A French Culinary Love AffairWhile attending cooking school in Paris in her 20s, food writer Lynda Balslev fell in love with the unfussy comfort food of her neighborhood bistros. She returned to the U.S. years later with recipes that satisfy her enduring taste for the flavors of the French countryside.
As many stories set in Paris are, this is a love story. Yes, there was a man involved, but that's not what I am talking about. This is a story about my love affair with French country food.
In 1991, I moved from Boston to Paris to study cooking at Le Cordon Bleu. At the time, I was hardly predisposed to the French culture or cuisine. None of my ancestors were French. I studied Spanish in school. And my eating style was certainly not French. I did not eat red meat, avoided butter and treated cheese like the forbidden fruit. I shunned caffeine and drank little wine. So what possessed me in my 20s to sell my house, put a design career on hold and move to France? Perhaps it was the lack of meat protein in my diet that affected my reasoning skills. Or, perhaps it was the subconscious need to seize the excuse of a new culture and a gap of an ocean to allow me to just live a little.
Whatever the case, I set off with two duffel bags and many unanswered questions. (Where would I live? How would I open a bank account? Why did I study Spanish?) Upon arrival, my life slowly fell into place. A room in a tiny apartment was rented. A bank account was (with difficulty) opened. I was immersed in French, and quickly began to pick up food terms. And my life shifted.
About The Author
Lynda Balslev moved to Paris to study cooking in 1991. She returned to the U.S. 17 years later with a Danish husband, two children and previous addresses in Geneva, London and Copenhagen. During that time, she worked as a freelance food writer, caterer, cooking instructor and food editor for the Danish magazine Sphere. Currently she lives in California's Bay Area, where she writes about food and culinary travel on her blog TasteFood, teaches cooking and is relieved to be speaking English again.
Each day, I walked across the city from my apartment in the 18th arrondissement to school in the 15th arrondissement. I traversed neighborhoods and crossed boulevards and the river Seine on my way to class. For breakfast, I stopped in cafes along the way and ordered a tartine, a crusty baguette slathered with butter and preserves, and cafe au lait. I passed open-air markets, where I purchased baguettes, fresh fruit and runny cheese for my lunch. I continued on, passing restaurants and bistros, pausing to read menus posted outside their doors, window shopping for dinner just as I would for shoes.
At school, I learned to make sauces, stocks and reductions, how to clean fish and poultry, sharpen and use my knives. I learned the basics of pastry and how to cook an egg. I was instructed on how to cut vegetables, roast salmon, prepare coq au vin. I shared my food from class with the dishwasher, who tirelessly worked in our kitchen, cleaning our pots and pans. I was eager to return home from school without leftovers; I had other plans for dinner. My love affair had started. I had a rendezvous with a French bistro for dinner.
I discovered the neighborhood bistro early on. Accessible, convivial and unfussy, the bistros beckoned to me when I returned home from school each day, tired and hungry with no interest in more cooking. Their entrances were warmly lit and festively decorated. Sounds of conversation, laughter and the wafting aroma of delicious food coaxed me into their cozy environments. I would slip into a seat at a small table in the middle of the bustle, sitting elbow to elbow with my fellow diners. I was alone yet in good company, sharing in the enjoyment of eating.
The cuisine was consistently good — comfort food unpretentiously rooted in the French countryside. Each bistro specialized in the cuisine of a particular pays (region), usually determined by the birthplace of the chef. The common theme was a respect for terroir, the uniquely French term that gives identity and meaning to the food and wine of a particular region. It reflects the soil, climate and geography of the land. It also reflects the history, culture and traditions of the people who produce the food. The menus proudly reproduced and refined these traditional provincial dishes, showcasing seasonal ingredients from local artisans and growers. As I tucked into a steaming bowl of pot-au-feu or spread chunky rustic pate on a crusty baguette, I was transported to the countryside, reaping the benefits of generations of expertise directed to the kitchen. It warmed me and fed my palate and soul. I was in love and at home.
My love affair with French country food continues to this day. I cook in this style for family and friends, mindful of the seasons and eating as locally as possible. And that man? We were married, but that's another story.