Ma Nuit Chez Martine—or, How French Women Entertain

Martine at El Taps, a tapas joint in Collioure, France.

As I’ve mentioned before, Martine, my landlady in Collioure, France, has also become a friend over the years.

Every year, our stay begins with her welcoming us into our apartment in the late morning. Then, we all go out for lunch together. Usually we go to a little tapas place, so we can have wine and nibbles and chat and catch up on what’s happened since we’ve all seen each other last.

Sometime during our stay, Martine invites us to dinner at her home in the nearby town of Le Boulou. Not only is it one of the meals I look forward to the most all summer, but I just love the way she entertains—in fact, her style of entertaining has become a template for the way I entertain once home.

Here’s an overview of Ma Nuit Chez Martine (My Night at Martine’s) summer, 2013.

1. Three Easy Steps to a Great Apéritif

I’ve written much on The Art of the Apéritif; let’s just say that I think that many times, we Americans  overthink those welcome drinks and nibbles. Martine always keeps it so simple—yet so pleasurable. She usually serves a little charcuterie and maybe a purchased spread or two:

Step 1: Martine gets her guest, the poet Dave Wolf (also mon mari) to help slice up some Spanish cured sausage. But there’s something WRONG in this photo. Can you guess what it is?

Here’s the photo a few seconds later, after all becomes right in this little corner of the world:

Step 2: Ah yes! A little wine was needed for this arduous task. And a South of France rosé went beautifully with the rosy charcuterie in this spread.

Step 3: Add something crunchy. In this case, artisanal Catalan potato chips (the best potato chips on the planet IMHO).

2. A Make-Ahead Sit-Down First Course: Gazpacho or any great cool summer soup

Martine works very hard; in addition to managing vacation rentals in the summer, she has a full-time job. And she’s single-handedly shepherding two kids through the rigors of college. But does that stop her from serving four sit-down courses on a weeknight. Non. 

She had the gazpacho all made up long before we got there so that it was ready to go the minute we sat down. Take that for a summer tip: Make a beautiful cold soup and chill it down up to 24 hours in advance of your gathering.

3. A Beautiful Main Course—with a Little Help from a Readymade

Martine makes the best paella I’ve ever had in my life. (“But that’s Spanish, not French,” you say. N’importe quoi (whatever)! Martine lives about 10 miles from the Spanish border, in French Catalonia—and if you want to get all historical about it, the region was Spain until a few centuries ago….)

Sorry. You can’t have the recipe. Because one of her secrets is that she buys a tremendous fish stock from a local fishmonger. I’ve often noticed that French home cooks buy certain readymade ingredients, from beautiful meringues from a local baker to a terrific aioli from the local traiteur. The point is this: If you can find a truly great readymade from a great local source, and you’re pressed for time, why wouldn’t you buy it? And never feel like you’re somehow being inauthentic for doing so.

Martine’s extraordinary paella, made with a fresh readymade fish stock purchased locally. Follow her lead!

 4. The Cheese Course (of Course)!

I’ve never, not once, dined in a French home and not been offered a cheese course. Nothing too tricky about it, but if you want some insights, I’ve written some guidelines on how to serve a great French cheese course. But really, don’t sweat it. Martine doesn’t.

Oh. And check out this great cheese board, with the awesome knife magnet at the end. I want!

 5. And for dessert? 

I think that Martine and I have only had a fierce argument once in our lives. That was when I casually mentioned that I often wonder if French women really ever bake at all. Truly, I’ve never had a home-baked dessert in any French home. Not that I blame French home cooks a bit. If I had a crazy-amazing artisanal patisseur just around my corner, I’d be picking up dessert a lot more often, too.

A cool, creamy, luscious dessert: Tiramisu Haagen Dazs. Note that readymade desserts are often presented with a little extra something—in this case, the sweet chocolate boules.

Of course, Martine swears that French women bake all the time. This night, however, she did not offer evidence to her argument But who could blame her? Because after such a lovely and filling summer meal, I, too, couldn’t think of anything better than a great ice cream treat. Which happened to be Haagen Dazs. (French Haagen Dazs, mind you.)

So think about it: Martine treated us to a fabulous meal rife with local flavors (well, except for the ice cream)—and she only had to cook one thing that day (the Paella). Any wonder why I love the way the French entertain?






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