Sometimes I struggle in France because I want to do things my way (traditions, recipes) but it doesn’t work out because I can’t find the right materials and ingredients. I have to remind myself that these things aren’t big deals and to accept that I can’t have everything that I have in the United States. I love the adventure and discovery that comes with living abroad but sometimes the small differences send me for a loop.
Two weeks ago, I realized that it had been two years since I had dyed Easter eggs and I missed it terribly.
I decided it would be fun to introduce the tradition to Cyril and his family. In France, the ‘Easter bells’ hide chocolate eggs for children to find. The Easter bells?? Seriously? But then again the Easter bunny doesn’t make that much more sense.
Because of the late notice it wasn’t easy to find a pastel egg dye kit that would ship in time, but luckily I was able to get one shipped from Germany. (The shipping cost more than the product but no matter.) Unfortunately, I forgot to pack it to bring to the south of France for the weekend…
I decided to go with plan B: regular old food coloring. I had never done it like that before but thought why not?
After searching two supermarkets I found the food coloring and then added some crayons to my basket. Crayons are great for decorating eggs because they repel the dye from the eggshells. I had wanted a white crayon in particular because the white crayon designs are super classy, but the only pack on sale didn’t have one- oh well- I could get over that.
Last but not least, I went to find the eggs. This is where I hit the wall. I had noticed before that eggs in France had brown shells, but I didn’t realize that they are exclusively brown. Also, all eggs in grocery stores are stamped in red with the date on which they were laid. In short, impossible to dye. I had come this far only to be thwarted by the eggs!! It was almost too much to bear.
However, despite my egg dyeing failure, Easter turned out well.
On Easter morning when I came downstairs for breakfast, Cyril’s mom handed me a basket and said, ‘Now before you can eat, you have to go find the chocolate eggs in the garden. I am afraid they are going to melt!’ I was pleasantly surprised and had fun searching. It had been a while since I hunted for eggs.
After church we headed over to Cyril’s grandparent’s house for Easter lunch.
Cyril’s mamie, Roberte, prepared frog legs for the appetizer so that I could try them. Frog legs are one of France’s famous typical dishes. Last time I visited the south she made me escargots (snails). Check out that blog post here.
Roberte did an excellent job; they were very tasty.
In return for all of Roberte’s hard work in the kitchen, I indulged her and the family by saying ‘grenouille’, the French word for frog, several times. I can’t say it quite right and French people find it adorable/hilarious.
I hope everyone had a great Easter weekend with friends and family!
In February Cyril and I had the fortune to travel to Morocco with our friend Chédid. He acted as our guide, and did an awesome job welcoming us and giving us an authentic taste of his home country. We stayed with him and his aunt, first in their home in Agadir, and then in the mountain village where his family is from.
Cyril went to Morocco once before with his family, thirteen years ago. However, they didn’t venture very far from their beach-side resort. This was my first experience on the African continent and in a predominantly Muslim country.
When we arrived, Chédid took us straight away to one of the largest walled markets in Morocco. The Souk El Had (Sunday Market) is an impressive maze of 6,000 stands overflowing with fresh produce, spices, tableware, rugs, furniture, and tailor-made clothes. It is possible to buy almost anything here.
In France, as long as I don’t dress like an American tourist, they can’t tell that I am a foreigner until they hear my accent. However, they would describe me as ‘blonde’ even though by Minnesota standards I am far from being one. In Morocco, you could spot me from a mile away. Cyril has a Mediterranean complexion so he didn’t stand out as much as I did. Cyril and Chédid gave me a lot of flack for being so pale. Chédid began referring to us as the ‘white man and the transparent woman’.
For lunch that day Chédid’s aunt, Tahra, prepared couscous for us. We ate our dessert outside in the sun while Chédid and Tahra tried to teach us a bit of Berber and Arabic. I struggled; it took me a full day before I could remember how to say hello and thank you. The words went in one ear and out the other.
Cyril was much better than me. When Chédid spoke with his aunt, Cyril would pick out random words and ask, ‘What does that mean?’ He was pretty good at remembering words that Chédid explained, but often forgot their meanings, so he would whip them out at random times and use them out of context.
