Living Like the French—Part 2: Don't Go Crazy in the Kitchen

I’m skipping ahead on my list of Five Ways to Live like the French, because a reader (thanks, Dan!) wanted to hear about how the French entertain casually and at the drop of the hat—and without committing themselves to offering an entire evening’s worth of entertainment.

Let me offer, by example, a wonderful evening I spent at the home of Martine, my landlady in Collioure, who has become a friend over the years. Last year at this time, my husband and I were staying in an apartment in the lovely Maison Frère, and Martine invited us to come over for an apéritif.

As we didn’t have a car, she came to pick us up (she lived in a village about 10 miles away). At left is a photo of her after a day of work. Très chic, n’est-ce-pas?

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t know what to expect. She didn’t say anything about dinner. Was she truly going to drive us 15 or so miles to where she lived, near the town of Le Boulou, just for a drink, then drive us home? Not that we were overly concerned….Nobody in France would let you go hungry. Still, we didn’t know if we’d be dining with her, or not.

She drove us to her charming house, where we sat in her garden. She opened a bottle of wine and brought out some nibbles: A Spanish cured sausage (Martine lives a stone’s through from Espagne), some corn chips that were a little like Fritos, and a bowl of fresh, local cherry tomatoes.

Simple Appetizers in Martine's Garden

She didn’t cook a thing at this point—after all, she had just spent a day at the office, and it was her turn to wind down, too. So we sat in her beautiful garden and ate and drank and talked and laughed and drank a little more.

And then she asked us to stay for dinner.

She invited us into her kitchen and started casually cooking up a lovely—but simple—dish of sauteed squid. That’s all she cooked; she served it with excellent store-bought aioli, bread and, if I remember right, a little salad. Afterwards, she brought out some cheese, and then a store-bought frozen ice-cream dessert (which, in France, is a great thing).

She had her teenage children, Marvin and Jessica, join us at the table for dinner. At first they were shy, but as the evening wore on, they opened up, and we ended up with my husband playing Jessica’s guitar into the night, and all of us, together, singing every English-language pop song our French hosts could think of (“Hey Jude” was a big hit!).

It was one of my favorite nights in France….one I would choose over a Michelin-starred restaurant just about any day.

Paper napkins, yes. But note how Martine presented them with flair.

Here were my take-aways from the experience:

1. Sometimes, we Americans make too much of a fuss over having people over–especially us “foodies” who think we have to strut our stuff every time someone sits down at our table. How dumb!

2. Often times in France, serving something good isn’t about cooking, it’s about choosing good things at the market. Everything Martine served me—from the robust cured sausage and fresh tomatoes to the store-bought aioli and dessert—was a wonderful thing.

3. We should do more spontaneous, free-form entertaining. Why not invite people over for a drink and nibbles, and see how it goes? If everyone’s having a good time, pull out something simple and make a casual meal (pasta tosses, main-dish salads, quick-cooking “saute-deglaze-serve” kinds of meats, etc.) Or, maybe have everyone slip out for a casual meal together. Or call for delivery.

The point is not to be rigid. Invite someone over for a drink, and be open to the evening morphing in an interesting way. Only a free-form evening could result in us singing “Hey Jude” into the night with a couple of charming French teenagers.

So—do you think Martine’s style of entertaining would work chez vous?

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