Franco File Friday: Our French Oasis (Susan Hays)

Here’s something you don’t read everyday: English family of seven lays down roots in the Charente Maritime. Since 2008 (minus a brief interlude in the United States for work) Susan Hays and her family have been discovering the simple, everyday pleasures of living on the Southwestern coast of France. With four school-age children navigating the French educational system and a more laid-back lifestyle, Susan created the site Our French Oasis as a way to keep friends and family updated (and entertained). As the story goes, the site has grown beyond the confines of Susan’s tight-knit network of friends and amassed a readership of Francophiles all over the world who are enchanted by her stories of life in the sun-drenched southwest. Here, she shares tidbits about the region, raising a (large) family in France and learning la bise. Meet Susan!

Describe what you love about France in three words.

Lifestyle.  Architecture.  Food.

Something people might be surprised to know about the region you live in?
It is considered by many to be the oyster capital of France.  The Marennes-Oléron oyster beds are renowned for their oyster production and their great quality is linked to the mixture of fresh and salt water.  The oysters are bred in beds 5km out to sea and then matured in shallow ponds called 'claires'.  A small algae, known as the blue navicula is present in these ponds and is the reason for the green colour of the Claire oyster. On Sundays locals can be seen selling oysters in all the area's villages and towns here.

It is also the second sunniest area in France after Provence and the Mediterranean coastline, averaging around 2400 hours of sunshine a year.  This certainly helped influence our decision to live in this area as we are in a little microclimate enabling us to grow olives, grapes, figs, peaches and lemons.

The greatest challenge to raising a family in France?
Undoubtedly the greatest challenge has been the language.  Had the children been born here or moved here when they were tiny it would not have been the case, but moving here when they were of school age meant they all had to learn a new language; they are educated at French speaking schools and it has been hard work for them.  However, with the help of incredibly enthusiastic teachers and encouragement from friends they have thrived, and what started out as a huge challenge has turned into my greatest joy; watching my bi-lingual children integrate with their French friends and the ease with which they flit between two languages is totally fascinating.  However, I can't just stop at that - there is truly so much JOY in raising a family in France and without being boring I have to tell you just briefly, that I love that the children can all live a slightly simpler life, they are able to walk to the baker in the village on their own, cycle to friends houses and enjoy planting vegetables and raising chickens.  At the same time they love eating in French restaurants, late into the evening with adults, joining in the conversation; it's all very civilised and yet very relaxed, in a way formal and yet so much fun, it's amazing how the two go hand in hand!

Your favorite outing in the region? 
Oh, there are so many!  My favourite has to be a day on the Île de Ré.  We rent bikes, because everyone cycles there, and it is by far the best way to get around. We cycle for miles and miles, stop at a restaurant for lunch, and have a drink by the sea and a swim.  Our entire family love discovering the little harbour villages and the endless cycle-paths that adorn this little Island on the Atlantic coast which is linked to La Rochelle by a toll-bridge.  The oh-so-chic capital of Saint-Martin-de-Ré is incredibly busy but still manages to retain it's charm and low-key, laid back atmosphere.  

Most frustrating or amusing interaction with the French?
Without a shadow of doubt, "the bisous", the traditional French greeting of kissing.  Always two, sometimes four, dependent on where they are from.  But when to kiss, and how often each day? It is a subject that has been written about endlessly but it really is worthy of all the attention!  As a general rule, it’s a handshake with a stranger, two kisses (in our region) for friends, but when you see them for a second time the same day there is no need to kiss again.  The children all kiss each other hello, the boys kiss each other hello… it melts my heart when little 8 year olds rush up to me at the school gate and give me a bisous, even though I don't know their name, but they know who I am!  Of course, there is always room for error, and it's incredibly frustrating to us when we get it wrong and terribly amusing to the French!

