I took some French classes in college. But that was beaucoup years ago. And I was not exactly a student exemplar. I mumbled my way through.
The French class I attended the other night was very different from the ones I sat through in school. First of all, the classroom was a kitchen. And second, instead of merely talking about salmon marinated in lime juice (saumon marine au citron vert) students in this class saw the dish being made, then got to eat it.
The occasion was a cooking demonstration for La Causerie, an organization of about 100 men and women who meet several times a month at various spots in the Baltimore area to speak French.
At most of the meetings members divide into classes. People just beginning to speak French are in one group, intermediates are in another, and an advanced class discusses French literature. But this particular evening about 20 people of varying levels of fluency, gathered in the kitchen of the Roland Park Presbyterian Church for a demonstration of French cooking. The two women who put on the demonstration, Germaine Sharretts and Anne Defaux, are members of La Causerie and operate a cooking school called Les Deux Gourmettes.
Mrs. Sharretts gave most of the cooking instructions in French. As she spoke, I simply sat there smiling. I couldn't understand much of what she was saying, but everything smelled wonderful. While I might not be fluent in French, I was facile with the fork. Moreover, there were plenty of translators on hand.
Nicholas Brown whose wife, Diane, is one of the founding members of La Causerie, offered translations to the class. From time to time he was assisted by Thomas A. Carr, who teaches French at the Gilman School.
I had my own translator, Francoise Jones, president of La Causerie. As the dishes were prepared, I paid as much attention to what I was seeing and smelling as what I was hearing. I watched crepes made with buckwheat flour flipped in a small pan. I watched the salmon get skinned. A sharp knife was placed between the flesh and the skin, and the skin was tugged away. The raw salmon had been "cooking" overnight in a marinade of lime juice, onions, coriander and olive oil. I licked my lips as I watched the marriage of the salmon and the buckwheat crepes. Small pieces of salmon were placed on the crepe, then the crepe was folded, topped with sour cream and fresh chives and served to the class. Eating salmon crepes is the kind of "class participation" I approve of.
Speaking of marriage, one of the most celebrated pairings in French cuisine, Mrs. Sharretts said, is that of shallots and wine. When you are making a sauce for most fish or for white meat, you cook the shallots in white wine, she said. For red meat, and sometimes for salmon, you use red wine to make the shallot sauce. As a theory this shallot-and-wine business was mildly interesting. But when it showed up on my plate, as a sauce for veal chops topped with bread crumbs and Parmesan, it was downright delicious.
One of the keys to this dish, Mrs. Sharretts said, was that the veal chops should sit in a baking dish atop the shallots and wine. The topping of chops should not be basted. If the topping of cheese and bread crumbs gets wet, Mrs. Sharretts said, "it is a catastrophe."
I liked learning while eating. While savoring some tender vegetables sliced in the distinctive thin, julienne strips, I learned the names of the Three Musketeers of French cooking. They are carottes, poireaux, and navets. They also are known as carrots, turnips and leeks. Where you find one of these vegetables in a French dish, you usually find the other two, Mrs. Sharretts said.
And while eating a Paris-Brest, a pastry filled with cream and almonds, I learned the dish was created to ease the journey of travelers making the long rail trip between Paris and Brest in Brittany.
I learned the distinction the French make between a gourmand, a gourmet and a gastronome. A gourmand, Mrs. Sharretts said, stuffs himself. A gourmet appreciates good food but is only concerned with his own pleasure. A gastronome not only appreciates good foods but writes about it so others can discover the joys of fine food.
I left the class carrying a fistful of papers Mrs. Sharretts passed out to the class. The papers quoted gastronomes such as Emile Zola and listed the recipes for the salmon and veal and pastry dishes. All were in French. I had read them several times. I am still pretty shaky on the literal translations. But the overall meaning is, I think, good food leads to a good life.