Podcast Episode 69: The Art of French Eating
Ann Mah talks about her new book, Mastering the Art of French Eating. We discuss Julia Child, how beef got to France, and why Americans don't like tripe.
- Check out Ann's fiction book, Offer: 0061771279 Kitchen Chinese: A Novel About Food, Family, and Finding Yourself
- Check out Ann Mah's website
- Sichuan Provincial Government Restaurant is Ann's favorite in Beijing
- Ann received a grant from the James Beard Foundation
- Ann was inspired by Julia Child's Offer: 0375413405 Mastering the Art of French Cooking,
- Does Ann's story remind anybody else of the movie Julie & Julia?
- Americans aren't on board with tripe, but the French are -- especially Andouillette
Food for Thought:
- Q: What was the first A.O.C. (appellation d'origine contrôlée) product in France?
- A: Roquefort Cheese (in 1411).
Out of the Frying Pan Picks:
- Favorite Hotel in Paris: Hotel Le Six
- Favorite Place to go for Wine: Beaune (for Burgundy)
- Favorite Farm: Delbouis Les Bessades (ask for Cathy)
- Restaurant with the Best View: Michel et Sébastien Bras
Seth: This is Episode Number 69 of the Find Dining Podcast. Welcome to France.
Hello and welcome to the Find Dining Podcast. I’m your host. My name is Seth Resler. And this is the podcast for foodies who love travel and travelers who love food. A couple of notes before we even get into it today, first, please subscribe to the podcast in iTunes. While you’re there, leave a review, that actually helps other people discover the show. And second, we are getting all of these episodes up on YouTube, so head over there to our YouTube channel. You know, while you’re at work or whatever, open up another tab in your browser, press play and listen to all these great interviews that we have with these great chefs and food bloggers and culinary experts.
Here’s the way it works, if you’ve never heard the show before, every episode, we talk to a culinary expert and we find out about the cuisine from a particular region. Today, we are talking to Ann Mah. She is the author of a new book called
Mastering the Art of French Eating. So, yes, we’re going to be talking about France on today’s episode. She has been published in the
New York Times,
Conde Nast Traveler,
Fodor’s Travel Guides and others. This is actually her second book. Her first is Kitchen Chinese.
Ann, thank you so much for joining us today.
Ann: Thanks for having me.
Seth: So we’ll going to get into your story and how you wound up writing about French eating. We’re also going to talk obviously a lot about the foods of France. But before we do any of that, I know you’ve got a trivia question for me. So what is it?
Ann: I do. Well, my trivia question has to do with an AOC which is Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée.
Ann: Those are products in France like wine or cheese that are made under very strict regulations from a certain region. So, my question is what was the first AOC product in France?
Seth: So this is like when the lawyers get involved and say, “You can’t call it this unless it comes from here.”
Ann: Exactly. Like champagne, for example. You know, champagne can only be produced in the Champagne region of France in a specific way using a specific method.
Seth: So AOC is less about like a health regulation than it is almost like a marketing or branding kind of thing.
Ann: Exactly. It is a brand, yes.
Seth: So AOC is what they call it in France and the question is – I’m sorry, what was it again? It was what?
Ann: What is the first AOC in France? What product was the first AOC?
Seth: So what was the first product that basically came out and said, “You can’t call it this unless it’s from here.”
Ann: And produced in this specific way.
Seth: Produced in this specific way. I don’t think it’s the Happy Meal. I think about what French foods come from a particular French region and are produced in a particular way. I’m going to think about this. We’re going to come back to it. And while I’m thinking about it, we’re going to talk about you. Congratulations on the new book.
Ann: Thank you.
Seth: That’s fantastic.
Mastering the Art of French Eating. I want to talk a little bit about how this book came about and then first, how you got into food in the first place. I mean, what got you writing about food?
Ann: Well, I have always an interest in food ever since I was a kid and I used to climb up on the kitchen counter to watch my dad chop garlic. But I was working in New York City when I met my husband and we got married. And a month later, we moved to Beijing, China. I was working at a book publishing house but I had to leave that job and I was sort of searching and really flailing about a little bit as a trailing spouse. I’m looking for way to add meaning to my life, a meaningful career, but something that I could bring with me around the world because our lifestyle means that we move every three or four years.
Seth: And that’s because your husband is a diplomat, right?
Ann: That’s correct. He’s a Foreign Service officer. He works for the U.S. Department of State and he's a diplomat.