Follow Susan's adventures from the Charentes Maritime: 
Our French Oasis blog 
Susan on Instagram 
Susan on Facebook 
Lost In Cheeseland | Franco File Friday posts


How to Create the Perfect Wine & Cheese Party

If taken in earnest, the name of my site might lead some to believe that I am an impassioned cheese lover who knows more than the casual consumer. And while there is some truth to that, I admit that I defer to experts like Tenaya Darlington (aka Madame Fromage), the cheese-whispering author of Di Bruno Bros: House of Cheese, for serious cheese matters. Case in point: offering the right combination of cheeses and wines for a memorable gathering with friends. Pas de problème! Below, Tenaya shares a few foolproof tips for a successful pairing. 

What is lovelier than enjoying some wine and cheese on a spring or summer evening with friends? The only trick is planning out the pairings in advance so that flavors don’t clash (big reds, for instance, crush delicate goat cheeses -- and delicate wines will disappear against a board full of stinkers). A few simple tricks will make everything easy and create synergy. Ready?

Tip 1: Pick a wine theme, and make a pairing party.
Announce to everyone that you are hosting a cheese and rosé party. Or a cheese and Champagne party. Or a cheese and white Port party. People love bringing wine, and they love being told exactly what kind. Plus, your job at the cheese shop will be very easy. You can simply tell the monger behind the counter what kind of wine you’re serving, and he or she can help you select 4 or 5 cheeses that will meld. Rosé loves goat cheese, especially French goat cheese rolled in ash. Champagne is ideal for triple crèmes and anything with truffle. White port likes a salty jubilee, from goat blue to Pecorino.

Tip 2: If you want one wine that will pair with everything, go for Gewürtztraminer.
Gewürtztraminer and Chenin Blanc are both terrific all-purpose cheese wines. Anyone who complains that these wines are too sweet, needs to be served a glass alongside a slab of beefy Epoisses. If you’re planning to serve several wines, here are some useful considerations:
-bubbly is great; effervescence refreshes the palate
-whites pair better with cheeses than reds, except for very light reds
-if you want to go big red, serve rustic sheep’s milk cheeses, like Manchego or Petit Basque

Tip 3: Cocktails pair well with cheese, so does beer.
Cocktails, like the French 75, can be marvelous with cheese. The herbaceous notes in gin and the acidity of lemon juice are a marvelous foil for creamy goat cheeses and triple crèmes. You might also consider offering a variety of craft beers, hard ciders, and even non-alcoholic sparkling drinks. Sparkling water with a few drops of bitters can be a lovely accompaniment, and bitters settle the stomach. For non-drinkers, you can also serve hot or iced green tea -- pick a high quality green tea with lots of grassy notes. (Green tea is especially good with goat cheese.)

Tip 4: Always let your cheese relax.
Set out your cheeses an hour or so before guests arrive. Cold cheese tastes flat; at room temperature, the full range of flavors emerges. If you don’t want your cheeses to dry out before guests arrive, drape them with a layer of damp cheese cloth and unveil them theatrically after you’ve poured a few drinks.

Tip 5: Accompaniments are everything.
All cheeses love a little something on the side. Here are some of my favorite  pairings alongside cheese and wine:

-thinly sliced green apples or pears
-whole honeycomb set out on a little plate with an espresso spoon
-a basket of blackberries and a dish of pistachios
-a skillet full of lightly toasted nuts, sprinkled with sea salt and fresh thyme
-a plate of halved cherry tomatoes and roughly torn basil, drizzled in olive oil
-charcuterie with loosely strewn olives and caper berries
-groupings of dried fruit: dates, figs, apricots, and cherries
-a trio of preserves, like cherry jam, mostarda, and chutney
-baguettes, never crackers, unless you are serving spreads

For more cheese pairing advice, visit www.MadameFromage.com, or check out The Di Bruno Bros. House of Cheese:A Guide to Wedges, Recipes, and Pairings, by Tenaya Darlington (a.k.a. Madame Fromage). 

