My Favourite things...
Updated: Apr 2, 2019
L' Autre Vie- My other life in France
By Rae-Helen Fisenden
Catchy little song isn’t it? "My Favourite Things." Probably one of the most memorable from The Sound of Music as the children shelter on Maria’s bed, hiding from the storm outside and singing about their favourite things in an attempt to feel better.
“Raindrops on roses, whiskers on kittens”. Marvellous lyrics which inevitably mention food,-“crisp apple strudels and schnitzel with noodles”. As the story IS set in Austria, this is entirely appropriate.
Appropriate or not, my little story is about some of MY favourite things in France and inevitably, and predictably, it too is primarily about food. Let's face it, our lives are punctuated daily by the need, want and love of it. I can remember most places I've been to and exactly (but more importantly), what I ate! However! There are a LOT of other favourite things I’ve seen and experiences I’ve had in France that don't involve food, but I dare say you won’t mind me indulging myself a little, in an attempt to tantalise your tastebuds and make you feel better! My hope is that you find yourself unable to resist booking a trip to France after reading this. ;) That’s the idea anyway.
And so, in no particular order, and peppered with pictures, here’s my reflections on the local things I like to eat when we’re back home in France.
When I’m living in Melbourne I’m not overly fond of eating too much bread unless of course my husband has made it. In France, however, it’s truly difficult NOT to eat it.
It’s made twice daily and, when one lives in a French village, it’s customary to do what the locals do and buy bread every day from the local patisserie/boulangerie. We’re not great baguette eaters to be honest. Unless eaten within the day, (actually within several hours) it resembles and doubles as a baseball bat. And so, we’ve discovered and grown to love the “Boule de Campagne” which is a rustic style of bread found in Patisseries and Boulangeries everywhere en France.
Boule de Campagne, also called "French sourdough", is typically a large round loaf made from either natural leavening or baker's yeast. Most traditional versions of this bread are made with a combination of white flour with whole wheat flour and/or rye flour, water, leavening and salt.
It remains fresher, longer and, as we prefer a rye-style bread, we really enjoy this delicious country-style option. The crust seems softer too and doesn’t mess with our gums quite so much. Often, it’s the type of bread you’ll find offered in most French restaurants. ( The boule pictured below right )
The local patisseries have two pastries I can’t resist. In truth, I’m not a fan of too much sweetness but these two, I REALLY love.
The first is what many of you may call an “escargot” and the only place I’ve heard them called that in France, is in Paris. In country France they are known as “Pain aux Raisins”.
Pain aux raisins or ecargot is a spiral pastry often eaten for breakfast in France. Its names translate as raisin bread and snail, respectively. It is a member of the pâtisserie viennoise family of baked foods. It often has a little vein of custard running through its pastry as well as the large fruity raisins. I prefer these to croissants any day and, at less than two euros, they are a not exactly an indulgence. I have to note however, that I don’t eat these when back in Australia. Impossible after tasting the REAL thing!
The other pastry which I find simply irresistible is the "millefeuille."
Translated to English, mille-feuille means one thousand sheets, layers, or leaves. It's an old-school French pastry that's airy, crispy, flaky, and decadent in all the right places. The flavours of a mille-feuille are simple, but the textures are amazing.
The very first recipe for a mille-feuille appeared in a French cookbook in 1651. If we're being official about it, a gâteau mille-feuille is constructed of three layers of puff pastry and stabilized pastry cream decorated with fondant and garnished with a chocolate spider web design on top. It is not the same thing as a Napoleon, an Italian dessert where almond paste—similar to frangipane—is sandwiched between its many layers although some of the mille-feuille I’ve tasted do have a custard style filling. The humble vanilla slice is Australia’s answer to this delectable pastry but sadly, once having tried these from the patisserie in our village, I’m now spoiled for the ordinary.
On the outskirts of Beaulieu sur Dordogne, the region where our 300 year old townhouse is located, is a family business called Andros. It’s located in a tiny village called Biars, St Cèré.
Andros owns more than 30 fruit processing factories worldwide. It’s a massive operation and employs hundreds of people from our village and the surrounding region in the Lot.
As a result, the local supermarkets are flooded with fantastic fruit products from the local Andros factories:-jams, fruit compotes (which we have with yoghurt for breakfast) bottled fruit as well as their famous fruit juices. These fruit juices are exceptional.
