Delicious French pastries in the Toshi Yoroizuka shop in Ebisu, Tokyo. Note the Mont Blanc chestnut cream pastries on the bottom shelf.
One of the many humiliations of living in France is trying to speak French and getting words mixed up. My French is passable, which means I can now understand the voicemail message left by the Orange France fiber-to-the-home technician after listening to it three times (he was speaking rapidly) and making sure to press the “3” button to supprimer or delete the message, not to be confused with imprimer, or print. Imagine the trouble people get themselves into when they confuse supprimer with imprimer.
The French language is filled with dangerous potholes into which a foreigner can easily fall. Today it was my turn.
I went to a wonderful restaurant called Les Saisons in the 9th arrondissement of Paris to have lunch with two friends. On the menu was lièvre à la royale. One friend asked me what it was and I said, “It’s a fish.” The other friend, a local, corrected me and said, “No, it’s hare. You are probably confusing it with lieu.”
Lieu jaune. Of course. I have seen it many times at our twice weekly market on Avenue de Saxe. A white fish called pollock in English whose proper Latin name is pollachius pollachius. How on earth could I confuse a cute bunny rabbit with this vile looking sea creature?
When I got home, I became more curious about lièvre à la royale and dove into that Great Destroyer of Ignorance called the Internet. Had I been classically trained in French gastronomy or at least acquainted with the great mythical dishes of the French cuisine, I would have known that the full name of the dish is lièvre à la royale du sénateur Couteaux. It has origins in the 19th century when a senator (and political columnist) named Aristide Couteaux from the Vienne, went hunting in Poitou and brought several dead specimens of this fine animal to his restaurateur friend’s kitchen and cooked it there with great panache. The dish lives on in the imaginations of French people (who probably rarely cook it at home and only eat it at restaurants) because it takes 1 hour to prepare and 7.5 hours to cook (in an oven at 120C) using ingredients that include blood of hare, lard, pork, foie gras and red wine (source: December 2012 issue of Cuisine et Vins de France). It’s most likely I won’t eat this dish because I can’t stand the thought of eating a cute little bunny rabbit.
When I left Les Saisons, I noticed that across the street (rue Lamartine) stands a building with a plaque that says: Alphonse Lamartine, 1790-1869. Walking around Paris really does expose the gaps in one’s knowledge. Who is Alphonse Lamartine? I’ve heard the name before. I should know of him. So I looked him up on the Internet and found out that he was a statesman and French poet, indeed, one of the major poets of the French Romantic movement in literature. He was born in Mâcon into an aristocratic family and died almost penniless in Paris.
Now I’m intrigued about his poems. Perhaps I can read them after all in French.
It seems odd to say that one is inspired by French pastry in Japan. But consider this: how is it possible that people from a rice-based non-dairy culture have managed to create beautiful, delicious French pastries? You find them not just in fancy patisseries in cities like Tokyo and Osaka, but also in train stations.
The answer: Effort
And with effort comes focus. If you want to learn how to make the most tempting, delicious French pastries, you need to spend a lot of time learning from someone who is an expert. Then you need to focus on practicing how to make it. I am inspired by the Japanese French pastry example because it shows that your background (family, race, religion, national origin) is not an obstacle to creating something you find truly worthwhile. The most important things are your dedication to making the best you can make, the time you devote to your task and the concentration you bring to it.
This is one of my favorite soups in the world. It’s the easiest to make and very inexpensive. There are 3 basic ingredients: leeks, potatoes and broth (chicken or vegetable).
Leek and Potato Soup
- 2 tablespoons of butter
- 6 medium sized leeks or 3 very large leeks (use the light green to white parts only), chopped in rings
- 2 large potatoes or 3 medium sized potatoes, chopped into small cubes
- 7 cups of chicken or vegetable broth
- 1/4 cup milk or light cream (optional)
- salt and pepper to taste
(1) Chop the leeks in small thin round circles from the bottom to the light green part. Discard the tops. Set aside.
(2) Chop the potatoes in small cubes. Set aside.
(3) Heat 2 tablespoons of butter in a large soup pan. Toss in the chopped leeks and let them cook for 20 minutes under medium-low heat.
(4) Toss in the chopped potatoes and stir well.
(5) Add 7 cups of broth (chicken or vegetable), bring to a boil and simmer for 30 minutes.
(6) After 30 minutes, check to see if the potatoes are very soft. If they are, start mashing them either with a fork or a potato masher. This will make the soup more creamy.
(7) You can add 1/4 cup of milk or light cream to the soup to make it more creamy, but it’s actually not necessary. Add salt and pepper to taste. I like this soup with lots of freshly ground black pepper.