Beyond the Plate: A Tour of French Tables Thursday, Sep 30 2010 

“A table!” (Time to eat!)

It’s easy when sitting down to a meal in France to think primarily about the food and the wine. After all, it’s arguably what the country is best known for.

But after years of meals in this gastronomically-blessed country, I make a point to look beyond what’s on the plate. Of course, the food is fabulous but I have realized that a significant part of dining pleasure—in Paris or in the provinces—is the setting. The table setting, that is.

Cabro d'Or

From glassware to silverware to ceramics to linens, the French table brings these elements together with a panache that is uniquely français. Whether humble or haute, every item on the table speaks to French creativity, to French craftsmanship, and to the French love of proportion and order. Even the arrangement of breakfast breads in a basket exudes a French touch.

French breads

And yet, the art of the French table is hardly ever practiced in a vacuum (maybe at an industry trade show??). The French set a table with a clear purpose in mind—to enhance the food experience. Long ago, they realized that the aesthetics of dining are essential to enjoying what’s on the plate and what’s in the glass.

On Rue Tatin

On Rue Tatin2

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Oustau aperitifs

Oustau

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So when I am in France, I love to pay attention to table settings…to capture an idea, to get inspired, to appreciate yet another thing the French do very well. I then put these impressions together with my own personality to create my own French tables.

It doesn’t take much to create your own table à la française (in the French style). There are a few tried and true tenets that the French use to transform a potentially banal daily event into a work of art:

  • Keep it simple
  • Combine the practical and the aesthetic
  • Mix the old and the new
  • Add in some whimsy
  • It’s all in the details

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That said, it is still true that the French do it best—and on their own soil. Food writer and France-lover Elizabeth David sums it up thus:

“A country’s national food appears completely authentic only in that country…The climate, the soil, the ingredients, the saucepans, the stove, even the way of arranging the food upon the serving dish, of folding the napkins and setting the table, as well as the French attitude of mind towards food, and the very smell of their kitchens while they are cooking, all play their parts.” (From her classic volume French Provincial Cooking)

If you have a special recipe from your table, a photo of a memorable table setting chez vous, or a good “French table in France” story to share, please take a moment to post it here. We all could use some great ideas French-style. Possibilities for creating wonderful tables are endless—and opportunities to create new tables arise every day, three times a day. A la bonne table!

French Take-Out™ ~ La France à Emporter

French tables are on my mind this week. This afternoon, I had the great pleasure of giving an illustrated talk on the ‘Art of the French Table’ at Pierre Deux in the Dallas Design District. The lecture, food and wine evening was complemented by lovely examples of French provincial table settings throughout the store. Rather than lugging Provence pottery all the way back from France, I should have been checking out the offerings at Pierre Deux! It’s a bit of France for home and table here in the U.S.

 Pierre Deux main photo

Made to Measure Tuesday, Sep 21 2010 

“Follow your instincts.” It’s possibly the best piece of travel advice around.

This summer in France, I was rewarded many times over for heeding this call. One particular instance occurred as I was exploring the Basque town of St. Jean Pied de Port in the Pyrenees mountains. I had been wandering up the Rue d’Espagne, one of the town’s main streets, with its charming houses and shops. Basque linens, espadrilles, gourmet food items, local wines, souvenirs, and berets were the main items on offer.

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Mid-way up the road, it appeared that the interesting boutiques and sights were tapering off. I was on the verge of turning back toward the center of town—when something told me to press on.

A few yards further ahead, I came up a small, unassuming shop not much wider than its doorway. Though the sign read “Sandales,” its specialty was espadrilles. The canvas shoes in solids and stripes of every color lined the shelves.

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But as I browsed, I noticed a small workshop in the back. A woman was seated at her workbench, and wonderfully enough, she making the colorful espadrilles by hand. What a find! It turned out that I had stumbled upon an authentic bastion of Basque culture. Madame Arangoïs and her family have carried on the tradition of hand-made espadrilles for generations. Madame Arangoïs learned the technique from her mother who learned it from her mother. It is Monsieur Arangoïs and their daughter who manage the shop.

On the spot, Madame Arangoïs gave me a private demonstration of her craft. All her espadrilles are faites main (made by hand), or more specifically, cousues main (sewn by hand), according to traditional methods. Though a quiet, patient woman, you could tell she was quite proud to demonstrate her creative expertise.

First, she selected a pair of hemp and rubber soles from the stock that she had pre-prepared. Next, she took the colorful cut canvas and glued it around the edges of the soles.

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The third step was to sew the edges down on the exterior with beautiful looping stitches. Her practiced hand was lyrical in its movements as she completed a pair of espadrilles in minutes.

