Let’s Do Lunch

What a pleasure it is to be invited for lunch in France. These Wednesday afternoon (traditionally “off” days for school children) or weekend meals begin with drinks around noon and last well into the 4 o’clock hour, and are even more luxurious when held on the terrace of one’s garden. I might not be a garden- or home-owner myself (yet!), but the next best thing is having friends who are.

My choir bestie Annie, a gourmande for traditional french cuisine, has had quite a time coming up with vegetarian recipes for us to eat when I’m around. Each meal is a surprise and an adventure in one. We nibble on nuts or crackers while drinking our first glasses of cider or wine, then move on to an hour’s worth of entrées and main dishes. We’ve nommed our way through tomato tartes (reminiscent of southern tomato pie, but with decidedly less cheddar), veggie pizzas and lasagnas, stuffed roasted red peppers, and sweet potato soups. A natural pause in the conversation is the perfect moment to bring out the cheese board and homemade bread, and is also when I usually loosen my belt. Desserts and coffee come next, of course, and a quick shot of farm-fermented calvados (for health purposes) revives us for our promenades around town. We always stroll down the local trails, visit nearby châteaux, trespass on neighbors’ property to pet their horses and donkeys, and generally do whatever it takes to work up just enough of a second appetite to return home for a cuppa.

Strolling through a nearby village: Agon-Coutainville.

Strolling through a nearby village: Agon-Coutainville.

This past Wednesday, Annie and I laid in the garden hammock digesting while the clouds floated above us. Following Annie through her giant English garden always reminds me of walking around my grandmother’s backyard. She died when I was ten, but one of my favorite memories of her is the way she would guide me around the backyard, reminding me of the names of all the flowers, popping touch-me-nots, and watching critters flit around the nearby woods. Annie is a lot like her. She lets me attempt the French names of her beloved flowers, then quietly corrects me when I ask for help. She’s just lovely. 

After a few hours dozing in the grass, we sat around the teapot and said our goodbyes for the summer vacation; I’m heading back to the States tomorrow for six weeks en famille. It will be wonderful to be back home, of course, but I’ll sure miss the friends (and meals) I’ve made here.

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Coastal Touring

One of the coolest things about traveling is the rare experience of meeting people who are both wonderfully proud of their region and interested in welcoming outsiders. These odd breeds act as the best sort of travel guides for people like me, and I’ve had the luck of meeting quite a few here in Normandy.

A few weeks ago, one of my favorite such tour guides invited several members of the crew to spend the weekend at his parents’ cabin in Portbail. Rather than drive directly to the village just 45 minutes away, he took us on a six-hour road trip hugging the coast of Northwestern France. 

Tucked into one of those go-carts that the French have the gall to call “cars”, we puttered to Cherbourg for a midmorning coffee, then continued on, singing along to 70’s funk and unfolding ourselves out of the car every few kilometers to line up on a different beach and stare off into the distance. 

A fellow traveler

A fellow traveler

I collected shells beside the tiniest port in Europe and stood at a safe distance from cliffs with names like “The End of The World” and “The Nose of Jobourg” (no word on who Jobourg was or whether his schnoz really was the size of a small peninsula). My tour guides force-fed me steamed mussels after they were collected steps away from us on the Omonville beach (not really worth breaking my vegetarian lifestyle for it, but an interesting cultural experience, nonetheless) and we washed them down with peach liquor.

The Portbail sunset.

The Portbail sunset.

By the time we finally reached our destination, we had just enough time to go on one of the bigger grocery-shopping trips of my life and start cooking before the sun went down. Half a dozen of us sat outside and passed around guitars while the more culinary-inclined barbecued up a feast. We noshed and sang for hours upon hours. Around 5 in the morning, as the sky lightened and everyone else was still jamming along to French classics of the 1960s, I finally waved my white flag and crawled into the cabin loft for a few hours of rest before we started it all again the next day.

Across the magical frontier of lower Normandy, where all the inhabitants seem to be on permanent vacation time, I had a ball. It’s wonderful to have friends who have taken it upon themselves to show me their wonderful country. They are proud of where they come from and happy to show it off, and I’m tickled to be able to see this world through their expert eyes.

30 Days of Happiness: The Best Omelette You’ll Ever Taste

I came home from a workout earlier in the week and decided that eating everything in the fridge was a good idea. Behold, my mammoth tortilla omelette, inspired by the delicious Spanish tortillas I ate in Italy.

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You’ll note that there’s no tortilla bread in the photo. A traditional Spanish tortilla is not, in fact, the magical flat bread you use to hold your burritos together. Rather, it is a cake of fried potatoes piled high and held together with egg in a firm cornbread-like shape.

I started by frying two thinly sliced potatoes and some onion in a swimming pool’s worth of oil. After they were fully cooked and evenly spaced in the pan, I poured in two beaten eggs, added a handful of spring lettuce (this negates any unhealthiness in the rest of the dish), and piled on the emmental cheese for a bit of French flavor. I prefer my eggs runny, so I only cooked it on one side and ate it open-faced, allowing the top to remain deliciously wiggly.

