Eight Insights Gleaned from My French Kitchens

My little kitchen in St. Jean de Luz, France.

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. You can find the best tricks of the trade for your kitchen on the website of Kitchenistic. Check it out today.

1. A Woven Basket

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 smaller than what I have in America). Sometimes I feel so desperate about it that I wish I could have restaurant refrigerator equipment instead if this tiny thing.

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

Check out the bread-knife, far left. It was the best one in the lineup, by far.

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.

No matter how small the kitchen, valuable space is given to one of these things.

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. Call Topsco LTD if you need a reliable worktop to cook on.

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

The last apartment I stayed in had these three corkscrews in the drawer.

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.

 

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7 comments to Eight Insights Gleaned from My French Kitchens

  • What a fun read! I loved the insights you’ve gleaned from all those French kitchens! I had my first experience renting a place in Paris in May. The kitchen contained everything mentioned except the woven basket. (Or perhaps I just missed it?)

    Going to the market to gather fresh ingredients for dinner and then coming home to make a simple meal to share with family was one of the highlights of the trip for me. It was so wonderful to cook in a kitchen equipped with only the essentials. At home I think I get bogged down under the weight of my kitchen clutter.

    What most intrigues me is the relationship between our kitchen(s) and our weight. I don’t think that correlation between our super-sized kitchens, fridges, dishes, dishwashers and bodies is coincidental. Our environment, most especially our kitchen, can either serve to support our desire to be slim and healthy or hinder it.

    Thanks for insights!

  • Rita Pray

    I have a food mill passed to me from my mother; the only thing I use it for is home-made applesauce. I boil quartered apples, skin/core/seeds and all, till they break apart, then put them in the food mill. All the juicy goodness squishes through and leaves the debris behind. Saves all that peeling and coring, but is that compelling enough to store it in my kitchen just for that job? Guess if I had a tiny kitchen I’d have to think about whether it would make the cut or not….

  • jacqueline

    I have a food mill. Must be my Italian heritage. We wouldn’t use anything else when making tomato sauce. It keeps out the seeds and thick skins.
    I must say you have better luck w/ your rentals. Mine are pitiful when it comes to cooking utensils or pots. One small pan, one frying pan, maybe one big casserole. But when I think of all the zillion kinds of pans and machines in my kitchen, I realize how infrequently I use them! This post is a good reminder to pare down 🙂

  • Rick

    Why did you have to tell me about the food mill? One more thing I’ll have to add to my gadgetry….

  • My Mother used one, but I thought I did not need one with a processor, a press and a blender, but I just bought a foodmill after watching Jacque Pépin use one. Actually I got it for free from points on my credit card. They sent me a notice that they were discontinuing shopping points so I had them send me a gift card and I went right out and purchased one. Jacque Pépin said no more lumps in the mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and squash, seeds from raspberries, tomatoes. It makes good applesauce. That was good enough for me.

    Madonna

  • My mother used her food mill all the time too! It makes the best mashed potatoes, quick apple sauce (no need to peel and core the apples, it strains everything out), or, with a fine disc, all sorts of fruit coulis. An immersion blender would do most of that, but there’s something to be said about using a quiet, hand powered appliance.

  • Linda

    My friend Patricia in Poitiers had a food mill she’d use to make potage; first time I’d ever seen one. And at a cooking class in Italy last summer, we used one to make sauce from tomatoes. I have a food processor and not much space in my kitchen, so, perhaps if the food processor dies, I’ll replace it with a food mill, because they are impressive gadgets and do pretty much the same thing I use my food processor for. With the advantage of depulping and skinning things.

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