By Joëlle Laffitte
Olive Oil Times Contributor | Reporting from Paris
Every Wednesday and Saturday morning for the past 18 months, I have had the privilege of buying most of my food at the best farmers’ market in France. Well, at least I think it’s the best. I may be biased because at my market, the people who sell me cheese, vegetables and meat are also the people who taught me to speak the language when I was a mere timid foreigner in the land of the appellation d’origine contrôlée.
They also taught me what that system means, and how to choose my
own quality ingredients, from olive oils to aged cheeses to the famous
Bresse chickens. I came to France a modest self-taught cook, but I
never before had access to the premium ingredients I can easily procure here for an affordable price. I can now keep fleur de sel on the table and, for just the price of a cup of coffee, I can buy bags and bags of hand-harvested sea salt — an affordable luxury which I like to add to my bath in the evening. I have access to free-range eggs with bright orange yolks, just gathered that morning from free-range chickens, and herbs so pungent their fragrances fill the kitchen with one sharp cut of the knife. Short of cooking with Alice Waters, I am living my dream. I’d be living my dream even more if I had unlimited bottles of Burgundy , but that’s a story for another time.
Besides the language, the French have taught me so much when it comes to choosing, cooking, and eating good food. I have discovered that good olive oil is exactly what was missing from my steak tartare, and that salted butter is better than sweet when roasting a chicken.
I have learned that raw milk is a human right, not a novelty item, and
certainly not a legal battle as it is in some places that I kindly won‘t mention. I have even learned I can have the occasional glass of red wine while pregnant – which I’m not, and don’t plan on becoming – but it’s a nice consolation should things take an unexpected turn.
One of the most important lessons I have learned in this country is that when buying certain ingredients, there is a time to hold onto your money, and there is a time to let it go. And even if you don’t live in France or have access to the best market, like I do, the practice of spending a little more for a few quality ingredients has its rewards. Better quality when it comes to olive oil, vinegars, and salts, for example, can make all the difference. I also find that when I have just a
few key ingredients, I can very simply turn them into a meal with almost no effort on my part. I always keep a bottle of the best quality olive oil I can afford on the table, a jar of good sea salt and one of fresh peppercorns, and a good aged parmesan cheese. If all I have to eat with them are beans, or a head of broccoli, or just a bowl of noodles, I can still have a delicious meal.
On a recent trip to the market I brought home a lovely piece of soft, mild farmer’s cheese. It is an inexpensive, simple cow’s milk cheese that is probably the most unpretentious of all French cheeses. For an easy lunch, I bathed it in a pungent olive oil and sprinkled it with red pepper flakes, then spread it onto thin slices of baguette. I like to have small pitted green olives with dried herbes de provence on hand, and when I want to splurge and be extra nice to my husband, I bring home the anchovy stuffed olives – which, by the way, are the perfect accompaniment to a glass of fino sherry at apéritif time.
This week, for a change, I decided to buy some everyday olive oils for infusing. I chose mild oils, and simply sterilized some glass bottles, poured the oil in, and added the dried herbs and spices. I love the idea of having several infused oils on hand for finishing dishes, and olive oils are great for enhancing stronger flavors like cinnamon and sage and rosemary. They are wonderful to add to roasted vegetables in the Fall, and the cinnamon infused oil adds something special to baked pumpkin bread, turning the flavor up a notch with the peppery quality of the oil and the spicy cinnamon. It also works magic when drizzled onto a pumpkin soup or thick wedges of toasted bread, leaden with creamy goat’s milk cheese.
There are several infusion methods, but the easiest by far is to use dried herbs or spices, placed into a sterilized glass bottle filled with the oil. Then wait a few weeks. To get a strong enough flavor, I generally
add about four to five small cinnamon sticks to a 35 cl bottle of oil. If using herbs, two large sprigs of rosemary or lavender is a good estimate. I use fresh herbs and dry them in the sun at home, tied with a piece of string over the kitchen window. The lavender recalls those purple open fields that stretch on for miles in the south, the fragrance of Provence. And when the light falls in just a certain way, its late afternoon golden hue dancing on your kitchen floor, and the floral pattern of shadows on the wall, this is France, and this is the closest we can get to bottling it up and taking it home with us.
Joëlle is a New Yorker now living in Paris and an amateur chef who will be taking us along once in a while as she discovers the local flavors of her new neighborhood.