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My next question was obvious. Could I order my own custom-made Basque footwear? “Bien sûr,” she responded. Of course! We do orders sur mesure. So I set about selecting the canvas for espadrilles that Madame Arangoïs would make especially for me. Uni (solid colors) or rayons (stripes)? The colors were fabulous—comment décider? How to decide? I ended up choosing a marvelous multi-colored stripe with red accents and also a black solid as black goes with everything. And my size–je chausse du 39. I wear an 8 and a half shoe size.

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Hmmmm, what about the timing? My train for Bordeaux left at 3pm le lendemain (the next day). Could she have the two pairs of espadrilles ready by lunchtime? Again, another robust “Bien sûr!” ensued.

So on Wednesday after a lovely final Basque lunch with my husband, I stopped by the Arangoïs shop to pick up my espadrilles. Sure enough, my shoe treasures were waiting—and what a bargain. The two pairs together were 20 euros, or about $26. J’ai vivement remercié Madame Arangoïs (I enthusiastically thanked Madame Arangoïs, or “Madame Espadrilles,” as I now call her.) And for a marvelous cultural experience—and for just a few euros, I had a tangible, chic souvenir of Basque culture.

For your own custom-made espadrilles, be sure to visit the Arangoïs shop when in the Basque country. It’s located at 42, rue d’Espagne, in St. Jean Pied de Port. Madame Arangoïs and her family are delightful hosts and would be happy to share the legacy of their livelihood.

And in case espadrilles for the feet aren’t enough, you can pick up a key-chain version at one of the many souvenir shops in town. Vivent les espadrilles (long live espadrilles)!

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Picturesque in the Pyrenees (Southwest France Part 3) Thursday, Sep 16 2010 

Toward the end of our time in southwest France this summer, my husband and I decided to take a break from the Bordeaux area and head down to the Pyrenees. I had never been ‘down under’ in France and looked forward to exploring the French Basque country nestled along the Spanish border.

We left Bordeaux’s Gare St. Jean (St. Jean train station) on a Monday morning and after changing trains in Bayonne, we arrived three hours later in St. Jean Pied de Port. The wildly picturesque town is situated on the Nive River at the base of the Roncevaux Pass across the Pyrenees mountains.

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St. Jean Pied de Port literally means “St. John at the foot of the pass.” Approximately five miles from Spain, it is famous for its place on the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela, known as the Chemin de St. Jacques, and as the last stop before the difficult passage through the mountains.

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The afternoon of our arrival was market day and the village was thronged with tourists as well as the eternal pilgrims. Backpacks and hiking shoes were the main fashion items along the narrow streets.

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But for those looking for a more aesthetic type of footwear, the many boutiques selling locally-made espadrilles are a great place to start. I happened upon a fabulous shop specializing in custom-made espadrilles. I’ll be posting the story of this original addition to my wardrobe next week.

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Speaking of aesthetics, the Pays Basque (Basque country) owes part of its personality to its signature architecture. White stucco accented by red trim and red tiled roofs are required of residents who live in the region. Some houses and buildings also are accented by red granite native to the area, often carved with the date of construction.

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The principal architectural marvel of the town is the citadel, located at the top of the steep, cobblestoned streets. Built in the early seventeenth century in response to the wars of religion and conflicts between France and Spain, the citadelle was redone by the famous French fort architect Vauban around 1680. While the interior is not open to the public, the impressive facade attracts crowds of visitors. Its altitude affords impressive panoramas of the mountains around St. Jean Pied de Port. But I think my favorite view in this part of the village was the banks of hydrangeas resting innocently against the centuries old fortress walls.

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After exploring the town, we decided go further afield and try one of the many randonnées pédestres (walks) in the nearby hills and mountains. The Office du Tourisme in St. Jean Pied de Port was a wealth of information. They offered detailed maps for walks and hikes of varying degrees of difficulty in an easy, put-in-your-pocket format for a few centimes.

We started off and in just minutes, we were out in the countryside and headed up into the mountains to our destination—a panoramic view of the entire valley. The walk was so stunning that I’ll have to share more of it in another posting. But here is a photo looking back towards St Jean Pied de Port from our perch in the mountain vineyards:

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As I wrap up this week’s posting, I have to mention yet another spectacular part of St. Jean Pied de Port–its cuisine. Full of spices and peppers, it’s worth exploring in its own post as well. So bookmark this page for coming Pays basque attractions!

French Take-Out ~ La France à emporter™

So what sort of souvenir does one take away from the Basque country? Basque linens, of course! Signature stripes distinguish it from its Provençal cousins and from other types of French linens. In St. Jean Pied de Port, a multitude of shops were selling their version of linge basque but I think my favorite was the chic Jean Vier boutique. Here are some of their fabrics sold by the yard:

 Jean Vier 1

And the colorful dish towels were creatively displayed on this mannequin:

Jean Vier 2

I bought a few things sur place (while there) and made a note that their beautiful offerings are also available online at www.jean-vier.com. The company has also sponsored a beautiful museum of Basque culture and craftsmanship in St. Jean de Luz. Another spot to put on the France must-visit list!