Seth: So let me ask you, how’s the conversation go when you decided that you’re going to move and, you know, what that means for your career and what you’re going to do? I mean, one, you’re being very supportive, but two, that’s got to be somewhat frustrating, right?
Ann: Like all marriages, being in a diplomatic marriage, your priority is a lot of compromise. I’ve been very lucky in the places we served. Beijing was our first assignment together. Before that, he was in Turkmenistan, which is not so good for those interested in food perhaps. And we met in New York City, then we moved to Beijing. I am Chinese ethnically and I grew up eating Chinese food and so I thought I knew everything about Chinese food when I moved to China.
But the great discovery was all the different regional foods of China and that was really the bridge that sort of drew me into the country and learning more about the culture.
Seth: Right. Now, I haven’t been there but I’ve heard a rumor that China is big.
Ann: It is. China is huge and what’s surprised me so much was how different the foods were, that how much they varied from region to region. You know, there’s the wheat-eating provinces of the north where they rely on noodles and cold weather vegetables like cabbage. In the south, it’s more rice-eating. And then in the west, you know, it borders on Central Asia, so the food is very reliant on flat breads and lamb and muttons.
Seth: So you wind up in Beijing and you talked about this in the book, I thought this is interesting, you talked about how white people like your husband who don’t speak – well, your husband does speak the language, right?
Ann: He does, yeah.
Seth: And then there’s you who, you know, sort of looks like everybody else but doesn’t speak the language. Tell me about your experience with that.
Ann: Well, that was very surprising to me to sort of be treated as a, you know, as a local when I felt so very, very foreign on the inside. It was like wearing a mask to walk down the street and have everyone assumed that I was Chinese. But the minute I open my mouth and people heard my accent, I do speak Chinese, but I don’t speak it like a native and as they heard my accent, there was a sense of challenge.
Seth: So there you are, go to Beijing with your husband, how do you wind up writing about food?
Ann: Well, it came about slowly. I was always interested writing about food. I wasn’t really sure how to go about it. But one day, I started leasing through this Expat Magazines that I found in the lobby of our apartment building. They were very, very almost rudimentary publications. But one of them stood out among the rest and it was called
That’s Beijing at that time, now the name has changed to
Beijing Now. I ended up joining their staff as a dining editor.
Seth: So you start writing and what sort of stuff are you writing?
Ann: The very first, I started writing about everything that they were interested in which was home and house care articles. I wrote about orchids. I wrote about men’s seersucker suits. I eventually started writing about food. I did a few small restaurant reviews of neighborhood dumpling joints and my favorite street cart vendors. And then that eventually turned into a job as a dining editor after about a year.
Seth: And so you’re there, you’re writing, and how long were you in Beijing?
Ann: We were there for four years.
Seth: So, in your role, did you get to – were you writing mostly about the food in Beijing or were you writing about the food in other places as well?
Ann: Mostly about new restaurants in Beijing. But my favorite column that I developed while I was there was about different regional cuisines of China. And one of my favorite things about working at the magazine were the colleagues I had both expats and the local staff who came from all over and who really were the people who introduced me to the foods of their region.
Seth: Okay. Tell me if I’m going for the first time to China, what are some of the regions that I should explore?
Ann: Well, Beijing is a really great place to eat because almost all of the provinces have a regional office in Beijing where there is a restaurant. So, for example, the Province of Yunnan which is in the south that borders Vietnam, they have a very unusual cuisine with mushrooms and they make a special kind of cheese and they have lots of different herbs, giant broad mint leaves, salads made of them and morel mushrooms. So Yunnan is definitely something I would check out.
My other favorite cuisine is Sichuan cuisine and in Beijing, one of my favorite restaurants is the Sichuan Provincial Government Restaurant which is just exactly what it sounds like. They actually fly in ingredients from the province and all their staff, their cooks and wait staff come from Sichuan as well.
Seth: This is great. So I don’t even have to leave Beijing. You know, I can taste the whole country right there.
Ann: Exactly. That’s one of the great parts about visiting the capital. But of course, the best renditions will be found in the provinces like anywhere, like in France as well.
Seth: Okay. So you’re writing there for a couple of years and then you come back to the U.S., right?
Ann: Uh-hmm. We come back to the U.S. for a year and I do a little more freelancing and I finished my first novel which was called
Kitchen Chinese in which the Chinese food is very much a metaphor for exploring China as we’ve been discussing.
Kitchen Chinese is a work of fiction.
Ann: Yes, it’s a novel.
