One of the best memories I have comes from my time studying in France. Thanks to my friend Maddie, I met an incredibly generous French family named Anglais. To prove just how small the world really is, Maddie met the famille Anglais while they were on summer holiday in the southwest United States. They had stopped for lunch in Flagstaff, Arizona, at a restaurant where Maddie worked. Because she spoke a bit of French, she was designated as their server. Through struggling to take their order, Maddie learned that this family was not only half the world away from home, but that they actually lived in the INCREDIBLY small town of Albi – the same town where we’d be for our semester abroad! Talk about being in the right place at the right time!
When we arrived in France, the Anglais family invited Maddie and me to their home, an invitation we eagerly and nervously accepted. I still remember our first car ride to their house – a terrifying drive, chased by dogs, over a river and through the woods, up a winding mountainside, to their family farm. Despite their name, they didn’t speak a word of English, so that first meeting was filled mostly with nods of feigned comprehension and uncomfortable smiles. Needless to say, Maddie and I learned quite a bit of our French from them.
We had many great adventures with the Anglais family, ranging from picking wild asparagus to arguing over parts of speech. Our ultimate experience, however, was an invitation to “lunch.” Little did we know, that lunch actually meant a 7-course meal. Ann, the mother and a talented cook, prepared salad with grapefruit and foie gras, veal in tomato sauce, rice with veggies and tuna, among many other delicious concoctions. Each time we finished second helpings of one dish, another was placed before us. And I’ll admit, we ate it all! By the end of the meal, all Maddie and I wanted to do was roll home and fall into bed for a well-deserved nap.
But nooooooooo! After lunch, the family asked if we’d like to see a ruined temple nearby. Maddie and I caught each other’s eyes across the table and hesitantly and groggily acquiesced. We drove for an hour – yes an HOUR – until we pulled off to the side of the road beneath a big hill. We got out of the car and slowly gazed up the hill to an itsy-bitsy temple at the top. Maddie and I nodded and smiled and told them how nice it was. We turned to get back in the car, but everyone started to climb the hill. We looked at each other in disbelief. They wanted to go all the way to the top of that hill, after the huge lunch we had eaten and with the food coma we had acquired!
Of course we did climb the hill, explored the ancient temple and I wouldn’t have done it any other way. It was a singularly incredible experience with wonderful people and a scrumptious table of food. I wish I could have adventures like this one everyday.
I was able to cook several times with Ann, and she even gave me a copy of her favorite cookbook, La Cuisine de Ducasse par Sophie, (http://www.amazon.fr/Cuisine-Ducasse-par-Sophie/dp/2848440074), which I use when I’m feeling particularly confident.
I’m a big fan of the Disney & Pixar film Ratatouille, so I was thrilled when Ann served it at her feast. Ratatouille is a French peasant dish that originated in the Occitan region of France. It’s versatile and hearty and can be served as a side dish or appetizer, but I eat it as a meal. Serve it hot or at room temperature with crusty bread and Parmesan shavings. It only gets better with time, so cook it the day before you serve it.
1 Onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
1 medium eggplant,
1 yellow zucchini,
1 green zucchini
Salt and pepper
Herbs de Provence
Fresh parsley, basil and Parmesan shavings, to garnish
Chop the eggplant, zucchini and tomato into small chunks and set them aside.
In a large heavy bottom pot, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add onions and sauté until they start to sweat. Season with salt and pepper and dried herbs. Add the garlic and toss until fragrant. Add the eggplant and zucchini and season with salt and pepper and herbs again. Drizzle with more olive oil. Once the eggplant and zucchini have softened, add the tomatoes, with their juice. Season once more and stir to incorporate.
Allow the ratatouille to cook over medium low heat. If the mixture becomes gelatinous, add some water. Garnish with fresh chopped parsley, basil and shavings of Parmesan.
*If I have the time, I will cook each vegetable separately for more distinct flavors and then combine them at the end. If I don’t have the time, I cook them together and it still tastes great.