I just wanted to have another French family dining experience. But even I could not have imagined this French Dinner Party experience would be so formidably elegant, yet so completely casual and warm. A formidable feast it would end up being: melt-in-the-mouth confit de canard; pommes de terres sarladaises (classic side dish for confit de canard: thinly sliced potatoes cooked in the (duck) fat from the duck confit); a salmon tartare with watercress before that, preceded by champagne (the real deal: Veuve Clicquot). But there was more. Way more.
To get this experience state-side, I bid enthusiastically at a fundraiser to earn two seats at the dinner table of a French couple, who would prepare and host an authentic French Dinner Party for 8 persons in their home. No way I was missing that. My favorite, most heart-warming, interesting meals in France have been with friends at their homes.
For the pre-dinner ritual there were many lovely coupes of Veuve Clicquot. There was a warm and effervescently bright green pea soup in tiny glass tumblers with long sprigs of chives laid across them. There was the ultimate indulgence: foie gras. A heavenly moment of gourmandise.
But yet, out of the corner of one's eye, one could not miss, standing out, crying out for attention, over on the enormous white marble kitchen island, a burst of hot pink. That hot pink blast was in fact rows of shocking bright pink and red confections -- raspberry macarons -- set out just so, with a single red rose petal set asymetrically atop each one of them. These would be our desserts. Prepared just for us by a soon-to-be chef/proprietor of a new French patisserie in downtown Austin. (More on that later.)
These sassy macarons, Jezebels really, cried out for attention. From every angle they were gorgeous. And they knew it. They loved the camera. And I loved them. I snapped a series of macarons photos. Could not get enough of them. Photo of solitary macaron. Macaron with serving fork. Trio of macarons, viewed horizontally. Long tray of macarons, viewed at an angle. Up close. Far away.
But then we sat down to la table. For the first course - very light and spring-like: pale pink salmon, a spray of watercress. Perfect counterpoint for the heartiness of what was to come.
We learn that for our main course we will have confit de canard, straight from France. And we not only will have a gratin dauphinois (huge weakness for me: potatoes, cream, cheese, garlic, all browned in the oven for grand finale), but yet another potato dish. (Uncharacteristically excessive for a French dinner party!) For at the last minute, someone called an audible and insisted on the classic confit accompaniment: pommes de terres sarladaises, potatoes cooked to go especially with confit de canard, as they are cooked in the very same duck fat that has preserved the duck. And then a nice ratatouille alongside as well.
I tried to eat slowly. Really I did. But the duck...so tender, with a few crispy bits here and there from its final cooking to warm up and crisp up. (Even my vegetarian friend is agog at the deliciousness.) Seconds were offered. Oh, if you insist....
And then the cheese.
The French cheese plate has always intimidated. Only because I know there is ritual and there are rules to be followed. And I do not know my cheese well enough to really get this nailed down just right. I admit out loud this intimidation, and yet, no one else really knows what I am talking about. Sure, our French hosts do. But between their time living in Spain, Argentina, Brazil, such rituals are not necessarily the bread and butter of their days, so to speak, in the US. No one really followed the rules, but for starting with the mild and working one's way to the super strong one of the night, which our host warned us about in advance.
Now, after much anticipation, having devoured the macarons with the eyes earlier in the evening, it was, finally, time to enjoy them by eating them.
More photos: macaron on my plate before consumption. Macaron partially destroyed upon commencement of destruction.
Seated in the living room for digestif time, there were yet still more delicacies set out on the table. Miniature chocolate eclairs. Just casually, elegantly hanging out to be adoringly viewed.
I could not help it. They looked so cute. I had one. I had another. I had some Armagnac. I had some coffee. We, or some of us, launch into Spanish when relatives of our hosts arrived, an adorable and very interesting couple from Ecuador.
At the end of the evening, we were given charming little gift bags and gift boxes: take-away macarons lined up all tiny and pink in the little box bearing the name of the soon-to-be new patisserie in downtown Austin (I am so in trouble), and a bag of crispy buttery flaky palmiers.
All those rituals and rules...in the end, the only real rule about enjoying French food despite the centuries of history and tradition is to just enjoy. And be gracious. I am again reminded that my favorite French meals are still with friends and family, around a table at home, with lovely food and lovely people. But now I realize that this can happen not just in France -- but also in the US.