Seth: So you write the first novel
Kitchen Chinese and there’s a James Beard Culinary scholarship in here somewhere, right?
Ann: Yes. When I was living in Beijing, I applied to the James Beard Foundation for a culinary scholarship and I was so lucky to travel to Bologna, Italy, study there, visiting the balsamic vinegar attics where they age the vinegar, Parmigiano Reggiano factories, learning how to make pasta with an older Bolognese woman who rolled out this huge lump of dough into a sheet that stretched across the table and it was so thin you could read a newspaper through it.
Seth: Wow, that’s awesome. What did you learn about balsamic vinegar in your time there?
Ann: Oh, I visited this wonderful, I think they call them an “attichia” like an attic where they age the vinegar and distill it into smaller and smaller casks. It was run by three generations of women, a grandmother, a mother and daughter. And the little girl, I guess the granddaughter, the great granddaughter or daughter would run around and take little drips from each – all the barrels of like this, you know, 50 or 75 year old vinegar and that was her little after-school treat.
Seth: Just a couple of drops from each?
Ann: She would take little drops and, you know, they put it in water and they make a drink out of it or you can have it as a – they say it settles your stomach but for her, it was sort of like candy in a way.
Seth: So this trip to Italy happened while you were in Beijing?
Seth: And then you come back to the U.S.
Ann: We went to Washington D.C. My husband works for the State Department so we are constantly sort of returning and leaving from Washington. We were there for a year and then we knew we wanted to go overseas again and we were extremely thrilled to be assigned to Paris, which was our dream. My husband is a Francophone and Francophile and so am I and it was always my dream to live in Paris. And then so I just couldn’t believe it when we got the call and he was offered the assignment there for three years.
Seth: So I have to imagine, you know, you’re thinking when you get this call, this is going to be fantastic, we’ll going to be hanging out eating French food all the time. I mean, this is going to be great.
Ann: I really just couldn’t believe it. I was almost afraid to even talk about it for fear that it actually wouldn’t happen. And then, you know, we got there and I was just absolutely overwhelmed by how beautiful Paris was to live in and to sort of put down roots and find the local bakery.
Seth: So you there and you’re unpacking and how long are you in France before your husband gets the call?
Ann: We were there for just a few months when he gets the call and like I say in the book, you know, being in the Foreign Service is a little bit like being in the military in which you are sent to different places, you sometimes don’t have a choice. He was asked to go to Baghdad for a year to serve at the embassy there. I mean, Iraq was and is still an unaccompanied post which means that families and spouses are not allowed there. I was lucky enough to stay in Paris which I was, you know, delighted about, but my dream of living there had changed a little bit after he left.
Seth: Is it dangerous, that position in Baghdad there?
Ann: It was, you know, Baghdad now and more so at that time. That was in 2009, 2010. The embassy was being shelled regularly. There were rocket fire attacks and while he was there, he was working very closely with the Ambassador as the chief of staff and, you know, their convoy was attacked by roadside bomb. So, yes, there were dangers there.
Seth: So, you know, he’s going over there, you’re now in France, do you by the way know what you’re doing? Are you working or anything? Do you have a job while you’re in France?
Ann: Well, right after he left, I was working on editing my novel which had – I was so thrilled and lucky that it had been acquired by an editor to be published, so I was working on revisions to my novel and he left and it was very solitary. A writer’s life is very solitary. You spend a lot of time alone. And we had just gotten to Paris a few months earlier, so I hadn’t really had a chance to make a lot of friends or meet a lot of people. So, yes, there was a fair amount of isolation in the beginning.
Seth: I have seen enough Stephen King movies to know.
Ann: But at the same time, I couldn’t really complain because I was living in Paris which most people only dream about and I knew how lucky I was to live there even though many people who have lived alone, many Americans who have dreamed about living in Paris and who do it and are living there by themselves eventually realized that it can be a lonely place to live.
Seth: And you talk about this in the book. You had some familiarity with the language but you are actually discouraged from learning it as a kid.
Ann: I was. My mother always – like a good Chinese mother wanted me to learn Mandarin Chinese as a kid, so she encouraged me to go to Chinese school on Saturdays and in school, she encouraged me to learn Spanish which she considered very useful. I mean, it’s true. A larger percentage of the population of the world does speak Spanish. French was, you know, to her, not a very practical language but it was a language that I had dreamed of speaking. And so before we left, I was lucky enough to go to 7-week immersion course at Middlebury College in Vermont and really laid down a strong foundation.
