French cuisine calls to mind mountains of cheese cozied up to multiple baguettes and endless carafes of wine. But what does a dîner français actually look like? Spending five weeks in Bordeaux has taught me the key components of a classic southern France dinner and how to love every amazing course. After gorging myself on croissants and crêpes almost every morning, it’s refreshing to have a home-cooked meal to finish up the day, even if it is at 9 pm.
The first course of the meal is my personal favorite. The table is decked out in a slew of crudités: a bowl of radishes, shredded carrot salad, tomatoes swimming in olive oil, a simple onion and potato omelet, a plate of cured meats, cucumbers, the occasional bowl of the most amazing cantaloupe, and plenty of baguettes, placed directly on the table. I try to fill up on the healthy stuff before I go for the bread, but that strategy never works.
After we clear away all the fruit and veg, an array of quiches and tarts come out along with some sort of meat, usually duck or chicken. The quiche is unreal. It’s cheesy eggy goodness baked in a crust with any combination of the following: carrots, spinach, tomato, eggplant, artichoke, salmon or lard (bacon). I can’t speak for the poultry, but my American roommate raves about both. By the end of this course, I’m
usually always stuffed.
Quelle surprise! The French love their cheese. Two large plates piled high with a selection of cheeses gets passed around the table. The usual suspects include Babybel, Brie, gouda, roquefort and comté, to name a few. My family enjoys their cheese just plain but I sneak it on top of the bread. Occasionally a super simple salad of butter lettuce and balsamic is circulated around, though it’s certainly not a large component of the meal.
Okay I lied, this is the best part. There is always dessert. Always. It usually consists of vanilla ice cream or lemon sorbet (or both), an apple tart and Basque cake (almond flour cake with a filling of cherry jam or almond cream. Seriously incredible), sugary strawberries and almond macarons. If I don’t have at least a taste of everything, my host dad relentlessly asks me if I want more of this or that. It is near impossible to say no, though I’ve succeeded maybe 3 or 4 times (out of approximately 25 dinners.) And that’s how you gain the abroad 20 in record time.
Despite our location in wine country, there is never wine on the table. Instead, there are many large bottles of water that I guzzle unabashedly in effort to not break the world record for largest recorded food baby. We also eat incredibly late by American standards, but pretty typical of a European family. Now I’m used to it, but the first night my stomach groaned with hunger. There are also some regional differences in French dining as dinners in Northern France tend to be lighter compared with the South which is anything but light, though I’m certainly not complaining.
I’ll admit my first dinner with my host family was a tad awkward (Bonjour language barrier!) but I’ve grown incredibly comfortable in their home that I even look forward to their nightly jests at my vegetarianism. I’m excited to bring recipes back to the US and will always remember fondly my experiences—good, bad and comme ci comme ça—with authentic French cuisine.
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