French cuisine: it’s got that je ne sais quoi

By Charles Richardson

It all began in a tiny hamlet in Normandy, when does it not? Staying with my better half and her parents in rural, northern France was everything I expected; hammering rain, desolate isolation and icy dreariness. But it mattered not because yin would get its yang, in the form of deliciously roaring fires, a strong will to do the sum total of absolutely nothing, drain-unblocker Calvados and unctuous food – cooked with all of the love and attention that one would expect of people cooking in the world’s finest culinary country.

My partner – although of Anglo-Irish parentage – was raised in Paris from a very young age and was put through a gruelling French school system. Her family have owned a thatched, logged cottage in Normandy for almost as many years as they’ve lived in Paris, and so – despite the paucity of neighbours (there are six) and the fact that their hamlet is stereotypically, traditionally French – one might assume that this Anglo-Irish family are relative outsiders to the tiny hamlet of Mélogis. Well, one would be wrong, and how so.

Their closest neighbours, Madeleine and Michel, are two passionate, proud Normans who have lived in the area for decades – Michel was even born just around the corner. Their natural warmth and hospitable raison d’etre have resulted in the surrogate adoption of my partner – this loving, Norman couple are the acting grandparents of a snazzy Anglo-Irish Parisian who – despite her hustle-and-bustle roots – feels most at home in their company. Who’d have guessed it?

Michel has a penchant for bees – he has the lot, I’ve seen it all. Apiaries, hives, colonies as well as all the necessary protective gear, but what use is it all without the final flourish? Luckily, he has that flourish; silky, stringy, sugary honey that is as elegant as fairy dust. Michel takes it in his morning coffee so upon meeting him for the first time I naturally assumed him to be a maniac. But in actual fact, I was maniacal for doubting him – it works as well as butter on toast. Then there is Madeleine; her niche is some of the most intricate, meticulous embroidery that would not be out of place at one of the top Parisian haute couture fashion houses and – as is so often the case for sixty-something, portly French women – cooking. It is for that reason that my ropey French and I are sat in their house. We have been invited for lunch.

Madeleine – whose recipes have featured alongside those of Michelin-starred chefs in The Independent as an authentic arbiter of Norman cuisine – is beyond ecstatic to welcome us in. Upon passing the threshold into their similarly-logged cottage, you are thrust straight into the heart of rural France – an open fire sears and the sumptuous stench of cheese thumps; the lips lick in vicious anticipation. The customary bise follow and we are immediately sat down on an unpretentious wooden bench which sets the mood for what is to come.

My carousel eyes survey the room and they glisten. I spot heavy-as-fudge terrine already laid out on the table alongside a crisp, tanned baguette. A quiche bubbles away in the oven and there is seasoned bavette steak on the counter. Homemade frites relax in a basket, dangling – poised – just above a pot of hot oil. I suddenly realise I’m in deep; I mentally prepare myself for the inevitable waddle home and for the loosening of my belt by a buckle. Skipping breakfast has now gone from looking like a decent decision to outright necessity.

We begin with Madeleine’s homemade terrine and baguette from the local boulangerie. The terrine is as smooth as shined wood, with all the richness of the duck that it contains. I am surprised by their willingness to eat the terrine without the baguette accompaniment, but I soon come to my senses; when something tastes that good, why bother padding it out and watering it down? The baguette is discarded and Madeleine smiles, she obviously interprets this as a subtle, back-handed thumbs up for her terrine, and her interpretation would be correct.

The quiche comes from the oven and my insatiable eyes swell in their sockets. There is enough for dinner for six, let alone as a starter for four. The pastry is buttery and crisp, the filling has the richness of egg and the saltiness of bacon cuts through majestically. And just in case there was any doubt that we would not quite reach our guideline daily calorie intake, a bubbling gruyère topping puts the mind at ease. But the secret? “Les œufs”, Madeleine blurts. A seasoned quiche expert as you might expect, she is adamant that the end product is better after using free-range eggs, despite the fact that they’re being cooked with a plethora of other ingredients – a ringing indictment for the free-range poultry industry. After this explanation, I’m served another slice without consultation whilst the steak pan heats up. Complain, I do not.

The conversation is rudely interrupted by the piercing sizzling of steak. Bavette is a very thin cut and so it does not take long to cook, particularly as the French custom is to merely allow the steak to flirt with the pan rather than to allow it to hit the heat. But the result is sumptuously tender. It is seasoned with white pepper and salt, accompanied by thin, crispy chips and demolished in a matter of minutes. Luckily I have another waiting for me which, again, comes without consultation. I decided that it would simply be rude to turn it down, and therefore reluctantly decide to eat the second.

I can feel the thread of my shirt buttons groaning in pain, my belt buckle squeaks like an unoiled wheel and yet my brain wishes to continue. The human body is a cruel, oxymoronic mess. Velvety Camembert from only 60 kilometres from the table accompanies sharp Roquefort, and I decide against explaining that the current British trend is to bake Camembert, at the risk of being chased out of the house by two furious Normans with frying pans. For want of a better phrase, Camembert is their bread-and-butter; a Cornish man’s pasty, a Yorkshireman’s pudding, a Scot’s whisky.

White wine is served with dessert which is a custardy-éclair affair. And here comes one of the meal’s great controversies: the wine comes out of a box. Exquisite culinary detail, the finest ingredients, knowing where to find them, and then…wine from a box? It is the day’s juxtaposed mystery that I can’t quite get to grips with. Surprisingly the wine is perfectly drinkable, it won’t trouble any judges of award ceremonies, but as a dessert accompaniment it is bland enough to allow the éclair to prosper, but with enough bite to cleanse, wash and fill the palette. My partner would later offer an explanation to the mystery – it has been a day of no-frills cooking; without pomp, without circumstance, without pretence and certainly without snobbishness. And yet, in terms of the crux of the purpose of food, the taste, there is not one thing that you could possibly fault. It was hearty, rustic cooking crafted with more than a tablespoon of love and a ladle of know-how. And it was the same for the wine – if it tastes good enough, who cares what it’s served in? Who cares what it looks like? And who cares how you drink it?

I thank them both for their immensely generous hospitality, but it is hardly acknowledged. I realise that this is just what they do. They do not need congratulations nor thanks – if they did then they would be inviting people to dine with them regularly, but they do not. As we leave, Michel begins the dishes as Madeleine leisurely eyes up a spot of sewing. We step out into the howling wind where we contemplate how business as usual for some can have such a lasting, touching effect on others.

Illustration: Katie Butler

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