Welcome to ‘France et Moi’ where this week I am talking to author Mardi Michels about what France means to her.
Mardi is a full-time French teacher to elementary school-aged boys and the author of eat. live. travel. write - a blog focusing on culinary adventures near and far. As part of her job, she offers after-school cooking classes for boys aged 7 to 14. She grew up in Australia, lived and taught in Paris for over five years and now calls Toronto home. In 2014, she purchased an historic home in southwest France, which she operates as a vacation rental property. In her spare time, you’ll find her teaching French cooking and baking classes in Toronto.
Firstly, I think France is a special place and it is famed for many things including its cheese, wine and diverse holiday locations plus, dare I say it strikes and dog poo littered streets. What do you think makes France so very unique and ‘French’?
Mardi: I feel like you’re asking me why France is so special to me? (it’s “French” because, well, it’s French!) so I’m going to have to say I love the language, the culture, the history and the food. For me, a country where I love all those things is truly special.
2) What is your fondest memory of time spent in France?
Mardi: I’ve spent a lot of time in France – a few vacations when I was in school, over 5 years living there in my 20s, countless summers since I moved to Canada in 2000 and since buying our house in France, we’re spent a lot of time there – so it’s REALLY hard to choose one memory! The recent World Cup victory by the French team brought back very fond memories of the summer of 1998 when I was living in Paris – THAT was a special summer! Nowadays, I cherish every minute I can be in France – it truly does feel like my second home – and even quiet mornings enjoying my coffee with a good book on our terrace make for fond memories.
3) Your cook book, In the French kitchen with kids,will be released next week, where did your love of sharing French food start?
Mardi: I’ve actually always had a thing for French food. Growing up, one of the desserts my mum used to make for dinner parties was crème caramel. One of my favourite places to go for brunch in Adelaide was a French restaurant. Later, living in Paris in my 20s, I tasted a lot of really good food but over the years came to realise that while it might look fancy or sound fancy, the dishes that the French eat at home are fairly simple to make. Over the past 10 years, I’ve been writing about French food and teaching people how to make it both through my blog and through the classes I teach. I love showing people (adults and kids) that they can make fancy-sounding dishes at home!
4) What would be your most memorable meal eaten in France?
Mardi: I’ve had a lot of memorable meals – from Michelin star places to tiny family-run local cafés so it’s hard to choose just one. But one year Neil and I found ourselves in Paris for New Year’s Eve and I’d been searching for someplace to enjoy a late dinner after a show. As someone who has lived in Paris, I was irritated to see that many restaurants were hiking their prices up so much for what essentially was their regular menu so I ended up not booking anything and decided we would take our chances. I happen to know of the 24/7 café Le Tambour in the 2nd and figured we’d go there for a midnight “cheers” if nothing else. We headed there after our show and arrived around 11.45pm. The place was looking packed but they welcomed us in and found us a booth and within 10 minutes we had glasses of champagne (and all sorts of noisemakers and streamers) to toast the new year! Shortly afterwards, we were served Steak-Frites (Neil) and Salade de Chèvre Chaud (me). Pretty much the best meal ever!
5) Every region in France has its own culinary specialty, do you have a favourite regional dish?
Mardi: Again, a tricky one to answer! Obviously, my heart is divided between Paris and the Lot-et-Garonne but there are SO many regional dishes I love – flammenkeuche from the Alsace is a big favourite – but if I had to choose, I’d say galetttes au sarrasin (buckwheat crêpes) from Brittany. It’s such a versatile dish – works for both sweet and savoury – and can be eaten at any meal!
6) Imagine you are sitting outside a French café at 10.00am on a sunny morning watching the world go by, what do you order from the waiter?
Mardi: I’ve probably got my chocolatine orPain Suisse au Chocolat from my favourite boulangerie in a crinkly paper bag so I’d be ordering a grand crème and an espresso (because the crème are generally not strong enough, I’ll drink a little bit and add the espresso later). Bliss.
7) What is your favourite thing to buy in a Boulangerie/Patisserie?
Mardi: I’m a big fan of the baguette tradition but our local boulangerie in Nérac has a fabulous 7-grain baguette called Campagrain which is wonderful fresh and which toasts up beautifully. In terms of viennoiseries, I do love a good chocolatine or a Pain Suisse au Chocolat.
8) France has many different cheeses, but which French cheese are you?
Mardi: Sigh – I’m only allowed to choose just one? Well then it’ll have to be Comté. The older the better (36 months).
9) How important do you think it is to match your French wine with your food? Any top matching tips you can share?
Mardi: I’ll defer to Neil here who suggests a few simple rules for pairing food with wine. It’s generally a good idea to wine and foods from the same region, ligher wines with lighter dishes and always serving a wine that’s sweeter than your dessert are some rules I try to stick to! Actually his best advice is “drink the wine you like”!
10) How would you explain that very unique French concept of ‘terroir’?
Mardi: Interestingly, we’re hearing more about terroir outside of France these days. Originally, it primarily referred to different regions’ climates and soil affecting the flavours of the wines produced there, sometimes called “somewhereness” but more and more it’s used to talk about other foods and beverages (coffee, for example). In practical terms it means that the saucisson made in the next village will have a flavour very different to the one made 200km away.
11) Can you describe your perfect French apero for us, including the drink, the nibbles, the location and the company?
Mardi: If I’m hosting company at home, I’d probably serve gougères (recipe in my book) with some champagne. If I’m by myself on my terrace in Nérac, it’ll most likely be local rosé with some variety of French chips (they have the most extraordinary flavours, don’t you know?!).
Finally, can you tell us a bit about In the French kitchen with kids and maybe give us an idea of some of the recipes we will find?
Mardi: I’m hoping to show that French food doesn't have to be complicated and have tried to feature recipes suited to young chefs and their families in an elegant yet approachable book. From savoury dishes like Omelettes, Croque-Monsieur or Steak-Frites to sweet treats like Profiteroles, Madeleines or Crème Brûlée, readers will find a lot of French classics. I’ve included helpful timetables to plan out baking projects, as well as tips on how to get kids involved in the cooking and am really hoping the book breaks down any preconceived notion that French cuisine is too fancy or too difficult for kids to master. But it’s not just for kids as many who have seen advance copies of the book can attest to - it’s really for Francophiles of any age who love to cook but never considered French food was in their reach!
You can find out more about Maison de la fontaine (her holiday rental in Southwest France) here and on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter
Join me back here on Tuesday when I will be helping her celebrate publication day of In the French kitchen with kids, which is available to pre-order on Amazon now.