What other tips would you include? 
Lost In Cheeseland Food and Restaurant posts


Franco File Friday: Lauren Bate (Folies du Bonheur)

After an extended hiatus, the Franco File Friday series is back for the 4th year! And I'm so pleased to kick things off again with someone I've gotten to know better over the last year and someone I enjoy immensely. Lauren Bate, of the blog Folies du Bonheur, came to Paris for two days in 2009 via London where she had been visiting a friend. Almost instantly, she sensed that this brief experience in the city was merely the beginning of a much longer journey. Shortly after she returned to Australia, she was laid off from her job and used the handsome redundancy offer to settle in Paris (the lucky lady also has Italian citizenship, allowing her to stay without issue). As she puts it, it was the universe telling her to make the leap. Since, she's been documenting her life here alongside Daisy, her feline companion, and her travels through France. Meet Lauren!

1. Describe what you love about France in three words.
Food, Friends, Flowers

2. Your favorite neighborhood ?
Oh, it’d be a photo finish between Batignolles in the 17th where I live and the 3rd, where I hang. Who am I kidding, where the good coffee is. I love my quartier; it was a former village annexed to Paris in 1860 and it’s maintained its friendly neighbourhood feel. I can wave “Bonjour” to all the shopkeepers on my main street, there’s lovely parks and an organic market each Saturday morning. The 3rd is where I meet (or happily bump into!) my friends for the aforementioned coffee. It’s also full of cool shops, it’s close to the canal (where I also love) and it’s less busy than the Marais of the 4th.

3. Something you’ve discovered in France that you can’t imagine living without ?
That Champagne is cheap ! I’ll go home when I can afford exorbitantly priced French champagne in Australia. I also think it’s going to be hard living without the option of wandering down to the river on a Sunday afternoon when the weather is nice and walking through the Tuileries and glimpsing our iron lady while watching the sun set. I’ll miss this for sure.

4. Where you go to relax ?
The woodland of Vincennes and Boulogne are known as the “lungs of Paris”, and I completely understand why. I live not far from the Bois de Boulogne and I like to go there to walk the dog and wander and just slow down and breathe. 

5. Most frustrating or amusing interaction with the French? 
Amusing: all the rituals surrounding eating, and how religiously serious they are taken, really fascinates me.

Frustrating: this recent trend of completely bastardising the English language by using one or two words - absolutely incorrectly and incoherently - thinking that it makes anything cool, and in fact it’s really not. That one get’s me very mad!

Follow Lauren's adventures in Paris (and beyond): 
Instagram: @LaurenLouBate 

Lost In Cheeseland | Franco File Friday posts


Introducing: Jean Hwang Carrant Cookies in Paris

Jean Hwang Carrant Cookies

Few foods make you feel that everything is right with the world like cookies. Fresh from the oven, melting chocolate and sweet crunch, gobbled down with an oversized glass of milk. It's the ultimate comfort food (and certainly saw me through more than one hardship) and certainly the most versatile. Of American imports to France, this is the only one that I feel has longevity. Cupcakes and macarons waver in popularity but are especially in vogue when times are grim and people search for aesthetic pick-me-ups (the 'cute' effect, as I call it) but cookies are a cultural mainstay; as reliable a fixture of snack-time as any pastry case, bake sale or holiday gathering. And just like an éclair or a gleaning slice of tarte au citron for the French, a well-baked cookie has tremendous nostalgic currency for Americans. 

In Paris, the high-quality varieties haven't always been easy to source. In fact, up until recently, the only baker churning out batches that could rival those I grew up with was Eric Kayser and they're still among my favorite in town. That glaring absence in a city that has come to thrive on American staples was what motivated me and a friend to create a cookie business back in 2012. Lola's Cookies was our answer to a gap in the market, a solution to the overpriced garbage that chain fast food joints and restaurants were peddling. And it was truly a fun adventure - we managed to show hundreds of Parisians what an American cookie was meant to look, taste and feel like and nothing can substitute the immense joy we felt when. For a whole number of reasons, Lola's has taken a backseat to the rest of my life but my love for cookies remains unchanged. In fact, it has probably grown stronger since I'm no longer toiling in the kitchen preparing orders!