Seth: So here you are in France, your husband has been called to Baghdad, you have a job that, you know, at least you’re doing something but it is very solitary and you don’t really know that many people there. You have a good basis of the language. What do you do?
Ann: Well, what I decided to do was to travel around to 10 different regions of France and discover the signature dish of each region.
Seth: How do you come to that idea? I mean, where is the inspiration? Was this something you’re just walking around, you’re like, “I know”?
Ann: Well, as I’m sure many of your listeners can relate to, I’m really fascinated by the intersection of food and history and travel. So that really is like one of my great passions in life. The thing that inspired me to create this journey was Julia Child’s book,
Mastering the Art of French Cooking which the title of my book is sort of a play on that. I’ve always been a fan of Julia’s cooking show and I would also put through her cookbook and sort of read it with an eye of creating this road trip throughout France, of actually traveling to the different places where these recipes originated from and discovering, you know, like the true story behind them, the legends, but also how they’re cooked today.
I had dreamed of doing that with my husband but with him away, he encouraged me to go alone, to travel alone and to try to uncover the stories of certain dishes by myself.
Seth: It struck me as I was going to the book that your life is not that dissimilar from the movie Julie and Julia. I mean, she doesn’t actually go to France in that movie but there were a lot of parallels between you and Julia Child.
Ann: I could never compare myself to Julia Child because she’s such a legend. But I will say is that I admire her very deeply, not just for her work, for the body of work that she produced, but also for her dedication to really truly seriously learning how to cook French cuisine at its very, very roots. And also, as a trailing spouse, as a diplomat’s wife, I admired her for creating a career out of a lifestyle that’s very transient.
Seth: And were you actually pulling Julia Child’s books out as you were doing this? I mean, had you brought them with you to France?
Ann: Oh, yeah, absolutely. In fact, aside from inspiring me in my travels, I feel and have used often her diagrams of meat and beef to try to figure out…because the cuts of meat have different names in France and so it was always been very useful to refer to her chart when, you know, shopping for pot roast or whatever.
Seth: We’re going to come back in just a second here and we are going to talk about what you discovered in all these travels because you learned a lot of fascinating stuff that’s all in the book and we’re going to talk to you about that. We’re also going to find out the answer to your trivia question. That’s coming up in just a second.
Before we get back to Ann, I want to let you know something, I’m very excited about this, mark your calendars, the first weekend in October 2014, we are bringing the Taste Trekkers Food and Travel Expo back to Providence, Rhode Island. It was so wonderful. We have such a great time. We enjoyed it so much last September that we’re going to do it again. So if you are a person who loves to plan your vacation around food, loves to discover new places to eat and new places to go and loves, you know, rubbing shoulders with chefs and artisanal food producers and all sorts of people like that who really know their stuff when it comes to food, we want you to be there. October 4th, that’s a Saturday in Providence, Rhode Island. It’s going to be great. Mark your calendar now and look for more details coming soon.
This is the Find Dining Podcast. We are speaking with Ann Mah. She is the author of
Mastering the Art of French Eating. So basically, you were left alone in France and had to figure out what to do and so you decided to go travel all around to the different regions of France and investigate and explore the history of the food in each region. And so I want to dig in and talk to you about that. But before we do, you had a trivia question for me, so what is it one more time?
Ann: The trivia question is what is the first AOC product produced in France? And AOC product is a certain kinds of specific cheese or wine or food produced in a specific region under specific regulations.
Seth: So this is the first time somebody called up the lawyers and said, “Hey, don’t let them call them that because we’re the only ones who get to make that.”
Seth: See, and I’ll let you know, I do not know these trivia questions. You can vouch for me. I did not know these trivia questions before my guests come on and ask me. I do not cheat. I do not go on into Wikipedia which is why I get them all wrong.
Ann: I’ll give you a hint. I’ll give you a hint.
Seth: I’m going to need a hint.
Ann: It’s a kind of cheese.
Seth: It’s a kind of cheese. Good because my best guess up to this point was French’s mustard. I don’t know. I don’t know. What is it?
Ann: It’s Roquefort Cheese. Roquefort Cheese dates back to the AOC dates back to 1411.
Seth: That’s a long time ago.
Ann: Yes. So France has been preserving its culinary tradition for centuries, dates to 1411 when the King Charles decreed that Roquefort Cheese could only be ripened in the caves of Roquefort in South-Central France.
Ann: Uh-hmm. And even to this date, they have these caves, where I supposed the penicillin hang very thick in the air and that is the only place where true Roquefort Cheese can be produced.
