My French in-laws are a sociable bunch. While I was in Malange the family either hosted a dinner for, or were hosted by others about twice a week. And these were Serious Meals, course after course, lasting between four and five hours. I kid you not.
Françoise lays a beautiful table with white damask, and immense napkins that were her mother’s. (She also launders and irons them all afterwards..)
Happy diner sporting enormous heirloom damask napkin
She handles the cooking tasks with practiced ease, making much of it ahead of time. The apertif (what we call hors d’oeuvres) is often cheesy little cream puffs (gougères) or puff pastry around a slice of anchovy – she makes a bunch at a time and freezes them till needed. It accompanies the household favorite party starter, champagne.
“À table,” she announces, after about an hour of quaffing. She usually seats the men at one end of the table, and the women at the other, figuring that each gender would prefer to talk amongst themselves. And they do, but conversations also criss-cross the table from end to end, at least three simultaneously. To a non-native the sounds are completely indecipherable, and there is never a lull.
And of course there is wine. We’re just around the corner from Burgundy, and the Jura region also has its specialties. My favorite was this Chablis (Premier Cru). It tastes nothing like the flavorless drink you find on the supermarket shelves in the US.
First we have a fish dish. Then awhile later a meat dish – sometimes with a vegetable but usually not. Then comes the salad (Boston lettuce from the garden). Then a selection of regional cheeses, which I wish weren’t so fabulous, because I was already stuffed at fish. Then dessert (maybe her lemon tart or gorgeous fruit salad). Then espresso with a little piece of chocolate. Then perhaps some kirsch-soaked cherries.
Françoise is on a diet (“mon regime”) and says she wishes she didn’t have to serve so much, but “they expect it; they’re gourmands,” she says of each guest group. “I wouldn’t want to serve less than they do for us…”
The company has always been kind and they try to keep me in the loop of the conversation, but for an introvert like me it’s exhausting to sit still that long and try to look alert. At the last such dinner, Françoise noticed my glazed eyes and released me after the salad.
By way of contrast, back in Boisinges with Sylvie and Philippe (see Cast of Characters page if you’re confused – Françoise and Régis are Sylvie’s parents), dinner parties are much simpler. Wine or beer with crackers to gather. Then salad. Then the main course. Then dessert. Usually no cheese, though it is often a part of family lunches or dinners. I could be in the US.
Philippe is a good cook and often does the dinner, as Sylvie works till 8 at the hospital. Sylvie is very health conscious and the simplicity of the family eating style reflects it. My last night in France Philippe cooked and we were joined by two of his buddies from Morbier, the Jura town of his youth.
Philippe makes salad
He made a “filet mignon” (which here is actually pork tenderloin, not beef) in puff paste with ham, cheese and onions. WOW. The rest of the meal was simple: a salad of tomatoes and kiwi, and for dessert, strawberries with a sabayon sauce I made.
Recipe for pork tenderloin en croute
Sylvie says she believes her parents’ elaborate entertainment style is a reflection of their generation and the way that the people in the countryside live. However, don’t think for a minute that farmers in rural France have rustic taste. Oh no. They know their wines, their cheeses, their fancy cuts of meat, their herbs, fruits and vegetables better than we do, and they appreciate it all. A lot of the food they eat they have raised in their capacious gardens.
My only regret this trip is that most of the produce they grow isn’t yet ready to eat. I will have to return in a couple of months, don’t you think?