Fortunately, I know where to source a batch when the craving hits. For over seven years, American-Taiwanese expat Jean Hwang Carrant was baking gourmet cookies for restaurants in her neighborhood, for parties and large-scale events. Each cookie, she has said, are like little jewels that must be perfect throughout the entire process and that means using top-shelf ingredients and rolling the dough into perfectly measured balls. This is Jean's form of 'zen' and after years of baking in the kitchen, my feelings echo her own. I had a chance to try her cookies last year, long before the boutique project had taken shape, and knew she was poised to take those babies beyond the confines of her little kitchen. Each cookie has the perfect balance of crunchy:chewy and flavors that instantly transport me to childhood. I can't say that of many of the other cookies (impostors) I've tried here.

As of last week, Jean took a big, ambitious step to give her seriously sumptuous cookies even greater reach by opening her first brick and mortar shop! And with a location just around the corner from rue du Nil, also known as Frenchie street*, she can be confident that epicureans are never far away. I'm so proud of Jean and cannot wait to see how she grows from here.

Jean Hwang Carrant: Simply Extraordinary Cookies 
84 rue d'Aboukir, 75002
Metro: Sentier or Bonne Nouvelle
Follow Jean and her cookies on Instagram HERE.

*Gregory Marchand has already gotten a taste of Jean's cookies. See the proof!
*Other sweet reading: I was on a tasting panel to name the top 5 Paris-Brest in Paris for Paris By Mouth. Click this link to see the results!


Livres du Moment: What I'm Reading

April 7 wasn't merely a Tuesday, it was the much-anticipated publication date for spring book releases and an exciting milestone for many authors' writing careers. So in the spirit of new book season, I thought I would take stock of the newer-to-me books in my collection and compile a few of my favorites. May you devour these as I have!

If there is any tradition that authors Anna Brones and Johanna Kindvall have carried with them throughout their travels- Brones, (a Swedish American) from Portland to Gothenburg to Paris, Kindvall (Swedish) from Stockholm to Brooklyn - it's their abiding love of Fika, a word that literally means “to drink coffee” but that symbolizes an entire set of cultural values. It's also the focus of their new book "Fika, the Art of the Swedish Coffee Break"

As a concept that goes far beyond a love for coffee, Fika is about slowing down – alone or with friends, family or coworkers – to take a break each day; a committed moment to relax. With over forty illustrated recipes, the book provides the launchpad for integrating the practice of Fika into your own life. Translation: coffee break bedfellows like cookies, cakes and breads (including savory variants) that will have you baking and living like a Swede in no time.

You can get a sneak peek of one of the recipes in my article for T Magazine HERE
Throughout history, French cuisine has been the object of fascination for many an epicurean. And for much of their careers, that was also true for venerated culinary heroes M.F.K Fisher, Julia Child and James Beard, whose work and vision for American cooking was heavily influenced by their experiences in France. Pulling from M.F.K. Fisher's journals and letters, author Luke Barr (Fisher's grandnephew) documents a seminal moment in their lives, when they all found themselves in Provence on the cusp of a major shift in both countries food cultures. On the insularity of this group, Barr writes: 
"The food world was indeed a small one, both in Europe and America. Everyone knew everyone else - all of them drawn together by a shared reverence for 'the good life,' and there was indeed a sense of 'closed-circle' exclusivity about it"
This experience was to mark the beginning of a new American approach to cooking and Barr does a tremendous job of almost reenacting the exchanges, frustrations, discoveries and successes between the country's leading culinary voices. This book appealed to my Francophile leanings, to be sure, but spoke even more to my curiosity about taste and how that has evolved over time.

