This is Part One of What the French Eat, based on the dishes our extended family prepares and eats while vacationing in Brittany.
Breakfast is always slices of bread from the bakery with a generous slather of butter (salted or sweet), topped with honey or jam, and a bowl of black coffee, or café au lait. Yes, a bowl.
I chip in and fix some of the other meals and snacks, which means that sometimes a few American things slip in, like Rice Krispie Treats or homemade brownies. But for the most part, these are ordinary family meals, traditionally French, and prepared by some pretty good cooks.
Snack: The French tend to have a 4:00 coffee or snack because we eat lunch at one and dinner at eight. The kids just can’t last that long, and sometimes neither can the adults. The kids have cookies and fruit, or a baguette with a row of chocolate squares shoved in the soft interior. The adults have a black espresso with a square of chocolate, or sometimes fruit. Very occasionally there will be a pastry or homemade cake.
You might be surprised at how unglamorous the French meals are at times. I’ve lived with four French families over the years, all of them very traditional, and none of them were adverse to frozen pizza or canned vegetables. But the meals are surprisingly simple too, with lots of fresh ingredients. And I hope this week’s menu will give you some good ideas for your own meals. (Obviously these dishes are all geared towards summer, which makes me think I should do a winter one too).
Dinner. Radish soup. This is made with radish leaves, a potato and a leek. You boil it until it’s soft and purées well, and add a scoop of crème fraiche (sour cream) to each bowl. Warm potato salad with sautéed shallots, Dijon mustard dressing, and hotdogs that were cooked and cut into pieces, then added. Cheese platter, followed by the Apricots we brought from our garden.
Lunch. Chiopolatas (sausages) fried in a pan. Rice sautéed with onions. Salad with homemade vinaigrette. Cheese platter & bread. * (There’s always bread. When we’re this big in number, we tend to buy big squares of bread – pavé de pain – instead of baguettes, unless we’re eating a picnic). Fruit salad.
* I’m going to be updating this old post soon, but for what constitutes a French cheese platter, and the etiquette that goes with it, you can take a look here.
Dinner. Cold gazpacho (store-bought), followed by a casual dinner of Dried sausage and Homemade pepper terrine (this is pâté). Cheese selection. Hardboiled eggs, split in half with a drizzle of mayonnaise. A salad composée of cucumbers, tomatoes, cauliflower, and feta cheese, tossed in vinaigrette. We also had an apricot flan – like a clafoutis but without the flour. We needed to use up some of our apricots.
Lunch. Roast, seasoned chicken bought from the butcher. Frozen mixed vegetables with mushrooms, sautéed in olive oil. Stir-fried zucchini. Green beans with salt and butter. Cheese platter with bread. The French don’t always need another starch apart from bread. They’re perfectly happy with a meal of meat and vegetables on the side. Ice cream – the mini Magnums on a wooden stick.
Dinner. Pasta with butter, topped with Swiss & Parmesan cheese. Slices of rolled ham from the butcher. Terrine (pâté). Green salad. Yoghurt selection. There was no cheese platter because there was a lot of pasta.
Lunch. Fried hamburger patties, prepared by the butcher. Almost everyone asked for them rare, including the kids. Canned peas. Cheese platter. Fruit selection. (We were grocery shopping until 12:30 so we settled on a quick lunch).
Dinner. Rice. Halibut fried with lemon and butter. Broccoli. Cream dessert selection (yoghurt – or chocolate, coffee, vanilla puddings and mousses).
Lunch. Warm potato salad with the leftover roast chicken and ham cut into pieces, seasoned with shallots and pickles. For the 20 of us, we made ten pounds of potatoes and pretty much ate it all. Cheese selection. Salad. Homemade apple tart, similar to this recipe, except without the jam and honey. My mother-in-law just sprinkled cinnamon and sugar over the top.
Dinner. Mutton with garlic cloves punched into it, sprinkled with thyme, salt and pepper. Like this recipe! It was supposed to be lamb, but it was cheap and we found out why once we bit into it. Mutton is older and has a much stronger taste. With that we had Ratatouille, recipe here. We also had the rest of the Rice, stir-fried with a shallot. And Dessert was a selection of yoghurt and mousse.
Lunch. Picnic-style lunch with baguettes and ham, dried sausage and a cheese selection. There were tomato wedges and we had a warm green bean salad with shallots and vinaigrette. Dessert was homemade chocolate mousse, similar to this recipe but without the red pepper.
Dinner. Pasta bolognaise – the sauce simmered for over an hour in a big pot with a bouquet garni (and so therefore had a hint of thyme). This was so filling, we just followed it with yoghurt and had no cheese.
Lunch. Rice with a tarragon chicken sauce, recipe here. We also salted cucumber slices, drained them in water, and mixed them with a Dijon-cream vinaigrette sauce to make a cucumber salad. We had Peaches for dessert.
Dinner. Buckwheat galettes, recipe here. That’s what the family had at home. And it so happened that it was the evening Matthieu and I went to Saint Malo on a date and ate buckwheat galettes there too. We drank mint and lemon Diabolos. (Mint syrup and lemon syrup mixed with sparkling water as two separate drinks – I had the lemon).
The ones at home were pretty traditional with eggs, ham, tomato and cheese. The ones we ate at the restaurant had things like camembert and applesauce, scallops in a butter-garlic-parsley sauce, sardine paste with crème fraiche, and chorizo, tomato and cheese. We really shouldn’t have with all that butter in the galettes, but we also had gelatto for dessert. Slurp.
And those were our meals for the first week. There is a lot that goes into the decision-making process. Some were simple because we were out of groceries (no surprise with 20 people) and we needed a quick meal after the grocery run. Others were simple because we returned from the beach late with eleven hungry kids in tow.
What made it decidedly French was the cheese platter at almost every meal (unless the main course was really heavy), and the green salad with homemade vinaigrette* that was almost always served after the main course. The salad is always very fresh, and it’s always just green lettuce and dressing, unless it’s a “salad composée” with a mixture of things.
* You can get the recipe for Dijon mustard dressing here.
Drinks: The meals are always served with room-temperature water, and red wine (room temperature, of course) for those who drink it. There is never anything else like soda, milk or juice. Well – unless it’s beer or white wine because it goes better with the dish being served, but we don’t drink alcohol so …
And that’s what we ate this week!
Stay tuned for Week Two next Monday!
In full disclosure, someone commented on my FB page and she was right, so I’m including it here:
Surely words like ‘never’ and ‘always’ are anthropologically unwise when describing any culture (your own or not)?