France and its beloved cuisine come with more than a few cliches: the butter, the frog legs, the snooty chef twirling a curled mustache. To outsiders, it's part of the French identity.
But anyone who regularly cooks French food (or has at least attempted it) knows it's rarely that simple or predictable. Yes, there's butter, but more striking is how much patience it requires. That's what Mimi Thorisson, writer of the popular French cooking blog Manger, says she's learned since making France and its food a part of her daily life.
But as with all the best things in life, she says the food is always worth the hard work. "The ends justify the means," she says. "And besides, one can always nibble on something and have a sip of wine while the main attraction slowly cooks its way to perfection."
Growing up in Hong Kong with a Chinese father and a French mother, Thorisson spent holidays in Paris and the south of France. It was there that she often saw her father, in a fit of impatience while waiting for the French meals to arrive at the table, sneak in more than just a nibble. In her new book, A Kitchen in France: A Year of Cooking in My Farmhouse, Thorisson tells the story of how he would place an elaborate order at a restaurant, then slip out to a nearby Chinese place to quickly down a bowl of noodles.
"He always came back and joined us for dinner," she says. "He's very gourmand and while he appreciates gastronomy, he's not always prepared to wait for it. He tries to have the best of both worlds and he actually succeeds, sometimes during the same meal. It's a bit like one of those comedies on stage: a man leaves the room, another one enters."
Thorisson herself seems to have mastered the best of both worlds. While her parents managed to merge the differing cultures of Hong Kong and France, Thorisson has successfully merged city and county cuisine. A few years ago, she and her husband, photographer Oddur Thorisson (the man behind the sumptuous pictures on her blog and in the book), moved their large family of six children and several dogs from a Paris apartment to a historic farmhouse in the French countryside.
She has since fully embraced the challenge of finding and composing gourmet meals fit for a Parisian restaurant in the Médoc region of France.
"In Paris, we ate out roughly half of our meals, but here in Médoc we eat in almost every night," says Thorisson. "Here it takes center stage. In Paris, it was dinner and a show. In Médoc, dinner is the show!"
Her children (and sometimes dogs) get a front row seat. In tribute to her parents who handed down their attitudes about food, Thorisson makes sure her family is absorbing as much as her readers.
"They are always around me in the kitchen and therefore very familiar with it all. From time to time, they'll ask to help and so [the learning] happens naturally." Whether she is asking them to gather berries from the garden or simply standby for taste tests, the Thorisson children usually have a hand in the stunning finished products, and her husband is always there to document it.
Thorisson's cookbook and seventh child, named Audrey, both arrived just in time for the autumn, Thorisson's favorite time of year. Her book is arranged by season with special attention given to the bounties of fall, winter, spring and summer.
But "autumn is the most generous season of all," she says. "The mixture of harvest season, mushrooms, game ... these are the richest flavors. And the weather is still nice."
Her "harvest soup" boasts an especially rich array of fall components, like turnips, potatoes and a bouquet garni, a selection of herbs tied with string and dropped into the simmering broth. "Quail grilled over grapevines," which Thorisson marks in the book as the meal of her "last outdoor feast with friends" before the temperatures drop too low, is one of the more romantic entries, set in a French forest with baskets of food and bottles of wine. (You can find a similar recipe on her blog, for "Roast quails with vine leaves.")
With France's fall harvest blooming on the pages of her book and her blog, Thorisson again contemplates her own roots. Mainly, it's what it means to be French — something she says she doesn't fully consider herself to be, despite having a French mother and raising her own family in France.
"While I certainly have French roots and, at least up to a point, French sensibilities, I did grow up in Hong Kong which is an international environment," she says. "But I see that as a good thing. In a way it has helped me appreciate France even more. It's familiar enough to be comforting and foreign enough to be exciting."
In other words, never cliche. Though her book does state that her biggest fear is running out of butter.