mastering_the_art_of_french_eatingI was making a quiche, rubbing butter and flour between my fingertips, and thinking about the French immersion course I took before I moved to Paris, about the lessons and my classmates, and a poem that we learned by heart. It’s a slight poem, and mournful. I can still recite the words.

Chanson d’Automne de Paul Verlaine

Les sanglots longs
des violons
de l’automne
blessent mon coeur
d’une langueur
monotone.

Tout suffocant
et blême, quand
sonne l’heure
je me souviens
des jours anciens
et je pleure

Et je m’en vais
au vent mauvais
qui m’emporte
decà, delà
pareil à la
feuille morte

(Translation: The long sobs of autumn’s violins wound my heart with a dreary lethargy.

All stifled and lifeless, when the hour strikes I remember days gone by and I weep.

And so I go on an ill wind, which carries me here and there like a dead leaf.)

Pretty mournful, right?

The cadence of Paul Verlaine’s autumn song swam in my head as I squeezed water from defrosted spinach, and chopped some steamed broccoli, and whisked together eggs, milk, and cheese. When the quiche was in the oven, I sat down at my computer and Googled “Chanson d’Automne.” And I made a discovery.

During World War II, the BBC and the French Resistance developed a code to signal the start of Operation Overlord, aka D-Day—and they used the first three lines of Chanson d’Automne as an alert. When repeated twice—“Les sanglots longs/ des violons/ de l’automne”—meant that operations would start within two weeks. The lines were broadcast on June 1, 1944. When the poem’s next three lines were transmitted twice—“Blessent mon coeur/ d’une langueur/ monotone”—it signaled that the action would take place within 48 hours and that the Resistance should begin sabotage operations. These lines were broadcast on June 5, 1944.

It turns out that Paul Verlaine’s despondent poem—part of an 1866 series that he oh-so-cheerfully entitled Paysages Tristes, or “sad landscapes”—was actually a symbol of hope.

I leave you with a recipe for quiche and the wish that cooking it may bring you many insightful, heartening, and inspiring contemplations.

quiche_ mastering_the_art_of_french_eatingSpinach and cheese quiche

1 recipe pâte brisée dough
1 lb frozen chopped spinach
1 cup grated cheese (Comté, Gruyère)
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/2 cups milk or cream
Salt and pepper

With clean cool hands and a floured rolling pin, roll out the dough on a floured surface and fit it into a 22-cm/10-inch tart pan. Prick the bottom and sides with a fork. Chill for one hour (allegedly this reduces the shrinking). Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Bake the tart crust until golden brown, about 15-20 minutes. Remove from oven.

While the shell is baking, defrost the spinach and squeeze it dry (I usually use my bare hands. It’s very satisfying). Combine with the milk, cheese, and beaten eggs. Season well. Pour the egg mixture into the prepared crust. Bake in the center of the oven for 30 minutes, or until the quiche is puffed, set, and lightly golden.


mastering_the_art_of_french_eatingFor me, the only thing better than eating in Paris is reading in Paris. Happily for us Anglophones, the City of Light offers a bevy of quirky, quaint, and eclectic English-language bookshops, a veritable book lover’s feast. But if you’re anything like me, shopping makes you hungry. Here, then, are some of my favorite bookstores, paired with a nearby restaurant, so you can read and snack to your heart’s content.

The Abbey Bookshop (29 rue de la Parcheminerie) — The small space overflows with new and used books, and the author reading events sometimes spill over into the small pedestrian street outside with people sipping wine and chatting about literature late into the night. Owner Brian Spence offers astute reading suggestions and is wonderfully supportive of local writers. Food tip: I love the chilled soju cocktails and Japanese tapas at Lengué (31 rue de la Parchemnierie), the restaurant next door.

shakespeare & coGalignani (224 rue du Rivoli) — This is an elegant grande dame of Paris, with dark wood paneling and a polished calm. The store offers a solid assortment of photo books, English-language guides on France, as well as gorgeous art books. Food tip: After browsing here, continue your decadent tour with a visit to the luxurious tea room, Angelina (226 rue du Rivoli), for a pot of their famously thick hot chocolate.

Shakespeare & Co (37 rue de la Bûcherie) — A Parisian landmark for book-lovers, this rambling shop on the Left Bank hardly needs an introduction. A visit here is part shopping expedition, part pilgrimage to honor the men and women of letters who once browsed the shelves. The young and penniless still lend a hand in the store in exchange for lodging—they’re called Tumbleweeds. Food tip: After a visit to Shakespeare & Co.’s narrow, crowded, claustrophobia-inducing aisles a brisk walk is in order. I suggest strolling across the Seine to the Ile St-Louis and getting an ice cream from Berthillon (31 Ile St-Louis). My favorite flavor is black currant sorbet.

WH Smith (248 rue du Rivoli) — The bright and bustling British chain stocks the latest in UK and US bestsellers, and also offers a wide selection of English-language magazines and newspapers. I’m also fond of the British snacks (like Twiglets, or salt and vinegar crisps) on offer on the second floor. Food tip: I like to buy a bag of chips and eat them in the Jardin des Tuileries, located just across the street.

The American Library in Paris (10 rue du Général Camou) — Though this is a membership library—not a bookstore—there are wonderful, free author events here every Wednesday evening (full disclosure: I used to organize them). Recent speakers have included Diane Johnson, Lionel Shriver, and Richard Russo. Food tip: Les Deux Abeilles (189 rue de l’Université) is a lovely tearoom with delicious quiche and a chocolate-almond cake that I dream about.

(Photo credit: Kristin Espinasse)


mastering_the_art_of_french_eatingThe first time I ever ate savory cake, I was at a cocktail party in Provence. I had just completed a seven-week French immersion program and I was eager to test out my brand new language skills. Still, when I found myself being introduced to the village mayor, my heart started to pound with nerves.

The mayor had a bald head, intelligent eyes, and was missing a finger from a hunting accident. He was interested in my husband’s job as a diplomat, and in the various countries we had called home. “Did you enjoy living in Beijing?” he asked in French.

“It was a wonderful experience, but sometimes challenging,” I said. “La ville est très salée.” Everyone within earshot laughed uproariously. It took me a minute, but eventually I realized that somehow in my fluster, I had confused “sale”—which means dirty—with “salée,” or salty.

Perhaps I was distracted by the delicious cake salé, or savory cake, on offer at the party, a booze-soaked loaf studded with bits of ham and Gruyère cheese. I had “salé” on the mind you might say.

Years have passed since that party, my French has improved considerably, and I’ve learned how to make my own savory cake, one with walnuts and Roquefort cheese that whips up quickly for a lovely lunch or drinks party (see recipe below). Every time I make it, I think of that balmy summer evening and my funny French language gaffe—and though I’ve made plenty of linguistic errors since then, I’ve never confused those two words again.

Savory cake with roquefort and walnuts/
Cake au Roquefort  mastering_the_art_of_french_eating_post_1et aux noix

3 eggs
150 grams flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
Scant 1/2 cup sunflower seed oil
1/2 cup milk
100 grams Gruyère, grated
150 grams Roquefort (or domestic blue cheese)
80 grams walnuts, toasted and chopped
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 180ºC. Butter and flour a loaf pan.

In a large bowl, mix the eggs with the flour and baking powder. Add the oil and milk slowly, alternating between the two. Stir in the grated Gruyère and season lightly (remember, the cheeses are very salty). Crumble the roquefort into the batter and add the nuts. Stir gently to combine.

Transfer the batter into your prepared loaf pan and bake for 40 minutes or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.