We particularly like Andros apple juice and strawberry jam. We’ve tasted nothing like them before. The juices, while slightly sweet, have no artificial flavours or added sugar and are delicious. The strawberries in France, which I’ve mentioned before, have a very different and special flavour. There are many varieties of strawberry in France and the confiture ( jam ) reflects the specific delicate sweetness of the fruit. Just an interesting fact. The jams are also sold worldwide under the label Bonne Maman. If you look carefully on the back of your Bonne Maman jam jar bought from Coles or Woolies you will see, in very fine print, the name of the village Biars, St Cèré,- the home of Andros.
While the recipe and process of jam making may have been extended to Andros companies overseas, the end result in countries like Australia is quite a different story given that the fruit is undoubtedly, not sourced from France.
I’m not going to mention cheese too much. French cheeses need little explanation and when back home in France we have our favourites. The Cantal and Compté are probably our “ go to “ every day cheese. Simply delicious. The regional cheese, other than the Cantal, is called Salers. It's quite salty and when bought from the local market is really a taste treat.
Ham is also spectacular in France and the choice on offer is truly overwhelming.
I can stand for minutes on end perusing the vast cabinets displaying the packaged variety of hams. There’s organic ( BIO ) hams, ( very popular ) an array of salt reduced hams and literally dozens and dozens of varieties to choose from. I get bamboozled trying to choose what to buy! I'm talking about your regular supermarket and the refrigerated cabinets where there is a complete aisle devoted just to ham. And the Deli section has their hams ready to be freshly sliced as well!
Point being? The French like and eat a LOT of ham. And I know why.
Now it’s going to sound a bit strange but again, I don’t eat a great deal of processed meats when in Melbourne. In France, we eat ham. It’s so good!
So yes, our diet does change when we’re home in France. For instance, pork is so readily available, often organic and reasonably priced, I tend to buy it more often. That applies to turkey also. We eat chicken because it’s corn fed and in the style of the famous Bresse chicken. A really remarkable flavour and the flesh and skin is a golden colour.
We indulge in duck because it’s locally produced and a complete star attraction of the area.
Often, I will choose duck on a restaurant menu. Also, we often order foie gras,- cooked goose or duck liver. A little of this rich pâté, so famous in this region, is sublime and a definite favourite of ours.
What I DO cook at least once when we’re back in France, is Duck Confit ( pictured below.)
Duck Confit is duck that has been cured with salt and then gently cooked in its own fat. The duck emerges meltingly tender with a rich, slightly salty but mellow flavour—there's nothing quite like it! Traditionally, the whole duck is used for confit but I often buy the leg and thigh portions.
You can buy it canned or in vacuum packs found in the meat cabinets of supermarkets. Butchers often sell duck confit too.
It’s a simple procedure to fry the pre-cooked duck until it’s warmed through, crisp and golden,-( perhaps utilising the delicious left over duck fat to sauté some potatoes.)
It’s a meal I’d not have too often because it is so rich but if you’ve not tried this culinary delight yet, I urge you to do so! Soon!
When asparagus is in season we buy it fresh. White asparagus is incredible, peeled, lightly poached with a piquant cheese sauce.
And even when out of season, every time I shop at the supermarket, I buy bottled white asparagus. It’s reasonably priced and tastes really good. A definite favourite of ours and locally produced.
My husband Neil, buys bags of walnuts when home in France. Walnut trees abound in the Dordogne so we know we’re buying the best the region has to offer.
Delicious, regional produce.
I guess you can see a theme emerging here. I re-read what I’ve written and it’s pretty clear that a lot of our favourite things correspond with regional, seasonal produce and local traditions:- patterns of eating and traditional products that have been lovingly produced for generations. And with a great sense of national pride.
I haven’t mentioned wine yet which may surprise those who know me. It’s an unspoken expectation that one is, wherever possible, compelled to support local, regional wine growers and makers. In the same way, local markets are still supported by the locals and of course, by visiting tourists. This is being made increasingly difficult however, by the bulk-buying capacity of large supermarket chains who are, slowly but surely, undermining local, small industry.
People often ask us why we love France so much. This is one of the main reasons. It’s a privilege for us to be able to slot into the provincial French way of life and experience it first hand. To learn about it. To taste it. To love it and to respect it.
Come and experience the true French way of life for yourself, then create your own list of favourite things. :)
P.S. What do I miss when I'm away? A good flat white coffee!