Culinary inspirations and mentors come in all guises. Mine heralded from Normandy. Her name was Genevieve Fay. She stood 5’5” tall and was - until the last day of her life – always immaculate. With her jet black hair elegantly coiffed, she personified elegance in the very French manner of her dress and etiquette, yet her sapphire-colored eyes often had a mischievous twinkle in them. She marshaled all those around her with an apparent ease that I always marveled at. She was my grandmother and I adored her.
From her deft hands came the art of laying a beautiful table, an aperitif to tempt the palate, the ability to make guests feel at ease and fragrant, sauce-rich meals which epitomized fine home cooking (more about those later).
Meals seemed to suddenly come together in her kitchen. She would often announce that dinner would be ready in 45 minutes and I’d pop into her kitchen to see what she was making and nothing would be cooking, not a pot on the stove? Ten minutes later, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons playing in the background, every single cupboard would be open (“so I can see everything I need”, she’d say), a battalion of pots bubbling and steaming away. Where had they been? How did she do that in so little time? The answer I soon came to learn was careful preparation of her ingredients earlier in the day – a classic ‘mise en place’, although she would never refer to it that way.
Born in the heartland of France’s luscious dairy farms, home to salty butter, crème fraiche and some decadent cheeses, her cuisine was classic French fare. My grandfather, on the other hand, came from Nice and the Cote d’Azur. His family’s culinary ties were firmly planted in the Mediterranean. My mother inherited and passed on the flavors of both cuisines. As a result, at home in London we ate an eclectic mix of Provencal-Indian-Classic French-African dishes that ranged from dal, spiced plantain and onion tarts to Canard à l’Orange, gigot d’agneau and apple crumble; drawing upon the cultures that surrounded us there. It was in this spicy melting pot that I leant to cook. My mother preferred the flavors of Provence and this was (and is) the food I felt at ease with, yet we would all yearn for Geneviéve’s classic dishes. Her ‘Lapin a la Moutarde’ (see Edible Autumn 2010 for the recipe) was legendary in the family.
The journey to my grandparents’ home in the French Alps was a long one, some 1100 kilometers separated us. I loved taking the overnight train from Paris leaving from the imposing Gare de Lyon. You’d awaken the next morning to majestic alpine scenery unfolding before you as you listened to the clickety-clack of the train as it weaved its way up the vertiginous valleys to the end of the line: Briançon - the highest ‘city’ in Europe, situated at the confluence of four stunning valleys and just 11 kilometers from the Italian border.
My grandmother would always meet the train and on the drive home would describe what she was preparing for dinner. Our mouths would water. Could it be her Quenelles à la crème, her Roti de Porc, Escalopes à la crème or a Tuite aux Amandes? Reflecting back our favorites all seemed to have lashings of crème fraiche and cheese in them, but she also made simple, light dishes such as steamed leeks with a vinaigrette, steamed courgettes with olive oil and grated gruyere, a basket of crudités served with a plate of local charcuterie and a crisp green salad with chopped chives. If a meal necessitated a particular ingredient of Italian origin we would literally drive to Italy, up the stomach-churning mountain pass, to get it. The reward on the way back was the ultimate salty treat which consisted of skinny crissini, dotted with butter and wrapped with paper-thin slices of prosciutto. It was the only time we were allowed this tasty morsel.
My grandparents’ home was very formal. Even the simplest meal, al-fresco on the terrace for instance, would require a multitude of plates, glasses, silverware and platters for each dish, yet I enjoyed the rituals which encompassed all her meals and the delicacy with which she orchestrated them. Even spending countless hours driving hither and yon for just such and such an ingredient was enjoyable, no doubt because it was just the two of us.