Chédid speaks four languages fluently, which is humbling. He can switch easily between French, English, Arabic, and Berber. Berber and Arabic are about as different as Arabic and English. Berber is Chédid’s first language because he is a Berber, an ethnic minority from the south of Morocco with its own culture and language.
Tahra only speaks Berber, but we were able to communicate just fine. She is such a cute lady, with an infectious laugh and a great sense of humor. It was hilarious because occasionally she would embarrass Chédid with her jokes and he would just shake his head and refuse to translate them.
That afternoon we explored the Crocopark, a cool botanic garden/crocodile zoo fusion. It was a delightful park with a design that cleverly integrated its two aspects while making it seem much larger than it was.
It offered several opportunities to get up close and personal with crocs, as well as croc-themed playgrounds, a laboratory to see the babies, and an ecologically-themed art exhibit.
I had pushed the guys to go because I had really wanted to visit a botanic garden, but in the end they enjoyed it as much as I did.
As we were driving through Agadir on the way home we passed a verdant green, gated estate. Chédid pointed it out as the king’s palace. I said, ‘Ooh! Can we visit it!?’ Chédid laughed at me, ‘You are so cute and so American! That is definitely off limits unless you are invited!’
That evening after dinner Tahra prepared tea for us.
Moroccan tea has no equal and Chédid’s aunt makes the best:) She prepared numerous pots of tea for us during our stay- to accompany every snack and to help digest after every meal. Even the way they serve it is elegant; I would fly back to Morocco just for her tea!
We started off the morning with a stroll along the beachfront and visit to the little city zoo.
The most striking feature of the city is a hill to the north on which is written God, Country, King. It is even lit up at night, Hollywood style.
The afternoon was chill- we ate a late lunch at a sumptuous restaurant that specializes in tajine, stew slow-cooked in a special earthenware pot, followed by a nap on the beach.
Chédid took us to a resort golf course on the way home so that we could watch the sunset. This was the only place of the trip where alcohol was on the menu. It was a bit strange to be on vacation and not drink alcohol, but we survived just fine.
For dinner we met Jalal and Soufiane at a kebab place. They are long-time friends of Chédid’s that Cyril got to know at grad school. With all of the time we spent with friends it was a homey vacation! The place was great too; there was a butcher counter in the restaurant where we could pick out the kebabs and the meat we wanted, and then they grilled it up at the restaurant.
When we left the restaurant we had to pay for our parking. Even at restaurants like this one with their own parking lots and at the beach far from the city, there was always a parking attendant hanging around that would ask Chédid for money as we left. Sometimes they looked semi-official with a badge or a neon vest, but other times it seemed like the attendant was just some random guy that had camped out for the day at the parking lot and claimed the territory as his own.
Once we asked Chédid if a particularly-suspicious looking parking attendant was legit and he shrugged, ‘I don’t know, but it doesn’t really matter anyways, besides I would rather have someone here watching over the car.’ In any case, it was a fixed rate that was never more than 50 cents.
After dinner we went up to the top of ‘Hollywood’ hill to get a good view of the city at night. On top there are the ruins of Agadir’s old walled city, its medina. It has been abandoned since it was flattened by a terrible earthquake in 1960. Agadir was completely rebuilt after that so it doesn’t have an old fashioned city center.
Off to the mountains! All four of us piled into Chédid’s car for the three hour drive to his family’s home in the mountains. We took a pit stop in Tiznit to check out its medina and have lunch.
As we drove to Chédid’s village the land became progressively more arid and we steadily gained altitude.
On the way Chédid pointed out several ‘saints’ shrines. Technically saints aren’t allowed in Islam, but the Berbers have bent the rules a bit. They kinda do their own thing, the Berbers…
According to Chédid, Berbers are very rooted to the land and to their families. Even though many have moved to other parts of Morocco and abroad, everyone maintains a connection to their village and their roots. People are very loath to sell their land, even after moving away. In the mountains we saw almost no beggars because people there take really good care of relatives, no matter what. In contrast, there were an abundance of beggars in Adagir, even by Parisian standards.