Seth: That’s fascinating. What I love about your book, too, as I’m going through it is that you’ve got all this kind to tidbits about history in there but it sort of intertwined in this personal narrative. You’ve got recipes in there as well but this is not a cookbook, this is really about your story and it just intertwines some food history and some recipes in there along the way. You match up a different region of France with a different dish and you sort of tell stories about them. Tell me what made you decide to structure the book that way and how it came about.
Ann: Well, my favorite thing about traveling in France is the intersection food and history and culture and how, you know, a recipe grows from the land and from the landscape, from the different regions and takes a root there and is produced in the same spot for hundreds of years. And so I really wanted to learn more about these different dishes and to taste them in the very spot where they originated and to find out how those recipes have evolved and how they endure.
Seth: So you start the book off with Steak Frites in Paris.
Seth: And you talk about how beef first came to France.
Ann: Right. Well, steak is actually a dish that came from across the channel, from England and it became more prevalent in Paris in the 19th century but the chapter on Steak Frites is really also a jumping off point to talk about the bistro and café history, the tradition that was founded by a group of immigrants from South-Central France, a group of immigrants to the capital from South-Central France called the Aveyron.
They came from a very poor region and they went to Paris to make their fortune. They started out as coal sellers and coal deliverers and eventually, their coal shops turned into a place where you could warm up and have a glass of wine and that eventually evolved into the cafes we know today. And almost all of the most famous cafes in Paris are owned by Aveyronnais, the ones we think of like Café La Flore, Les Deux Magots, Brasserie Elite, all of these are Aveyronnais cafes.
Seth: And when you talk about the cafes, you also talk about the sandwich and how it sort of intertwined with the café or at least was at one point.
Ann: Yes, the sandwich which my friend Alan who owns a café in the 20th arrondissement in Paris, I asked him what he thought a typical dish of Paris was and he said, the sandwich, something that is very quick, it’s eaten at the counter. His parents who owned the café before him used to make a big stack of sandwiches every morning and they would sell them throughout the day to different workers who would come in and need a bite to eat.
Seth: And what I thought was so interesting is then you said, “Do they have sandwiches now?” And he’s, “No, we only eat hot food now,” you know, for lunch.
Ann: Yes, yes. They want a hot meal because many of the factories that surrounded their café in the 20th have closed and the factory workers have been replaced by bureaucrats. And as Alan says, bureaucrats like a hot meal at mid-day, no sandwiches for bureaucrats.
Seth: So tell me a little bit about sauerkraut.
Ann: Sauerkraut or choucroute comes from Alsace which is in the eastern region of France, that borders Germany and that dish choucroute garnie which is a pile of sauerkraut garnish with different cuts of ham and sausage is a very hardy rich meal. It really pays – it’s an illustration of the sort of tortured history of Alsace flipping between Germany and France several times in the past couple of hundreds of years. You know, the pain of the Alsatian people banned from speaking their own language which is very close to German right after the war, banned from speaking French during the war when they were occupied by the Germany. And sort of the idea of an identity, a unique identity that grows from I guess being, you know, sort of a parcel of land that has belonged to two different governments.
Seth: Now, I’ve been to France but I haven’t been there. I went to Normandy though and one of the things that struck me, you know, especially being here in America, World War II seems like so long ago and so far away. And when you’re there in France and you realize that this is a place that – like their government wasn’t their government. It was taken over. You know, the Germans came in. And that really struck me when I was in Normandy. Talk to me a little bit how that plays into the culinary history.
Ann: For example in Alsace, I met a group of a cooking club in a small village and we made choucroute together and ate together and it was a group of older women who had known each other since childhood, since they were little girls and, you know, teenagers and young brides and young mothers and now, in fact, all of them are widows. So they’ve been friends for, you know, 50 or 60 years. They lived through the war. They lived through the occupation. And although they now speak Alsatian when they’re together, they also are fluent in French.
But they told me, you know, during the war, they were banned from speaking French and after the war, they were forced to learn it all again. They had to relearn French and they were discouraged from speaking the Alsatian language anywhere except in their own home.
Seth: And so do you see cuisines die out when that occupation happens? Do you see cuisines intermingled? Do you see people take pride in their cuisines and makes a come back?
Ann: Well, I think during the occupation, they were very poor and didn’t really probably were just had a cuisine of sustenance. But I think that the occupation gave them a deep sense of pride and the culture they have. It didn’t make them more French or more German. It made them more Alsatian. And I think that preserving their language and their traditions has become – has taken on even more significance to them because of that.
