As I’ve mentioned, for the past 20 years, I’ve spent major chunks of my summers renting vacation apartments in France. Each rental had a furnished kitchen. I always love the way these kitchens are so neat, compact, and uncluttered—outfitted with everything needed to cook lovely French meals, but not one thing more.
Over the years, I’ve noticed commonalities in the inventory of just about every apartment I’ve stayed in from Paris to the Mediterranean. In addition to the pots, pans, knives and other very basic cooking utensils that every cook in the Western world would need, every kitchen had the following items. Each tells you a little something about French cuisine, and offers insights into how to bring a little French cooking savvy to your own table.
A well-worn but sturdy panier (shopping basket), generally made of woven natural fibers, is stashed somewhere in every kitchen. For sure, this attests to the country’s eco-consciousness (these days, grocery stores charge for plastic bags).
Yet the size of the panier—generally not that large—tells us how often the French shop, which in turn indicates how fresh the food they eat generally is: You make your daily market rounds, pick up a small panier-full of whatever looks its freshest best, and head home. The next day, you get up and do the same.
2. Tiny Refrigerators
As further testament to the freshness of the food, no French kitchen I’ve ever stayed in has a full, American-size refrigerator. Sure, you could argue that, since I’m staying in vacation rentals, one wouldn’t expect to store much food. Still, my French friends also have small refrigerators (not as small as in my vacation rentals, but still much small than what I have in America).
3. Une Cocotte
Every apartment comes equipped with a heavy pan with a heavy tight-fitting lid, often made by Le Creuset, Staub, or other well-known French manufacturer. Americans call these pans “Dutch ovens,” though the French, of course, do no such thing (in France they’re called cocottes).
These pots speak to how much the French love their braised dishes—and to a certain economy-mindedness of French cooks, who are masterful at turning inexpensive cuts of meat into something marvelous, like coq au vin and boeuf bourguignon, par exemple.
4. A Great Breadknife
It’s happened more than once: I’ve noticed that the cooking knifes at my vacation studio are often inferior—they’ll get the job done, but they’re neither things of beauty nor precision. The exception is the breadknife, which is generally the best knife in the kitchen. No surprise there: For the French, the daily bread (often brought home in that panier) is especially sacred.
5. A Food Mill
A hand-cranked cross between a sieve and a blender, a food mill is often the French cooks preferred way of pureeing soups and root vegetables (it’s one of the secrets to creamy and luscious pureed potatoes). The fact that nearly every kitchen I’ve cooked in—no matter how small—possesses one of these awkward, ungainly, space-robbing things attests to just how beloved these behemoths are.
BTW: I don’t even bother with one of these in my own home (I prefer a food press or a blender). I would love to hear from a die-hard fan of one of these things. I’m open to getting one if I could be convinced of their awesomeness.
6. Dozens of Plates and an Abundance of Flatware
Even when I stay in a studio apartment designed for just two, the cupboard shelves groan under the weight of more cutlery and plates than you’d think necessary. But when you think about how the French love to eat in courses—a sit-down starter, a main dish, a cheese course, and dessert—all those plates start to make sense. I generally end up using them all for even the most casual meals. Fortunately, more and more apartments are coming equipped with dishwashers.
7. No Baking Supplies Whatsoever
I’ve never seen a tart pan, cake pan, baking sheet, or measuring or scales in any apartment I’ve stayed in. Of course, only hard-core cooks would bother baking desserts on vacation. But the truth is, with pastry shops around nearly every corner, the French simply don’t need to bake at home as often as we do.
8. Multiple Corkscrews
I’ve rarely stayed in an apartment that had just one corkscrew in the drawer. Usually there are two or more (the last apartment I stayed in had three).
After all, what if one got broken or misplaced? When it comes to wine, the French leave nothing to chance.