art, history, film, books for the culinary enthusiast

French Lessons

French Lessons

French Lessons

I have a confession to make. I’m a Francophile.
It started when my friend Kathy and I shared a crush on our 9th grade French teacher. His name was Monsieur Leiggs, and he had smooth blonde hair that swept across his forehead with dramatic flair, the back being just an inch longer than clean cut. Tidy sideburns and a short, neatly clipped mustache set off high cheekbones, and tied his look together with a certain 1970s je ne sais quoi.


Being lean and slightly pale, I would describe his physique as rather delicate, but his quick step and precise hand gestures gave the appearance of someone who meant business, while his stylish ensembles hinted at a colorful life outside the school room. With a pair of polyester Sansabelt pants in every shade of beige, and patterned sateen shirts cut snug in European style, one could imagine him on the disco floor, where his darting movements would be appreciated.

All that aside, he was a wonderful teacher, enthused by his subject, and intent on turning his class of mostly uninterested youths into cultured Francophiles like himself. I don’t know about the cultured part, but Kathy and I certainly considered ourselves part Française by the end of the term.

A few years later, rather than try out for cheer leading or some other extracurricular activity with an equally high failure rate, we chose to while away the afternoons at a small coffee house, pleasing in its bohemian aesthetic. There we would enjoy the occasional Gitane cigarette between our usual order of house salad with sunflower seeds, and Napoleon dessert. Once, trying to impress, I ordered the pastry by its French name, Mille-Feuille. The owner was waiting on us that day and had no idea what I was talking about, nor did she care. However that didn’t stop me as I began to explain – in detail – that nobody in France called the layered pastry a Napoleon, and suggested a menu edit might be in order. She gave me a pinched look that my self-important youth didn’t recognize as annoyance. I blithely continued on, schooling her on the correct pronunciation of Mille-Feuille and the finer points of the flaked confection. Half way through my monologue, she interrupted me with an upended index finger, and a sudden remembrance of urgent paperwork that needed doing. Needless to say, upon return two days later, no menu changes had taken place.

On the weekends we took our coffee sipping pastime to the city. Crossing the floating bridge to Seattle, we’d pop Jane Birkin into the cassette player of  Kathy’s gumdrop green Datsun, a car about 150,000 miles past its youth, with a hole in the floor to prove it (literally, if you lifted up the floor mat, you could see the road moving by). Another cigarette might be had from the secret stash she kept in a sock footie in her glove compartment, away from her mother’s prying eyes. All that was missing were the berets, which in truth we had, but were smart enough not to wear in public. Paired with the Gitanes and the French crooning coming from the car stereo, it might have been perceived as ‘trying too hard.’

We’re still friends. And we’re both still devotees of France, frequently peppering our telephone conversations with a ‘Mon Dieu!’ here or a “C’est Chouette!’ there. Last time I visited her she made Steak Frites along with an appetizer of radishes in a bed of coarse fleur de sel, buttered baguette nearby. Both French staples.  Both delicious.
Anyway.
So that was my introduction to French culture. Today I especially love the history, the food, and the wine of France. To me they’re the perfect ménage à trois, and the only kind I’m interested in. If I had to make it a ménage à quatre, I’d add French art.

With this in mind, you won’t be surprised when I tell you that when my husband and I decided to take a European river cruise a while ago, it was France where we found ourselves embarking sur le bateau. With the exception of having to dine with new people each night and duplicating the previous night’s conversation almost verbatim (Where are you from? What did you do today?) a more relaxing vacation would be hard to find; with only a hundred passengers on board it was a far cry from the football-field sized ships that cruise the ocean (not that there’s anything wrong with those, just a different experience).

We drifted from the Southern Rhone Valley up to Burgundy, past vineyard upon vineyard, and village upon village. In the middle of the trip, we arrived in Lyon, docked, and spent the day in one of France’s great food cities. The afternoon was passed perusing art and book kiosks in the open air market along the river. Leafy Plane trees with their paint by number bark dappled the sunlight, creating postcard scenery. Lunch was wine and lyonnaise salad, because you know, when in Lyon…it’s also my husband’s favorite, and his only French attachment – an unfortunate statistic as you’ll soon find out.

The next morning found us motoring to Burgundy, one of the famous wine B’s of France, the other being Bordeaux in the Aquitaine. Now when I tell you it was absolutely pouring the whole time, you might think this leg of the trip was disappointing. Not so. I loved it. In fact, it was during this day in Burgundy that I thought to myself, in rather theatrical fashion, “This is where we shall retire!”

I did not share this information with my husband. He’s a Chicago native, and stubbornly attached to his home town despite its frozen tundra like winters that last from here to eternity. I, on the other hand, have a past record of moving to 5 different cities in as many years. I enjoy new places. Especially if they’re full of vineyards, and baguettes, and the occasional day that strays above
0 degrees during the winter months.

