I’ve just been to see a very good friend in Tours, France – a sneaky little break before the Christmas madness descends.
This trip was always bound to be a gastronomic experience, as my friend is a chef too, and so is her husband. We met when I cooked in America for a summer a few years ago, at the legendary Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. Chez Panisse opened in 1971 after the owner, Alice Waters, went back to America after studying in Paris. Disappointed with American food and the poor part that it had to play in family life and society she longed to recreate the French experiences she’d had of simple food: good ingredients cooked well and the quasi ritualistic experience of sharing good food and wine with friends. This is how Chez Panisse was born, a simple no choice menu, made with the best local and seasonal ingredients – not a bad mantra to live by.
When things are not all they might be in life, it may be raining, there may be a terrible economic downturn, you may be broke, your marriage may be on the rocks, Christmas may be looming which, for many is a time of added stress, anxiety and misery, thank God for good food in good company. I’m not talking about stuffing your face on one day of the year just for the sake of it, I’m talking about letting simple food make you happy all year round, every time you eat, especially with friends. Because eating should be a pleasure which gives you fulfilment and joy, it should echo the seasons, the weather, the way you feel. In the worst times, it should pull you through: it’s the most important thing to me, that’s why I make a living out of it.
So what did I eat last week in France that made my heart sing? Bread and cheese mostly, two things that the French still do incredibly well. Because, luckily, it is still part of the culture. Artisan bakeries are still prevalent, whereas finding one in this country is a feat in itself: this is the best argument for making your own bread at home. Even if you have a disappointing meal in a French restaurant, there is always a brilliant cheese board to round things off. Which is why I decided to buy some cheese to bring home with me. Tours is the home of the most incredible goat’s cheeses, so many that they singularly occupied an entire counter in a covered food market. Fresh goat’s cheese with a piece of hay running through the centre to impart flavour is a speciality of the region so I bought a perfect log, plus a Coulommiers cheese, the lesser known cousin of Brie, creamy cow’s milk cheese which brings a tear to my eye whenever I eat it, in fact I crave it, and some beurre de Baratte, handmade butter from Brittany.
I was really sad to leave my friend and the delicious food experiences we always share but I couldn’t wait to get home and re-live all those baguette, butter cheese experiences that are so close to my heart. So, why am I so cheesed off? Because a very aggressive customs officer at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, confiscated the butter, the goat’s cheese and the Coulommiers that had been lovingly made by artisans, and threw them in the bin marked “liquides, crèmes, ….”. All I can hope for is that when she went off her shift, she fished them out and is now savouring them with her Sunday lunch, just like I had planned to. I doubt she possesses the generosity of spirit and joie de vivre that go hand in hand with really caring about food and loving it like my gorgeous American chef friend and I do!