After settling into the house and checking out their orchard we took a hike around the area just before sunset. Chédid showed us the argan trees that this region is famous for. They dominate the vegetation here, but grow nowhere else in the world.
His little village was picturesque, with its own mosque, just like the other little villages in the mountains. Religion was more present here than in Agadir. The call of prayer echoed off of the mountains 5 times a day. We even heard it at the top of the Jebel el Kest mountain.
Cyril, Chédid, and I drove to the small capital of the region to eat dinner. We met with Chédid’s cousin and one of his best friends, Amina and Hicham, who are married (what a matchmaker Chédid is!).
After dinner we walked around the village and I couldn’t help noticing an abundance of cats!
In Morocco, stray cats, some scruffy but most regal, were omnipresent. They seemed like the Moroccan equivalent of squirrels. Homeowners and market vendors put out scraps for them but people don’t keep them as pets.
There had been a cat hanging around Chédid’s family home earlier that day, so I had asked him, ‘Is that actually your cat?’ ‘No it is more like the village cat; it makes the rounds to all of the houses, as it pleases.’
That night before going to bed, we headed outside to stargaze. I have never seen stars that bright before. In the mountains, far away from blaring lights, the milky way shows its splendor and all of the little stars that make the up the backbones of the constellations are visible. It was incredible!
My favorite day of the trip! We took a scenic hike up to the top of the second-highest mountain in the range. It merited a separate blog post.
Before hitting the road to go back to Agadir, we stopped by Amina and Hicham’s house for a snack and to say goodbye.
We could have spent more time in Morocco, especially in the mountains where the company and scenery was excellent. We said our goodbyes and promised return!
France has many peculiar dishes, the most famous of which include escargots (snails) and frog legs. However, as of yesterday I had yet to try either. It’s not as if French people eat these two things often; they are just the stereotypical dishes that Americans like to talk about when discussing French cuisine because they are strange to us. Nevertheless, I felt a little bit like a failure having not tried them after almost a year and a half in France!
Cyril isn’t particularly a fan of either, so he never made of point of introducing them to me as he did with other French specialties. Lately, whenever I asked about escargots, he would tell me, ‘You shouldn’t order them at a resturaunt! My grandmother’s are much better. They should be the first ones that you taste!’
Escargots themselves don’t have much taste, so how they are prepared is really important. Cyril was right to make me wait; the way his grandma makes them, with butter, parsley, oregano, and anise seed, is heavenly!
Apparently Cyril’s ‘mamie’ also makes some mean frog legs so that is on the menu for next time we go south to visit family!
Several times I have cooked for Cyril’s family to thank them for their hospitality and welcome. His relatives are so kind to us and always inviting us for dinner or over the weekend.
When I cook for them, I try to make dishes they never have eaten before, which are very American (or even better Minnesotan), and yet which I can make with ingredients that I can find in France or bring with me easily when I go in between the two countries. Grocery stores offerings are not at all similar in France.
My favorite dish to make for Cyril’s family is wild rice hot dish. It is my favorite hot dish of all time, one that my brothers and I would beg my mom for growing up. She got it from an old Lutheran church cookbook.
Minnesotans have a love affair with wild rice, and it is not really available in France (I did find it in a rice mix once). When I make it, I explain the concept of a hot dish to my French family as well.
Here is the recipe; I recommend trying it! The ingredients sound a little strange, I know, (who ever thought to mix sour creme and soy sauce together?) but it is to die for.
I never add salt because I find that it already has enough thanks to the soy sauce! Also I suggest sauteing the mushrooms, onion, and celery longer than five minutes (perhaps 20) because then they aren’t so overwhelmingly crunchy in the finished dish. Stirring every 15 minutes is important to keep the rice on top from burning. Bon appétit!
For an appetizer, I have made deviled eggs several times. For me deviled eggs are a staple of potlucks, something quintessentially Minnesotan. One time I had even been to a wedding where the dinner was a potluck. (Best wedding dinner I ever ate!)
