderfully prepared, that years later we can still remember the first time we put fork to mouth, as Adam Gopnik recalls in his book Paris To The Moon:
I saw the real—or anyway the physical—Paris for the first time in 1973, when I was in my early teens[…]. We came in through one of the portes of Paris […]. We went out for dinner and, for fifteen francs, had the best meal I had ever eaten, and most of all, nobody who lived there seemed to notice or care. The beauty and the braised trout alike were just part of life, the way we do things here.
The very first food I ever ate in France was olives. The year was 1978. It was my Junior-Year-Abroad experience (something that would transform me, although at the time I had no idea what the scope of that transformation would be) and my cohort was making its way down from Paris, where we had all met up, to Nantes, where we would spend the next semester learning French. Our bus stopped somewhere on the N10 midway between Paris and Brittany, at a small auberge where we were to have our first communal lunch. There were shallow dishes of olives on each table, a savory snack to accompany our welcome aperitif. I’d never seen olives so immense, and in such a variety of colors! I popped one in my mouth, bit down, and its brininess flooded my palate. It was unlike anything I’d ever tasted in my life. Meaty, salty, spicy all at once. That night, in my strange new bed, I drew a picture of the dish of olives in my diary (we didn’t have blogs back then) along with a description: “Today I ate olives the size of my thumb!!!”
Susan Herrmann Loomis, the award-winning journalist, renowned cookbook author and owner of the Normandy-based cooking school On Rue Tatin, remembers her first taste of France:
“I was 21 years old and had come to France for one week to interview for a spot at a cooking school. Jet lagged and overwhelmed, I headed to a pastry shop and bought a croissant. I sat on the steps of the Madeleine church to eat it. As I sat there, all that kept going through my head was “I’m eating a real French croissant in France!” Oh, it was delicious!”
Did you try to remake croissants when you returned to Seattle?
I did. But it just wasn’t the same. Croissants are one of those things that have to be made in large quantities with specialized machines. I was never able to replicate the experience. I did, however, want to become a pastry chef—I loved baking—but I ended up doing something different.
What foods do you associate with France? What foods do you bring back to the States when you travel there?
Chocolates, mustards, butter, salt and cheese. French salt is always a popular gift and it is much more expensive in the United States than here.
If you were to create a “French meal” to serve to Americans, what would you include?
I’d want the meal to be sophisticated yet simple. I’d start with foie gras, the raw kind, just seared. Then I’d serve roast lamb, simple again, nothing“en croute”. I definitely serve a post-dinner green salad, because that signifies “French meal”. For dessert, a lemon meringue pie, something fluffy.
What foods to you bring back with you to France; foods that conjure up your memories of the United States?
It’s funny, my son who is studying in New York city right now, brought back Jello for his little sister. I like to bring back these organic Cheetoes—I love savory things—and Jiffy Pop popcorn.
Read more about Susan Herrmann Loomis at www.onruetatin.com
Books by Susan Herrmann Loomis
Next time, award-winning author of “Moonlight In Odessa” and fellow expat Janet Skeslien Charles talks to me about her “many first meals” memories in France.
This article is part of a series on French cuisine. For more, go to French Food Memories.