Seth: So let’s talk about fondue a little bit.
Ann: Fondue comes from the French Alps which as one of the scariest places to drive in, all this hairpin turns and steep highways, but it’s produced at least French or fondue from the Beaufort region, it’s produced with this special kind of cheese that’s made by these Alpine herders who shepherd their herds of cows up through the mountains, different higher elevations at different points of the summer. And they have these cheese making chalets up there where they make their, you know, that part of the AOC regulations is that they must make the cheese from the milk that’s produced in a single day. That’s very arduous work. And then the cheese is aged over, you know, several months or years.
Seth: Well, that’s fantastic. I love all these little stories. I love hearing the history of all this little different dishes and the regions and where they come from. What about tripe? I know that that…
Ann: Well, tripe is eaten everywhere in France and everywhere in the world really. I think maybe United States is probably one of the countries that appreciates tripe the least, myself included. But the tripe dish that I researched is called andouillette which is a tripe sausage.
Seth: Let’s back up just so everybody knows what we’re talking about when we say tripe.
Ann: Yes. What is tripe? Well, I didn’t know actually before I started researching it, but tripe is stomach lining and it’s used in the digestive process and it has a very, very strong smell like a baby’s unchanged diaper is how I refer to it in the book and it also has a very particular texture. It is very chewy and if it’s cooked, you know, too harshly, it becomes very rubbery.
Seth: So then talk to me about tripe in France.
Ann: Tripe is eaten in many, many different forms in France but the one that I focused on is called andouillette which is a tripe sausage. And the most famous kind of andouillette is made is Troyes which is a town in Champagne Region of France. I visited a local charcuterie who taught me how to make tripe. He showed me how to slice the organ meats and marinate them in different spices and then he showed me how the links are formed and stuffed into the casing which is made from another part of the intestine and then boiled very, very gently and just simmered for hours so that the sausage becomes more compact.
There is a very, very strong odor associated with andouillette. Many poor tourists have mistaken andouillette for andouille or, you know, the Cajun sausage specialty and made an unhappy surprise at the dining table when andouillette showed up with its distinctive smell.
Seth: But you tell me that if I taste this I will enjoy it.
Ann: Well, I did try it because, you know – and actually, the flavor tastes a lot like bologna sort of similar like very highly spiced nutmeg black pepper, very salty flavor. The texture is very rubbery. It’s a little bit like rubber bands or jellyfish. And the odor doesn’t, to me, didn’t play that larger role in the flavor but it is very prominent.
Seth: So we’ve been warned. So now that you’ve done this, I mean, now that you have explored France through the cuisine, are there any tips you have for other culinary tourists who want to do something similar, I mean, anything you learned that, you know – practical advice that would have been good to know from the outside?
Ann: Well, I think the thing that helps the most from traveling through France was speaking the language. That was really crucial to getting to know people and being welcomed by them. But even without the language, I wish I had known before that people who are outside of Paris, Parisians have a very bad reputation in the United States and in France, even French people think the regions are very, very cold and mean. But once you get out into the countryside, I wish I had known how welcoming people would be, how proud of they are of their own culture, they’re dishes, how distinct they feel they are from the rest of France and how eager they are to share that with you.
Seth: You talk about the language, my experience there and I was only there for two weeks, was that a lot of people know English, they just choose not to speak it. Is that only true in Paris or is that true in the outside regions, too, or was that your experience?
Ann: I think more and more people especially in Paris speak English. I think it is true that people are probably a little bit less friendly in Paris than they are in other parts of France where they’re so excited to see American tourists, so sort of flattered or honored that out of the whole – the world, an American tourist would choose to visit their village, you know, and that’s a big deal for them.
I think that a lot of people do speak one or two sentences of English or able to communicate in a rudimentary level and I do think that there’s possibly a certain aspect of the French culture or personality that makes them hesitant to make mistakes in a foreign language. I unfortunately am a little bit sort of shameless about making mistakes. I’ll just plow forward with sentences built with errors. But I think possibly the French school system teaches kids to be very cautious about making mistakes.
Seth: And how were you getting around? You mentioned a car, were you driving to most places or you go by rail?
Ann: Usually, I won’t take the train to a large city in the region and rent a car. And one of the great things about traveling in France is that there are car rental agencies outside most major train stations. So it’s very convenient to rent a car.
Seth: And everybody is driving on the right side of the road there, we’re fine.