I didn’t realize this before I made them here, but apparently they are very similar to the French dish egg mimosas: same concept, but with a few more ingredients and a different presentation. For mimosas, the egg is cut in half and the yolk is taken out. The egg yolk cavity is filled with mayonnaise and then the egg yolk is crumbled over the top. Deviled eggs go over well because for them it is a fun twist on a familiar comfort food.
Here is the recipe I use for the deviled eggs. The first time I made it for Cyril’s family, I used french mustard because that is all that is available in France, and now that is what I prefer to use. French mustard is much spicier than yellow American mustard. I find that it gives the deviled eggs a nice kick! You can find French mustard in the US labeled as Dijon mustard.
1/4 cup mayo
1 teaspoon white vinegar
1.5 teaspoon dijon mustard
a pinch of salt and pepper
paprika for garnish
Place eggs single layer in a saucepan and cover with water so that there is an inch of water above the eggs. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Turn off heat and cover for 8-10 minutes. Then rinse the pan and eggs under cold water for 2 minutes.
Peel the eggs and cut in half lengthwise. Remove the yolks to a bowl and mix them well with the mayo, vinegar, mustard, salt, and pepper.
Spoon the egg yolk mixture back into the egg whites. Sprinkle with paprika and enjoy.
Recipe adapted from the food network- ‘classic deviled eggs’
I enjoy making tortilla chip stew for French family and friends because the tex-mex flavors are quite novel for them. I don’t have any Hispanic heritage but I think it is a very cool example of American melting pot culture!
I make the stew in my crock-pot, which is perfect when entertaining because then I am not stuck in the kitchen when we have guests over. Also the timing is very easy with this. I can rest easy knowing that I can keep it warm even two hours after guests arrive. The French love long meals; when we have people over we also serve an aperitif and/or an appetizer so it is not easy to time the main course!
I don’t follow a recipe for this one- I just throw in whatever my heart desires.
Normally it is a variation on this theme:
A can of salsa (important)
Chicken breasts, cut into bite sized peices
Canned or frozen corn
Unspiced tomato sauce
Cans of red/black beans and/or chickpeas
Diced fresh or canned tomatoes
Dried red pepper flakes
Serve over a bed of crushed tortilla chips and garnish with shredded emmental or cheddar cheese, olives, cilantro, avocado, and/or sour cream.
Last but not least: JELL-O!
This is something that French people have usually only ever heard of, but never actually tried. It is hilarious to watch them approach this strange jiggly substance that seems alive. They tend to giggle uncontrollably when faced with it. Either as a dessert or as jello shots, it is always a hit!
I would love to hear your thoughts and recipes for classic, unique, delicious, American dishes. I am always looking to introduce something new to my French family and friends!
Last weekend I visited my brother Brett in Italy, where he is spending a few weeks working and traveling around. After taking 2 and a half years of Italian classes he finally gets to try out his skills!
I joined him in Alonte, a small town an hour west of Venice. He is staying with Chiara and Paolo and helping them with their vineyard, La Pria, and their horses. Here is the link to their website
I took two and a half years of Italian classes and even studied in Florence for a semester. But that was two years ago and I haven’t had much opportunity to practice since. Everybody I talked to in Alonte was patient with me and my Italian skills, even though a lot of what came out of my mouth the first day was French! The extent of my regression was clear, but I could also tell that if I were ever to spend an extended amount of time in Italy I would be able to get it back. By the end of the third night I was doing pretty good! Remembering a language is much easier than learning it for the first time.
I love French, but I have missed Italian. Even though they are both Romance languages, they are fundamentally different in character and intonation. French is sophisticated and sexy in a smooth way. Italian is passionate and animated to the point of being over the top. I also adore the way they use their hands when they speak. There is a joke that goes, ‘How do you make an Italian shut up?’ ‘You tie his hands behind his back!’
But I couldn’t choose between them, their cultures, or their food. I just love them both!
I think the rivalry between them is hilarious. Cyril is not fond of Italians. As I was leaving he jokingly asked me not to go. ‘Their wine isn’t even good!’