Paris Street Style: A Guide to Effortless Chic
There are countless books, magazine articles and blog posts that attempt to parse and decode Parisian style but as legion as this topic has proven worldwide, few come direct from a French source. Fashion journalists Isabelle Thomas (also a personal stylist and blogger for L'Express Styles) and Frédérique Veysset tackle the question of ineffable, Parisian chic with their book 'Paris Street Style'. And as the name suggests, it truly is a guide. It begins with their interpretation of French style (hint: it's not about perfection or an overly-manicured look), moves on to offer tips for defining your own style, tackles hardwired clichés à la 'black makes you look slimmer' and then dives into each area of effortless French fashion that can, in fact, be learned. The little black book of go-to Parisian hot spots at the end is a useful feature but I particularly enjoyed the interviews with twenty-five different Parisian insiders that the authors incorporated to enrich each styling tip.

For those with more of a penchant for accessories, you'll want to pick up this duo's second book, exclusively devoted to shoes (shall we call that mastering the art of shoe style?). Click to see more about Paris Street Style: Shoes

Di Bruno Bros: House of Cheese
There are four things I think my readers have gleaned about me: I love France, Philadelphia, pastries and cheese. Strangely, though, I don't often talk about cheese. My friend Susan of Fleurishing must have sensed I was in need of some new cheesey inspiration because she gave me this divine book which encompasses two of my four passions. Di Bruno Bros is a gourmet grocer in Philadelphia founded by two immigrants brothers from Abruzzo, Italy in 1939 who came in pursuit of the American dream (sound like a familiar tale?). They set up shop in the heart of the Italian Market district and found tremendous success, as much for their admirable work ethic as their treat-everyone-like-family business ethos. When faced with competition from larger supermarkets (and inspired by a 200 pound wheel of cave-aged Emmentaler they tasted in Switzerland), they shifted their focus to specialize in cheese. The brothers' nephews took over the business years later and continue to drive the vision forward. Today, Di Bruno Bros is a Philadelphia institution, a culinary destination for visitors and the go-to shop for an array of goods - fresh produce, charcuterie, fresh-made sandwiches, artisanal spreads - and still boasts the most knowledgeable cheesemongers in the city.

Author Tenaya Darlington, a Wisconsinite professor and journalist whose blog is called Madame Fromage in case her passion for cheese was ever in question, moved to Philadelphia in 2005 and found herself overwhelmed both by the selection of cheeses as by the cheesemongers behind the counter. After spending time getting to know them, chronicling her cheese adventures after each visit and dutifully reading up on the subject, she was naturally ushered into the welcoming community of cheese fanatics. Soon, she was the resident blogger for Di Bruno Bros and that collaboration led to this book. In simple terms, this self-described cheese courtesan calls the book a 'tasty guide to cheese'. But it's so much more. For me, it's the most comprehensive guide to understanding the different types of cheeses available, to mastering the vernacular and, most importantly, to consuming them. It's a must-have tome for anyone who has entertained fantasies of hosting the perfect cheese gathering or preparing the perfect cheese board. Start with 'how to pick a hunk' and 'how to talk to a cheesemonger' then explore 170 artisan cheeses and test 30 recipes. As a cheese-loving Philadelphian, this book was the best gift I could have ever received. Add it to your collection! 

A La Mère de Famille: Recipes from the Beloved Parisian Confectioner
Yet another book I received for the holidays and am just digging into now. Fully aware (though not always understanding) of my intense love for sweets, my sister happened to pick up the recipe book from one of my favorite confectionery shops in Paris. The 300 year old shop began as a little grocery store in the 18th century but became mythique, a Pandora's Box of chocolates, caramels, candies, nougats and marrons glacés (candied chestnuts). All of those French classics you've been dying to bake to perfection - financiers, lemon cake, pain d'épice, marshmallows, calissons or tuiles - can be found in this beautiful book. The pages are sprinkled with the confectioner's long history and features gorgeous photography and portraits of regular clients. A delight!

What are you reading right now or looking forward to reading? Share in the comments section below!
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