Ann: Yes, it’s just like driving in the United States on the same side of the road.
Seth: How were you finding out about the places that you wanted to visit like the foodie destinations?
Ann: I had picked out some of the signature dishes that I was really curious about learning about. So for example, Boeuf Bourguignon is one of them, Julia Child’s signature dish and one of the great dishes of France. Choucroute garnie in Alsace is another, you know, fondue. These are all dishes that I think as Americans when we think of French cuisine, these are the ones that comes to mind.
Seth: So you would start with the dish first rather than the place?
Interviewer: Yeah. Cassoulets comes from the Southwest. Soupe au pistou from Provence, this sort of this minestrone that is perfumed with basil which is very, very significant herb flavor of Provence.
Seth: So you pick a dish and, you know, you discover the region that it’s from and then how do you figure out where you’re going to go within that region?
Ann: Well, partly through talking with anyone I know who knows someone who comes from that region. So I was introduced to a lot of friends of friends or, you know, friends of – or relatives of colleagues of my husband. I was working at the American Library in Paris and through that job, I met different people who came from different regions. And then also, it was a lot through the local tourist office.
Seth: Is food tourism a big thing in France? I mean, are they embracing it there?
Ann: They are embracing it but in a different way, you know, sort of in a regional pride way. I wouldn’t say the tourist office would introduce me to different chefs or restaurants. But for example, through the tourist office in Southwest France, I met a bean farmer. I met members of this brotherhood of cassoulet organization devoted to protecting the heritage of cassoulet. I met cheese makers and wine makers. So I think food tourism is embraced, but more sort of in the level of producing food from the land. The land is so important there. The idea of terrior and, you know…
Seth: Meaning that it’s not necessarily about the restaurants but it almost goes a step before that.
Ann: Yes, exactly. Yeah.
Seth: This is fascinating. I don’t want to give away the end of the book, but does the diplomat come back from Baghdad?
Ann: He does come back, yes. He does come back and then, you know, I don’t think this is giving anything away by saying we have to leave France. Our assignments are only three or four years, so.
Seth: All right. Are you ready to play a little game?
Seth: Okay. This is game is called Out of the Frying Pan. Here’s how it works, I am going to ask you a series of rapid fire questions. Just tell me the first thing that comes to mind.
Seth: Are you ready?
Seth: All right. If I go to Paris, say we start our culinary tour of France there, do you have a favorite place to stay while you’re there?
Ann: My favorite home base is the Six which is a very sort of “bo bo”, you know, bourgeois neighborhood. It’s right into the Luxemburg Gardens and it’s very, very pretty. It’s probably not what you would consider real gritty true Paris, but in terms of romantic fantasies, I think for me, that’s the epitome of it.
Seth: Is that a good way to do it, to start in Paris and use that as your home base and go from there?
Ann: I think so, yes. I think Paris is a great place to start.
Seth: Are there any other cities you would use as a home base for maybe other regions of France.
Ann: Let’s see. Well, I think in Provence, I really like Marseille which is France’s second largest city and a huge ethnic diverse population. It will really give you a different sense of what France is like. I don’t know if it’s a great place to explore Provence but it’s firm because it is such a large, you know, metropolis but it is a great way to get a sense of a different site of France.
Seth: What about wine, any great wineries that we should explore while we’re there?
Ann: Well, my favorite place to taste wine was in Burgundy. The sort of heart of the wine industry in Burgundy is a town called Beaune in the Cote d’Or, which is the heart of the wine producing region of Burgundy. And what I love is you can go to any café in Beaune, well not any café but a lot of cafes in Beaune, sit down, look at the menu. The waiter will rattle off what you have by the glass and it’s like all these famous names that, you know, my jaw was dropping just listening to him pronounce them so casually.
Seth: What about farms, do you have any great farms that you visited while you’re out there?
Ann: In South-Central France, this region of Aveyron that I was talking about in relation to the cafes of Paris, we have a friend name Cathy who has a farm. She is French and she’s a great cook and she has this table d’hote where you can go and sit in her farmhouse kitchen dining room and eat lunch and the information is actually on my blog of how you can find her. And, you know, she welcomes tourists and locals and almost everything she serves as part of the meal is produced on the farm from the ham, thin slices of raw cured ham. She kills a pig once a year and serves it for, you know, 12 months.
Seth: That’s awesome.