The Italians in Alonte told me things like, ‘But seriously, between us and France, it isn’t even a contest, we have the best food.’ or ‘France is beautiful, yes, but the people are not very friendly at all!’
One of my old Italian teachers explained the animosity like this, ‘It all boils down to the fact that they are competing to be the best at the same things: wine, food, and soccer, even the reputation for being the best lovers.’
Brett is thriving there. He has the right kind of temperament for language learning because he is super outgoing. Brett constantly jokes around with Paolo and the farm hands. He also has a notebook with pages and pages of new vocabulary that he has learned since he got there. It is an amusing mixture of normal vocabulary, farming terminology, regional slang, and swear words.
Brett and Paolo picked me up at the train station on Thursday and drove me to the pizzeria in town for an aperitivo with Samuele, the man who held the guinness world record for the longest pizza for a year (1595 meters, 5243 feet). Someone from Napoli broke it the day before I arrived in Italy. He is also very proud of his prize of second best pizza in the world. Unfortunately I never actually got to try it. A few days before I came, Brett was initiated into cult of Neapolitan pizza when he spent time in the pizzeria’s kitchen.
After the aperativo we went to a neighborhood restaurant for lunch with some of the farmhands. It was a classic Italian style meal, with a first course of pasta and second course of meat or fish. Brett is already famous here for how much he can eat, and like proper Italians they are basically force feeding him. ‘What do you mean you don’t want a second steak? Mania, mania, mania!’ (Eat eat eat! in the regional dialect) Brett is going to be a heavyweight by the time he leaves!
In the afternoon it rained, so we chilled in the farm house and talked to farmhands and whoever happened to pop in. Paolo and Chiara have a business boarding horses and giving horse riding lessons, so people are always dropping by. I got the impression that in this region western riding is very popular, along with the whole culture that comes with it: country line dancing, American and confederate flags, flashy belts, and cowboy boots. They all dream of the famous wide open spaces of the western United States. Some of these horse aficionados have taken trips to the southwest or Wyoming to tour ranches and ride horses.
It is a facet of Italian culture that I never encountered in Florence!
At night Brett and I ate dinner with Paolo and Chiara and their son Giulio. Again, there was too much food!
Friday I helped Brett and two farmhands, Giovanni and Denis, prune the vines. I figured I shouldn’t freeload on Chiara and Paolo’s hospitality. I have missed working with and being around plants since I have lived in Paris.
The landscape there is similar to Tuscany with its rolling hills and vineyards. At this time of the year poppies (Papaver rhoeas), common agricultural weeds, are in full bloom in fields and ditches.
Saturday Brett and I took the train into Venice to explore and get lost in the winding streets. I adore Venice; for me it is the most beautiful city in the world.
Brett wanted so badly to speak Italian to people, but it isn’t easy in a place as touristy as Venice. Most people hear the accent and switch right away to English which is frustrating. However, we did find some nice Italians to humor us in little shops.
That night back in Alonte, Chiara and Paolo hosted a huge steak grill out with their riding friends.
They took out wine from their cellar as well as homemade grappa and rosolio alcohols. Grappa is made from the skins, pulp, seeds, and stems left over from the winemaking process, and rosolio is made from rose petals. It was the first time I had ever heard of or tried rosolio- it is so good!
We ate and drank and talked until one in the morning, a lovely end to my time in Italy.
A few times in Europe I have had the strange experience of realizing that foods I thought were part of my ‘European’ heritage actually don’t exist over here. It has been a little disappointing, disenchanting, and frustrating.
St. Patrick’s day kind of snuck up on me, and I had no real desire to drink green beer in an overcrowded Irish pub. St. Patrick’s day isn’t big in France anyway so that wasn’t much else to do. As I went over my options a thought popped into my mind…what better way to celebrate than with a heaping plate of corned beef and cabbage? And once I thought about it I couldn’t let it go. I had a craving that only salty, savory corned beef and cabbage could satisfy.
I am a wee bit Irish. (But really, I have proof!) My mother’s maiden name was Reilly, a heritage she received from John Owen O’Riley (He changed his name to Reilly when he arrived in the US). He was an Irish farmer who immigrated to the US in 1872 and homesteaded a farm which was also passed through the generations to my mother. I grew up there, a fact that I am very proud of.
