Essays

The Cook Next Door: a Meme

As my trusted friend the Webster tells us, a meme is “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture”. In the blogosphere, a meme can be a questionnaire about a particular theme — your tastes in music or books, 100 things about you, etc. — that you reply to on your blog and pass along. Nicky started such a meme just a few weeks ago called the cook next door, giving us all a chance to talk about the hows and the whys behind our food obsessions. The added bonus (made possible by her and Oliver’s impressive web design skills) is that she follows the meme’s progression, thus mapping out our ever-growing food blog neighborhood.

What is your first memory of baking/cooking on your own?
I believe my first cooking adventure was mastering the art of the microwaved oeuf cocotte when I was nine. The first thing I baked on my own was the Gâteau au Chocolat de Csaba when I was about twelve, a classic family recipe given to us by a friend who’s originally from Hungary. My rendition was somewhat undercooked in the center and my friends would only eat the outer rims. In retrospect, I like to think it was a molten chocolate cake and I was simply a misunderstood visionary. Ahem.

Who had the most influence on your cooking?
In order of appearance: 1- my mother, 2- the Internet. My mother is a superb cook and baker, and the countless hours I spent with her in the kitchen — watching, helping, licking the bowls — have undoubtedly laid the foundations for my own cooking. The rest of what I know has been gleaned not so much in books or cooking magazines, but rather on websites, forums and of course, blogs.

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Le Ticket Resto

Le Ticket Resto

And today, I thought I would share with you a small and mundane element from the everyday French office life. A food-related element, that goes without saying.

In France, the set of laws that governs the work environment, le code du travail, forbids you to eat in the rooms where you work (ahem — no, I don’t know how those crumbs got into my keyboard, did they maybe chip off from the ceiling?). But if enough employees wish to eat in their workplace, the employer must provide a way for them to do so under safe and healthy conditions. He can either furnish a room with chairs, tables, a fridge and a microwave, or he can give them access to a cafeteria (usually operated by large catering companies), or he can give them lunch vouchers to use in nearby restaurants.

Such vouchers are called chèques-repas, chèques-déjeuner or titres-restaurant, but are most often referred to as tickets resto. You get a little checkbook at the beginning of the month, with one voucher for each day that you will work. Their value is co-financed by you and your employer, usually on a 50/50 basis, which means that if your ticket resto has a 6€ face value, it costs you 3€ (deducted from your paycheck) while your boss pays for the other 3€. The incentive is that the whole thing is tax-deductible for the employer as for the employee. Of course, the higher the face value of your tickets restos, the bigger the perk, and it’s one of many ways to judge how well a company treats its employees.

Most restaurants in France will display a little sticker on their door to indicate that they accept those vouchers, provided they are open for lunch and are interested in catering to the office crowd. If you’re not sure you can just go ahead and ask — “Vous prenez les tickets resto?” — but be warned that some mid- or upscale restaurants will look at you with contempt and scoff: “On n’est pas chez Flunch“*, as I was once told at a restaurant where they thought good food could make up for obnoxious service.

* Flunch is a French chain of cafeterias, often found in malls.

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La Baguette et les Tartines

La Baguette et les Tartines

Consider the baguette.

Or rather, consider the tartine de baguette, a popular breakfast item in which a piece of baguette — preferably fresh and bought moments before, still warm, from the corner boulangerie, but if nobody really feels up to going out before breakfast day-old baguette will do fine, “freshened up” on top of the toaster — is sliced in two, each half spread with your choice of butter and/or jam and/or honey (the combination of butter and jam and honey is unheard of but might be worth a try).

Now, let me stress the important part of that last paragraph: sliced in two. Therein lies my problem. See, the two sides of the baguette were not created equal.

On the top side we have the crust, goldie blond (not for nothing do the French say blond comme les blés, blond as wheat), optionally dusted with flour, ravishing to the tastebuds and texturally diverse, with crunchy peaks and soft creases. In one word: delectable.

On the underside, we have the lesser twin, the one that’s always been less bright and less attractive, the one the parents have always sworn they loved just the same, with just a little too much insistence. That side of the baguette is flat, and it draws its colors in shades of beige and grey. It is drier and harder — if you’re not careful it will scrape the roof of your mouth — and if the bread is a bit too cooked (even though you asked for une baguette pas trop cuite), it will have a slightly charred taste.

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A Lunch in the Life

Bulots

On a Saturday morning, you go to the pool for your weekly swim. As you come out, limbs pleasantly weary and hair still wet, you reflect that it would be nice to buy a baguette for lunch. So, instead of making a right and walking directly home — you are fortunate enough to live just a block from a clean and quiet swimming-pool — you go left and make a detour by the boulangerie to buy a warm and crusty Renaissance baguette (their signature traditional baguette).

As you walk back up the street, you pass the fish stall, and the thought pops: bulots! That will be great for lunch.

Bulots — also called buccin, ran, coucou or cuter still, calicoco — are whelks, those pretty snail-like shellfish that you eat cooked, after delicately removing the little opening cap and pulling the chewy body out, optionally using a special metal pick. In Paris they can be purchased, already cooked, from any poissonnerie — and each fish stall cooks them to its own recipe. Relatively cheap, super nutritious (they are full of vitamins and minerals) but more importantly, delightfully tasty and fun to eat.

You step in to enquire whether they have any, and the poissonnier says yes — in fact he has just finished cooking the daily batch and they are still warm. You buy a generous portion for two that he gets from the back.

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So: Do We, or Do We Not?

Those of you who keep track — however off-handedly — of the American book market, have surely heard of Mireille Guiliano’s book French Women Don’t Get Fat. This French woman, who is head of the Champagne company Veuve-Clicquot and lives between New York and Reims, explains how and why French women can get away with eating chocolate and cheese while sipping on a little wine, and still manage to look slender and fabulous.

With such a promising pitch, it is probably not surprising that the book sells like hotcakes (or whould I say croissants?) and has attracted phenomenal media attention. In the wake of this, Josh from The Food Section has had the idea to setup and conduct a roundtable discussion between four of us French food bloggers, asking us about our perception of the French and their food habits.

I think this provides some interesting insight and nuances, and hope you will enjoy reading the transcript, published on The Morning News‘ website.

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