Wednesday, October 6, 2010

France: a little history

That is, about my personal experience in France, and what brings me here this time around--not French history! (References to Marie Antoinette and a familiarity with Monet's water lilies only get one so far...)

I'm here in Toulouse this year doing something called TAPIF, or the Teaching Assistant Program in France. It's a program run by the French government that, every year, hires thousands of Americans (and some Brits) to come over and help French children in the public school system all over the country to practice English language skills. I'll be working in 3 écoles primaires, or lower schools, alongside the teachers in those classrooms. I won't really be responsible for things like homework, discipline, or curriculum; what I'm there to do is speak English, over and over again, so the kids get used to how it sounds coming from the mouth of a native speaker. I'm also expected to come up with fun, interactive learning exercises that will help cement the student's developing understanding of my langue maternelle.

The first time I visited France was during my freshman year of college. By wintertime, I had already withdrawn from the tiny liberal arts school in Minnesota that I had elected to attend, and was back in New York, taking classes at the New School, working a lot of catering hours, and generally wondering what else to do with myself. When spring rolled around and I still didn't have an answer to that question, I looked at the (relatively) fat stacks of money that I had earned catering, and thought: why not Paris? I'd never been there, but (despite my earlier joke about my lack of Franco knowledge) I had been reading and learning about it for years, mainly in the context of the treasure trove of artistic and cultural capital centered there. I also knew that my old babysitter Virginie lived there; when she graciously offered me the use of her tiny apartment for the 10 days of my stay, my decision was made.

Of course I loved Paris--who doesn't?--and I knew that I'd want to someday return to France and explore more of it. The opportunity didn't really roll around, however, until last fall, when I decided to take a 2-month break from the city life, and uproot myself to Europe, namely to Spain and France, to work on farms through the organization WWOOF. WWOOF, or Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, facilitates connections between farms all over the world who need a helping hand, and people who want to learn about agriculture. When you're interested in going to a particular country, you join its online network for a small fee; once inscribed, you can browse short descriptions of farms looking for aid. In exchange for your work, which is usually fairly basic and takes up about 4 or 5 hours of your day, you get three meals and a place to sleep. Although you don't make any money, you also don't spend any, so it's a great way to travel, and much more enriching than the usual touristic routes.

Now that you're armed with this background information, I can (finally) come to the main subject of this post: a woman named Emilie Missant, whose farm I worked on for one month last fall. Emilie and her husband live in a tiny village in the southeast of France called Lasalle. They run a small working farm and take their produce (bell peppers, eggplant, chilies, salad greens, the best tomatoes and sweetest strawberries I have ever tasted, bar none) to the tiny market in the town square three times a week. While Philippe handles most of the farm work, along with the WWOOFers, Emilie's in charge of the kitchen side of things, turning out jar after jar of pickles, relishes, and confitures (jams) that also get sold at the market. Emilie is an amazing cook, and what I loved most about her style was that it was so simple. She made things like soup, salad dressing, and bread almost every day; the recipes were rote to her and involved little effort, but they were immensely satisfying.

The single food item that I remember most from the farm in Lasalle was the potimarron, a sweet hard winter squash that's closely related to the kabocha. Like all of the produce that Emilie and Philippe grew, their potimarrons were incredibly flavorful and needed next to no adornment. Emilie would incorporate them into a lot of her cooking; I always commented on how sweet and delicious the squash was, and when I would ask Emilie what else was in the recipe, the answer was inevitably something like, "Oh, just a little garlic and oil," or "just some onions." Almost no spices, apart from salt and pepper; and yet the squash was positively bursting with flavor (I don't know about you, but I don't usually make an association between "squash" and "bursting with flavor").

My favorite potimarron dish of Emilie's was a simple puréed soup that the French would call a velouté, which refers to its creamy texture. It has exactly four ingredients: butter; garlic; onions; and squash. And it's delicious. As I've been harping on about on the blog, there's a vast world of flavors out there that we Americans often miss out on, simply because of the manner in which we raise our food (in factories, as opposed to on traditional farms). Fruits and vegetables that are cared for lovingly, and grown without the use of chemicals or hormones, instead of being treated like manufactured goods, have much more taste and, I suspect, more nutrition.

I've made this soup many times in the year since I learned the recipe, and I tweak it a little bit on each occasion. If I can't find kabocha, I use a different type of hard winter squash; I also vary the herbs and seasonings. Although Emilie's soup didn't really need any flavorings besides salt, since her garlic, onions, and squash were so good, I find that when I make this in America I need a little kick from cumin, paprika, or other warm spices. I made some last week here in France, with squash from the local market, which was very flavorful, but didn't quite live up to the memories of Emilie's soup. I guess I'll just have to go back to the farm for that!

Emilie's Velouté aux Potimarrons
Makes 10 - 12 servings


1 medium kabocha squash, or other hard winter squash like butternut or Hokkaido, peeled, de-seeded, and cut into large chunks
1 large or 2 medium onions, white or yellow, peeled and diced
4 cloves of garlic, minced
3 tbsp. butter
Optional: spices, such as ground cumin, dried thyme, sweet paprika


1. In a large, heavy-bottomed soup pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic along with a pinch of salt, and sweat (don't brown) for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently.
2. If using spices, add them to the onions and briefly sauté them. Add the cubed squash and stir to combine.
3. Add enough water to the pot to just cover the squash. It should be about 6 cups.
4. Bring soup to a boil then drop the heat to a simmer. Cover partially and cook until squash is tender, about 20 minutes.
5. Allow soup to cool briefly and then purée until smooth using a blender or an immersion blender. If soup appears too thin, try not to add all the cooking liquid. If it appears too thick, add some extra water. Check soup for seasoning and serve hot, preferably with a little dollop of créme fraiche.

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