And voila: a francophile’s take on the classic Spanish picnic food. This omelette was its own full meal, thanks to the potatoes. The crispy potato skins and slightly burnt onion bits added some texture to an otherwise basic breakfast. Seriously, I noshed down the whole thing in about five minutes and was painfully full but oh so very satisfied. Try it out and tell me what you add to make this dish your own. Buen provecho! 

Miming My Way Through Italy

Most of last week’s short trip to Italy is just a blur, quite honestly. Days softened into evenings and late nights as I traipsed through the streets with four of my fellow English assistants. Only stopping to tumble into a café or gelato shop when we were hungry, the hours melted into one unending day.

Each afternoon, we continued our unceasing stroll through the town called Salerno, about an hour from Naples. Confetti inexplicably filled the cracks of the cobblestones, like the beads that hang from New Orleanian phone lines year-round. Every night, we read books out loud to each other, one girl swiping through the pages of an e-reader while the others sipped from their wineglasses and snuggled together thoughtfully. We snacked on cookies and fruit in the afternoon, never minding the calorie content and whole-heartedly enjoying ourselves as we chatted and solved all of modern society’s problems. 

So there was obviously a lot of this.

So there was obviously a lot of this…almost every meal.

Southern Italians on the streets hollered, gesticulated, and stomped their feet to comment idly on the weather. I spent most of my time wondering why everyone was so angry with each other before I got used to the fact that we were just in Italy.

A fair amount of this.

A fair amount of this.

We trekked to the dark grey beach nearby, where the wind played notes on our beer bottles and whipped sand into every possible nook and cranny. It wasn’t exactly beautiful weather, but it was a heck of a lot better than what we’re used to in Normandy. We kicked off our boots and socks, and my tootsies saw sunlight for the first time since last September. 

Descending upon the port while our seagull drones complete recon.

The busses klaxon before going around each blind mountain corner, and there’s always a lady who makes the sign of the cross and kisses her crucifix necklace as all the other passengers lean into the turn. We spent quite a bit of time praying for our lives and our lunches on those wild bus rides.

When you see pack horses, you know you're in the country.

You know you’ve reached the countryside once you see pack horses.

A hike through the Sentiero Degli Dei  (literally the Path of the Gods) along the Amalfi coast provided some seriously gorgeous views. Italians have been farming and fishing against the steep, rocky mountainsides for thousands of years, and it shows from the moment you step outside. Modern graffiti painted on top of Medieval ruins stacked on top of Roman ruins-it’s everywhere. 

Becky and Stace are terrible people.

Becky and Stace are terrible people.

French civilization holds just as many claims to being “old” as Italy’s does (just look up the cave paintings of Chauvet and Lascaux), but this countryside seems so much more steeped in history than Normandy’s. These pictures absolutely do not do it justice, but I tried. 

We saw some nice views, or whatever.

We saw some nice views, or whatever.

There’s nothing like heading out of your comfort zone for a few days to get some fresh air, hear a new language, and eat obscene amounts of tomato sauce on carbs. Italy comes nowhere near France on my list, but you’ve gotta admit that it’s got style.

Bon Appétit: The End Of The Meal

We have finally reached Day Five: the final day of our Bon Appétit series here on Kaycee En Route.

If you’ve made it this far with me, I congratulate and thank you! Seriously, it means a lot that so many of you have come back day after day to read and comment on this project.

This week, we’ve seen that the French live up to their stereotype of taking long, luxurious breaks for multi-course meals, even in school cafeterias. Old-fashioned dishes are still far more common than quick sandwiches and the like in the country of haute cuisine. Even though fast food has officially invaded France and obesity is slowly increasing across the country, the French still manage to be some of the healthiest people on the planet by staying loyal to their tradition of taking the time to enjoy real food.

Children learn that spending time with friends in communion is a vital part of every day. Students sit down to small round tables and face their classmates. They pick up real silverware at the front of the lunch line and serve each other from pitchers of water, the only beverage offered to the kids (teachers get wine and coffee, too). The setting and presentation of the meal is nearly as important as the food itself. All of these details add up to a more familial experience, teaching young Frenchies that les petits bonheurs of life really do matter.

As far as the content of the actual plates is concerned, your grandmother was right to say “In all things, moderation”. The majority of the dishes you’ve seen this week have been fresh, locally sourced vegetables and grains, but they were usually swimming in a fair amount of butter. (Keep in mind, everyone else’s plate had some form of meat, as well.) All but the strictest of dieters take a dessert every day. The French enjoy their meals-they don’t feel guilty about eating delicious food or taking the time out of their workday to do so. By allowing themselves that break, they will be happier and the rest of their day will be more productive. They take just as much time to walk around town with friends, spend time with family, and profit from all of the best of life, thereby maintaining a more positive state of mind and overall health. The perfect adjective for the meals and lifestyles that are promoted in France is equilibré: balanced. 

Here, it seems like you really can have your cake and eat it, too.