All this being said, you can imagine his surprise when I let the cat out of the bag and informed him that we would most likely be moving to France when he retired. Ergo, he should start brushing up on his non-existent French. ASAP.
He was resistant.
I suggested Rosetta Stone. He suggested not getting my hopes up.
Two days later after plying him with freshly baked brioche and fancy French jam, enjoyed to the come hither sounds of Carla Bruni, he remained unconvinced. It was apparent that more persuasive efforts would need to take place, and I pondered the possibilities over a glass of white burgundy and a slice of left over Tarte Tatin.

The problem was he didn’t share my love of history. Whether it’s for structures built long ago by Kings and commoners, or for a portrait painted by a brush last held over 300 years ago, or for recipes passed down through generations, or even the last ten years. France is steeped in history, it’s the-not-so secret ingredient to its charm. All of this is lost on him.

Of course, it’s not that he doesn’t like any of that, he enjoys the occasional museum outing, or the odd cathedral tour, but it’s a sort of luke warm, take it or leave it kind of like, and by no means a match to the passion I feel for all of the above. In fact, upon writing this, I realize we have almost nothing in common except a penchant for crosswords, and a vitamin D deficiency. It’s a wonder we’re still married!  I guess opposites really do attract though, because we’re completely happy in our lack of shared interests. Still, measures had to be taken, or I’d be kissing my Burgundy retirement plans au revoir – tout de suite!

I decided I should make an attempt to spark interest in some of the things that might await us in France, a little Gallic countryside coaxing if you will.

Why not start with wine? I asked myself. I’ve always loved French wine, but I don’t really know that much about it. My knowledge of French wine beyond the grape equivalents of a Bordeaux to a Cabernet, a Red Burgundy to a Pinot Noir, a Chablis to a Chardonnay etc., is limited. Wine is just not as easily grasped by a colorful photograph or converting volume measurements to weight, as say, French cuisine is. But if I’m moving to Burgundy, shouldn’t I be informed? Who knows, maybe I’ll find a third or fourth career amongst the vines. It could happen. I have experience. Sort of. I won’t go into detail now, but let’s just say my feet know the touch of a grape.

But back to the issue at hand – I thought wine was a good idea, it would be something we could do together- research and discover the wines of France! What could be more romantic than sharing a bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape over a regional food specialty? It’s not a high bar to pass when your usual evening activity centers on the remote and a Netflix Favorites List. It was a fine idea, and I was glad I came up with it.

Then a light bulb clicked above my tête.

If I was going to be taking notes on all this Frenchified wine stuff, why couldn’t I turn it into a written journal or essays on the history, food, and wines of France? Wasn’t I supposed to be a writer? There was no reason this couldn’t be done. None at all.

I quickly realized another trip to France would greatly enhance my notes. It was the only way forward.

I just as quickly remembered that we’d just returned from Great Britain, and the likelihood of talking my husband into another European adventure within the space of two months was highly unlikely. Also we have dogs. Also European trips cost money. All inconvenient truths that could not be ignored.

I decided an armchair trip to France was the only way forward.

With this in mind, and considering I literally just saved us thousands of dollars in airfare and hotel expenses, I made my frequent twenty step commute from coffeemaker to home office, and proceeded to spend about two hundred dollars on books I deemed necessary for my studies. Two days later, my books arrived, and the twenty pound Larousse Gastronomique that resided on my Lazy Susan desk pedestal was replaced with The Oxford Companion to Wine. Next to it I added The Wine Atlas of the World, as well as the French Wine Scholar’s text book.

Everything was set up, and now all that was needed was an itinerary for my transatlantic upholstered crossing. I consulted my wine map and planned my route. I would start in the Southern Rhone Valley, heading up past the Beaujolais region and Northern Rhone Valley, up to Burgundy, a quick side trip to the village of Chablis, then to Alsace, Champagne, the Loire, Bordeaux, the Languedoc, and finally back to the Côtes de Provence, coming full circle to the appellation of Tavel.

I figured one essay a month puts me back in the South of France just in time for spring and Summer Rosés and a tasty déjeuner of Pissaladière.  FYI – that’s an onion tart with anchovies and olives…What? Did you think I was going to leave French food out of the mix? Of course not. I couldn’t! Besides, everyone knows wine tastes better with food.

I collected my favorite cookbooks and added them to my French Library, then went to have a long talk with the uncooperative husband.

I poured him a glass of vin ordinaire. I rubbed his feet.

Then I gently reminded him that when I first told him I wanted to get a Dachshund he was having none of it – No Way! No How! (his exact words).  Of course we got one anyway. Nine years later that little sausage dog is the love of his life.  I told him he might want to keep that in mind when studying his French conjugation tables.

Then I renewed my Rosetta Stone subscription.