My mother made corned beef and cabbage rarely. When she did it was on St. Patrick’s day. I remember her explaining that the Irish ate the brisket cut of the cow (the fatty neck part) because it was a cheap cut. They were often poor.
So on St. Patty’s day, I searched the net long and hard for Irish pubs serving the dish. Nothing. At most, I found posts of American expats in Paris discussing how to find the right ingredients to make it here. Turns out if I wanted to do it myself I would have to special order the brisket from a butcher because they don’t parcel up the meat in the same way here.
I dug a little deeper and found out that the Irish don’t actually eat corned beef and cabbage. Bacon is considered very traditional in Ireland because it was inexpensive. However, when floods of Irish immigrants landed on US soil, they found that pork was expensive, and beef was cheap, so they changed their eating habits. The story is actually quite interesting; I suggest googling it. In the end I wasn’t too disenchanted by the fact that it isn’t Irish. It is something uniquely Irish-American which I think is pretty neat.
The only ray of hope to find the dish would be to find an Americanized Irish pub in Paris. In my dreams! So I was left with a very intense food craving that I wasn’t able to satisfy. At least I didn’t go Ireland and expect to find corned beef. I would have been really disappointed.
Two years ago when I traveled to the Czech Republic I encountered a similar bit of food disenchantment. I expected to find my Great-Grandma Tuma’s kolackies and vomacka there, but couldn’t.
Those foods are the main connection I have to that part of my heritage. I turned down an opportunity to run for Miss Czech Slovak a few years ago because I thought I would feel like a phony running for such a prize. Now I realize that it probably would have been a compelling opportunity to learn more about what being a Czech-American means.
I made some casual inquiries to to my tour guides and other people while I was in Prague but I had no luck. So I turned to the internet.
Turns out that kolacky it is actually a general term for a pastry traditionally made for weddings in Central and Eastern Europe.
The picture below is how I remember my Great-Grandma’s ones looked and (surprise!) this picture was taken in New Prague, the town right next to where my Great-Grandma grew up. Apparently, there are a lot of variations, but the kolackies as I know them are from a small area in Minnesota. It is decently easy to find kolackies at bakeries there, but none of them can touch the ones she used to make.
For vomacka soup, the only hits I found on the internet during my frantic search for info came from the small area of Minnesota that my great-grandma came from. Vomacka soup, by the way, is a creamy, vinegary vegetable soup (although Great-Grandma Tuma added chicken too).
My mission to find the foods in Prague was a failure. I wasn’t able to eat either of those foods while I was there. I was really upset. I think it hit me hard because at that point I had been in Europe for 4.5 months and I was emotionally exhausted and ready to go home.
I think it also boiled down to me missing my great-grandma and some regrets I had about not asking her about her life and heritage or not eating more of her Czech food when she was alive. As much as I adore vomacka now, I didn’t like it when I was little. When my brothers and I went over to her house after school she always made the same thing, at our request: pizza rolls, cottage cheese, and jello. I was only 13 when she died but I feel like I could have done a better job.
Maybe I had also hoped to feel a little bit of a connection to Prague or the culture there, but I didn’t. I felt like just as much as a tourist and stranger as I did in places like Italy and Croatia.
Cyril didn’t understand at all, which was frustrating for me too. One of his grandmas immigrated from Belgium to France after WWII but I only found that out 2 months ago. He never mentioned it because he doesn’t think of himself of being part Belgian. It is a very American concept to think in terms of being 3/4 German, an 8th Czech, with a dash of Swiss and Irish. If you told a French person, ‘I am half German, half Italian,’ they would think that your mother was German and your father was Italian and that you are a duel citizen of the two countries. The subject never really comes up here like it does in the US.
Another sad but true food fact. Chicken alfredo is not Italian. It is a dish that Italian Americans created. Luckily I learned this from my Italian language classes before I headed over to Italy, and I have never had a sentimental or emotional attachment to the dish. For me it is just a fun fact but for some others it is quite disappointing!