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Entrée: clementines
Plat Principal: mixed vegetables in soy sauce and multicolored rice
Fromage: brie and an apple
Dessert: coconut cake

In honor of the Chinese New Year, today was Vaguely Asian Day in the cantine. Yes, it looks as though the school must have gotten a great deal on carrots this week, but I really don’t mind. The rice was a wonderfully flavorful departure from my usual pasta, and the soy sauce was enough to stave off my Japanese-food-detox shakes for a few more weeks. More important than the food, though, was that I took the advice from the French and savored every moment. I spent a full hour sitting in the cafeteria, listening to my colleagues gossip about students and stacking each finished plate onto another with that satisfying little *tac*. After I pushed my chair back and wished the group an enjoyable fin de repas, I joined my fellow English teachers in the staffroom to sip on our usual tea like the geeky Anglophiles that we are. In the end, it’s less about the dishes served and more about the enjoyment of the most mundane of things: a meal among friends.

Again, thanks for taking the time out of your day to read this series. I hope you enjoyed it, and t’hesite pas to send me any suggestions or questions in the comments! And of course, don’t forget to take a moment to do as the French do and enjoy a bite with loved ones today; whether you include the camembert is up to you.

Bon Appétit: Paying For It

Happy Thursday, hungry people!

Typically the busiest day around school for heaven knows what reason, Thursday in the cantine is a mad sprint for forks and slices of baguette. Shiz gets real. But even though it’s loud and cutlery sometimes goes flying, I’m still more than happy to be there. Why?

Because it’s darn cheap.

Teachers at my school pay €2.56 ($3.50 at time of writing) for a balanced, multiple course meal cooked by professional chefs. My soon-to-be-infamous bagel, chips, and root beer cost about the same five years ago.

How do the French manage to provide high quality meals for a relatively low price? It’s a question of department finances. Each department in France (similar to a county in the States) regulates its own school meal program. Local governments have made supporting a healthy lifestyle a priority by putting its money directly into subsidizing, on average, half of the cost of all school lunches. For the rest of the cost, there’s an income-based payment system for students. Higher income families pay a higher average than lower income ones. (Incidentally, no matter the financial situation of the student in question and the price paid, he or she gets the same meal as everyone else sitting in the cafeteria. No skipping meals. Every kid who wants to do so eats.)

Entrée: grated beets and carrots Plat Principal: carrots and potatoes Fromage: le coutances, a banana, and an apple Dessert: pound cake with caramel pudding

Entrée: grated beets and carrots
Plat Principal: carrots and potatoes with rosemary
Fromage: le coutances, banana, and apple
Dessert: pound cake roll with caramel pudding

Being the poor little English Assistant that I am, paying 3 bucks a day for a four-course homemade meal that I would never cook for myself is one of the better perks of this job. Yes, I had two kinds of carrots today, but I love me some carrots and it was still better than anything I’d ever find in town. The kebaberie down the street sells ham sandwiches for €4.50 a pop: twice what I pay for less than half the food. If I went for a multiple course meal in a typical French restaurant, I’d be paying at least €20. Yes, it would be rich and sumptuously delicious, but I’m just fine to stay at school and save that cash for travel.

If you ask me, French kiddos don’t know how good they’ve got it.

 

Bon Appétit: No Meat, Please

Merry Mercredi, everyone!

Being a vegetarian in France is usually no big deal. Once I go through the typical script of “No meat. Yes, fish is meat. Yes, other seafood is meat. Yes, bacon is meat. Yes, chicken is also meat. Meat means animal. If it is an animal, I don’t eat it unless it’s a once-in-a-lifetime cultural experience. Yes, really.” people usually understand and I do just fine with pasta, veggies, and all sorts of other delicious dishes. At the school cantine, it took several days of saying “Je ne prends que des legumes, s’il vous plait” before the servers caught on to my diet. Now, when the chefs see me coming, the call echoes down the line. “La petite végétarienne arrive!”

As you’ve seen from the past two days, I have no trouble finding enough food at lunchtime and generally am more than satisfied with the many options before me.

The exception to the rule is Wednesdays.

Every Wednesday across this fair country, all elementary schools are closed and high schools have half days. Because most kids are running for home by 11:55 AM, the cafeteria offers a limited menu to the remaining boarding students and teachers, usually made up of leftovers from the previous day. For the few vegetarians and vegans around here, that means plain grains and less-than-filling meals that frequently lack a protein. In fact, I tend to skip the cantine lunch on Wednesdays, but I wanted my dear readers to see the difference.

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Entrée: cucumber salad
Plat Principal: macaroni noodles in tomato sauce; green beans
Fromage: camembert
Dessert: caramel cake with whipped cream

It’s easy to see the origins of today’s meal: green beans from yesterday’s side and macaroni that was first bought for Monday’s lunch. It might be less than beautifully presented, but these dishes were still surprisingly yummy and relatively filling, though my rumbling belly would have probably been content with sawdust this afternoon. The green beans reminded me of home, even though they weren’t quite as salty as my family would have liked. (That’s probably a good thing.) Having had camembert cheese three times in as many days, I’m starting to hope for a nice chevre or even emmental for tomorrow. The one thing our cafeteria always gets right is the dessert; the gooey chewy melty caramel cake was perfection on a fork.

Do you have any dietary concerns that some people just don’t understand? Gluten-free or vegan people would have a very hard time here in the land of bread and cheese.