Once I was old enough she would let me set the table. She always checked the details and always tweaked the finished product. Seating at her table followed a strict protocol which – within the family hierarchy – depended on one’s age and position in birth order. I only mention this because being strategically placed at the dinner table was sometimes to one’s advantage. On one memorable occasion she had made the aforementioned Lapin à la Moutarde. You have to understand that this sauce begged for a piece of baguette to be drenched in it and placed reverently in one’s mouth. However all drenching was strictly off limits. You may be permitted to discreetly impale a small piece of bread on the tines of your fork and delicately dab the sauce on you plate, but heaven forbid that you actually pick up a piece with your fingers, soak up that glorious sauce to then munch on that morsel. This proved the undoing of my uncle and I.
We were seated opposite each other. We had finished eating the main course, yet a pool of sauce remained in the platter. We both eyed the dish. I offered to help carry the plates to the kitchen. My uncle stood and grasped the platter. I glanced at him knowing exactly what he was planning to do. He allowed a small grin. No sooner in the kitchen we searched for the baguette and then ripped off a chunk. No delicate pieces here. With a triumphant we-got-away-with-this grin, we both mopped up a great dollop. The tantalizing piece of bread I held in my hand was half way between the platter and my mouth when the kitchen door quietly swung open and there stood Geneviéve. I froze. My uncle had no such compunction and ate his piece. I was caught red-handed.
Geneviéve had a tick. Whenever she disapproved of something her left eyebrow would twitch. She looked at me, her eyebrow doing a violent dance across her forehead. I felt about 2 years old (I think I was about 26 at the time) and slowly lowered that priceless morsel back on the platter. She only uttered one word –PASCALE! My uncle had perfected the art of being invisible or maybe by dint of being her only son was exempt from remonstrations. I, on the other hand, should have known better.
All of these memories weave a rich tapestry of family lore and have nourished and shaped my culinary journey. Her sensibilities have filtered their way into my daily life and I treasure them.
A few years after Geneviéve died I was fortunate, very fortunate, to become friends with Julia Child. If my grandmother influenced the early flavors of my cooking, Julia inspired my desire to write about food. Her love of life, her curiosity and her enthusiasm were infectious. I realized as I spoke with her that she and Geneviéve had the same twinkle in their blue eyes. Julia had once said ‘if you’re afraid of butter, use cream’, words my grandmother lived by. Bon Appetit!
GRATIN OF LEEKS
Serves 8 people
8 leeks – outer leaves peeled away, root end trimmed and then then length of each leek cut into 1-inch pieces. Try to only use the white or light green part of each leek
Pear champagne vinegar
STUFFED PROVENCAL LEG OF LAMB
Serves 10 – 14 people
1 whole leg of lamb – trimmed of all fat and butterflied but not tied.
1 lb. baby spinach
1 goat cheese log – approx. 6 oz. – cut up into small pieces
8 – 10 garlic cloves – peeled
Coarsely ground black pepper
Herbes de Provence
10-12 roma tomatoes – quartered
2 ½ cups water or chicken stock
Red wine for deglazing the roasting pan
GENEVIEVE’S GRATIN DAUPHINOIS
This is her rather decadent version of this dish.
2 ½ lbs. waxy potatoes – peeled and thinly sliced (¼ inch thick or less)
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup crème fraiche
1 cup whole milk
2 cloves garlic
a pinch of ground nutmeg
Salt and pepper
Butter for dish
8 oz gruyere cheese - grated
TEA INFUSED WINTER FRUIT
My Grandmother Genevieve Fay loved to play bridge. Her bridge partners would take turns hosting their afternoon games. Although I did not play with them, I was allowed to help prepare the ‘gourmandise’, the treats my grandmother set out when it was her turn to host. She invariably included a seasonal fruit salad on these occasions, served in a beautifully decorated glass bowl. I loved those salads and this version is a tribute to her.
Serves 8 people
1 teaspoon butter
1 teaspoon light brown sugar
2 apples – Pink Lady or Granny Smith – peeled, quartered and sliced
1 blood orange – zest set aside, then peel and slice the orange
12 dried prunes
12 dried apricots
1 stick cinnamon
2 pieces crystallized ginger
½ cups brewed black/ Earl Grey tea
Juice of ½ lemon