Ann: It is. It’s wonderful. Chicken, you know, then that would be followed by like a roast chicken that she has raised on the farm and killed and plucked and roasted herself. The special fritters, savory fritters made of local herbs. She’s, you know, raised the herbs and the spinach and everything that goes into them herself and they’re served with homemade jam that she’s canned herself over the summer from red currants that she’s picked herself from the bushes in her neighbor’s yard. So that is definitely one of my favorite places to eat.
Seth: All right. So just look for Cathy the farmer and say, “Ann sent me.”
Seth: Is there a restaurant with the best view?
Ann: Well, I’m not really one for restaurants with views, but to return back to Aveyron again, I think one of my favorite meals that I ate in France was at a restaurant called Michel Bras. It has three Michelin Stars and I actually someone who prefers home cooking to fine dining. So for me, Cathy’s Farmhouse meal is on par with this three-star meal at Michel Bras. The view is of the rolling Aveyronnais hills and pastures, you know, sort of the sunlight streaming down and hitting this lush farm land. And the food is inspired by the land itself, so a salad with herbs that are grown in the garden on site and also with wild flowers and herbs that had been foraged by the different – from the hill surrounding.
There is the dish called Aligot which is a puree of potatoes and melted cheese which until recently was made by the chef’s mother. So the food is beautiful and a view in and of itself. But also you look out onto this landscape, the sweeping Aubrac landscape that is really unforgettable.
Seth: You talked a lot about Julia Child’s cookbooks and how they inspired you. Do you have any particular recipe of hers that you have a new appreciation for after spending all this time in France?
Ann: What surprised me is – well, and it shouldn’t have surprise me, but everyone who cooks something, cooks at their own way. So Julia Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon recipe, we think of as the classic recipe, the signature dish of Julia Child and her way is the way to make it. But when you go to Burgundy and you meet different people, you realize how many different methods there are of cooking it and how the recipe is still evolving. So her method, you know, that uses sort of chuck roast is being now made with beef cheeks in one of the signature restaurants in Burgundy. What I enjoyed the most from seeing sort of the evolution and modernization and how something can still be authentic but is still changing.
Seth: Can I ask, what is the popular perception of Julia Child in France?
Ann: Oh, they don’t know who she is unfortunately or if they do know who she is, they know that she’s someone who’s introduced French cuisine to the United States and so they’re very admiring of her.
Seth: What is the biggest difference between dining at a restaurant in France and dining in a restaurant in America? Is there anything that they do differently there?
Ann: I think the biggest difference is the sound level. In France, people almost whisper when they’re at the table because they think it’s very inconsiderate to be overheard by the table next to you. And also, they’re very private, so they don’t want to be overheard.
Seth: All right. Last question, give me one piece of advice for anybody who’s looking to take a culinary tour of France?
Ann: I think the thing that I would bring with me the most is an indefatigable sense of curiosity. Even if you don’t speak French, you don’t know that much about French food maybe is just to be curious and to ask questions and to be opened about it and people will make themselves be able to communicate with you. I’m sure of it. They will welcome you.
Seth: Very good advice. Thank you so much, Ann Mah and people can find you online at AnnMah.net. The book is called
Mastering the Art of French Eating, not cooking. That’s a different book,
Mastering the Art of French Eating. People can find that on Amazon or in book stores. And what about you, if people want to follow you on social media, how can they do that?
Ann: Yes, I’m on Twitter @AnnMahnet. My website, AnnMah.net. Facebook, Ann Mah Author. You can find all that information on my website.
Seth: And I have to imagine at the moment, you’re doing a lot of publicity for the book, but are you also doing blogging and are you writing anywhere else at the moment?
Ann: I am doing some blogging and I am preparing for a trip to France in February. I hope I’ll be able to report some travel stories while I’m there.
Seth: All right. Fantastic. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us. I really appreciate it.
Ann: Thanks so much for having me.
Seth: My name is Seth Resler. A couple of show notes before we go, first of all, you can find the show on iTunes or on YouTube. If you go to iTunes, please subscribe and leave a comment. If you go to YouTube, you can subscribe there as well. You can also find us on Facebook or on Twitter and Pinterest as well. And finally, if you want to be a guest on the show, please just go to TasteTrekkers.com, click the Contact Us link and send me an email. We’d be happy to have you. Even if you just want to leave an audio comment, there’s a tab on the right side of the website where you can click and leave a voicemail message and just say something nice and maybe I’ll include you – maybe say something not nice, I’ll include you in the podcast as well. You’ll never know.
Thank you so much for listening. I’ll see you next time.