Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A day in hazelnut country... and a grandmother's ratatouille


Every time I come back to France, it strikes me how much more I appreciate it now than I did when I lived here.  I have been an expat for 15 years now, and the past 7 to 10 years, coming back to France has been a pilgrimage of sorts into my past, my childhood. Perhaps expats have this little bonus: their past is embodied in a concrete place. It somehow makes the past more real, more palpable.

We have spent the last few days in Paris, and I have really longed for the city. Coming back to Paris for me is like having dinner with a long lost love. I know there were many things I hated about her in the past, but I can only remember the good times. Yesterday, I was fortunate to have my good friends looking after Pablo for an afternoon. Bicycling through the streets, visiting and chatting with friends, stopping at the bakery, I felt at home again. I felt very free. I felt happy.

If the city is my old love, with all the nostalgia that comes with it, the country is my new, exciting, exhilarating love.  I did grow up in a small town in the country, but was so concerned with going far and away in my youth, that I never saw what was right in front of me. Sunday, Pablo and I went with my best friend and her two boys, to visit her parents at their little house in the countryside, in Haramont, a small village of stone houses, an hour from Paris.
Last time I was here, my best friend and I were going to school together, about 17 years ago… As soon as we drove up the driveway, I felt so thrilled to be there. My friend C’s father is an avid gardener, he has gardened all his life, and this place is his haven, his world. The children come here every weekend in the summer, they love it.


As we get out of the car, the kids run to the back, through the vegetable patch, to feed biscottes to the chickens, goats and sheep. I follow, discovering zucchinis, spinach, salads, chamomile, parsley, tarragon, green beans, melons, chards, leeks, carrots… and those gorgeous hazelnut and apple trees. I am as excited to be here as the children… and then I remember. Quick, my camera.

Shortly after, we sit down for lunch, a platter of charcuterie with artisan pâté en croûte, hams and dry salami (called saucisson in French).
Then Mrs. C brings out her ratatouille. To her, this is a very simple lunch and dish, she improvised with the garden vegetables. She serves it in an old pan with an old camping ladle.

As I marvel at everything, the food, the bowl of freshly picked hazelnuts, and that old ladle, I sense their puzzlement. “What has happened to Helene? She’s photographing a simple ratatouille with an old camping ladle? What did they do to her over in America?” All this isn’t “charming”, or “vintage” or “country rustic” to them. It is just normal, boring stuff. Boring for one, thrilling to another.

Later in the afternoon, as I go around the yard taking photographs, 4 year old H is intrigued. “What are you taking? Why?” I tell him this isn’t old boring stuff at all, it’s a wonderful haven, it’s beautiful, and I want to capture every little corner of it. He’s excited, and takes pictures with me (he took that great picture of the sheep above!) Maybe sometimes it takes a stranger to come into our world to make us see our world with new fresh eyes. I wonder what I’m missing back home, what am I not seeing and appreciating? May friendly strangers come open my eyes soon.

So, much to Mrs C’s surprise, I decided to share her very simple ratatouille recipe here. But I made that decision half-way through the meal, that's why my pictures here show you an almost empty pot!It’s not traditional ratatouille, it’s a homey simplified ratatouille with just zucchinis and tomatoes, perfect for children and adults alike. I can just picture the look on her face when my friend shows her the post on this blog. "Ah that Helene… she’s very sweet, but just a little weird"... J Fair enough.

Today we are off to Normandy, hope to be sharing some yumminess from there with you very soon, so stay tuned.

Mrs Chéron’s Ratatouille

Age for babies: 6-8 months if each ingredient has been tasted before. This might be a good opportunity to introduce cooked tomato to a baby.
Serves 4-6
6-8 zucchinis, peeled, seeds removed, diced
5 large tomatoes, peeled, seeds removed, quartered
3 tbsp short grain rice
2 sprigs of fresh thyme, crumbed laurel
3 whole cloves of garlic
Salt and pepper
In a large saucepan, sauté the zucchini in some olive oil, until soft and golden, about 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes, mix and let simmer for a few more minutes. When the tomatoes have produced a bit of water, add the rice, herbs and garlic cloves (whole), and let simmer for about 20-25 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.
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  1. I love that photo of him holding the courgettes! They look so humongous in his hands! This is quite a different ratatouille from the one I read of most often, but it sounds especially lovely coming from grandma, and that's the beauty of recipes, the simple, homey ones are often the best.

    1. Yes, they were pretty enormous! And this definitely isn't the classical ratatouille recipe, but it was just so easy and tasty... Hope you enjoyed some homey stuff in Singapore :-) Can't wait to hear all about it.

  2. amazing photos! Looks like a wonderful adventure and I love that you brought some new found appreciation to every day life, I love when that happens.


    1. Thanks so much, Kimberly, for the kind words! Yes, I often find I don't appreciate every day life as I should... Ah, living in the present moment, what a challenge :-)

  3. You encapsulated exactly the feelings I have every time I return to Europe (France, Spain, UK). Being so far away (currently Phoenix) and an expat for about 15 years also, my youth that I thought was boring and couldn't wait to leave is now rich with nostalgia. A wonderful blog post that brought a lump to my thought! My little girl and I relish every recipe.

    1. Thank you so much, it's always so rewarding to hear someone relates to or is moved by what I wrote. I love your expression "rich with nostalgia", it's a very insightful way to put it that shows how complex and dual that expat experience can be.

  4. This is great! Made it with some heirloom tomatoes I got at the market and used long grain brown rice because that was what I already had. Wonderful!

    1. Wonderful, Ashley! I so appreciate you coming back to let me know you enjoyed it, makes it all worthwhile! You made me want to remake this one in the next couple of days! :-)


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