The Secret French Recipes of Sophie Valroux by Samantha Vérant

Samantha Vérant has the recipe for the perfect book: a wealthy French grandmother, her country chateau and an ambitious young chef on the run from recent disgrace at a top-tier restaurant in New York.

As one of my own favorite chefs says, you need a combination of tastes and textures to satisfy the palette: sweet, bitter, sour, salty, smooth. The chef strives to strike the right balance. That’s just what Samantha Vérant has done with this book — it’s a bit sweet, a bit salty, leading off with a sense of loss and bitterness that needs to be brought back into balance. As Jacques Pépin said, “cooking is the art of adjustment.” What better place for Sophie to do that than a beautiful sun-drenched town in Southwestern France?

Sophie’s favorite memories were the summers she spent with her Grandmère Odette at her crumbling old chateau along the Tarn River. Sophie spent her idyllic time outdoors, chasing geese and rabbits, catching frogs, picking cherries, climbing trees and enjoying Sunday picnics with local villagers. And then, of course, there were Grandmère’s mouthwatering recipes, kept in her secret notebook: from clafoutis (a Provençal cherry tart) to duck fat french fries (a standard in Southwest France) to duck à l’orange and boeuf bourguignon.

Sophie returns to her grandmother’s chateau years later, emotionally shattered after a colleague’s betrayal destroys her career as an up-and-coming New York chef. Sophie is surprised to see that her Grandmère has renovated the chateau and transformed it into an award-winning restaurant and inn. Grandmère’s health is fading and she hopes that her granddaughter will carry on her legacy in France, but Sophie can’t let go of her ambition to seek redemption in New York. Sophie and Grandmère have a lot of work to do to make up for years of misunderstanding caused by Sophie’s troubled mother. But most of all, Sophie’s got to get her groove back. And not just in the kitchen (wink, wink.)

This book is a delight for foodies, Francophiles and dreamy travelers. Try out some of the recipes in the back and picture yourself tasting some of those sweet and tart black cherries on the terrace of Grandmère’s lovely chateau.

You can follow Samantha Vérant on Twitter and Instagram as @samantha_verant, where she posts lovely photos of her life and her cooking adventures as am American living in Southwestern France.

Flirting with French

flirting with french

I just fell in love with a new book: Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me, and Nearly Broke My Heart by William Alexander (Algonquin US paperback 2014). People might raise an eyebrow when I say that a book about learning French is hilarious, but it really is text-your-friends-and-family-funny-quotes-from-the-book funny. I’m spreading the word with all of my friends in my Alliance Française classes. They’re going to love it.

William Alexander is a middle-aged American guy, who like so many of us, has a giant crush on France. He hopes to (finally) learn French, even though he is well aware that at age 57, he is on the downward slope of the cognitive and learning curve. He tells us his story with a light and snarky humility, laughing at himself so we can too. Over the course of a year, we follow Alexander as he blunders alongs on his learning challenge, only to find him facing an even greater health challenge. Through it all, Alexander’s love of France and his enthusiasm for accomplishing an elusive goal will charm and seduce you too.

So for my fellow Francophone-wannabes out there who are tormented by their own efforts to (finally) learn French, here are some delightful tidbits from the book.

The French . . . always tangle up everything to that degree that when you start into a sentence you never know whether you are going to come out alive or not.” –Mark Twain

Because it is female and lays eggs, a chicken is masculine.” –David Sedaris

” ‘Je suis a stranger here,’ I said in flawless French. ‘Je veux aller to le best hotel dans le town.’ ” –F. Scott Fitzgerald

Alexander has delightful three-page rant about the way the French count past sixty. Finally! Someone who shares my frustration! How many times have I tried to explain to my French teachers how silly it is that the number eighty in French is “four-twenty.” They say, “it’s just the number for eighty.” And I say, “No, it’s multiplication!” And then they look at me like I’m the crazy one. Not Alexander. He’s on our side.

And then. And then! A whole chapter on gendered nouns. Thank you! Here’s a fun list that demonstrates just how nonsensical the whole system is: a vagina and a woman’s breast are both masculine, while a beard, a screw and a necktie are all feminine. Hens are females, roosters male, and chickens (as David Sedaris knows well) are male. Alexander traces the history of gendered nouns, explaining how they came to be abandoned in the English language (the only one of the entire Indo-European family of languages to do so, believe it or not.) Apparently, we have the English peasants to thank: “Life was too short and too hard for a peasant to worry about how to address the bloody cow.

I’ve always been curious about those Immersion French programs you read about in the back of French magazines, and Alexander actually went to one. He went for two intense weeks at Millefeuille Provence, a bain linguistic (linguistic bath) in southern France. His conclusion? “The immersion approach is assumed by everyone in the field to be the best way to learn a language, and it probably is, but there’s a fine line between immersion and drowning.” So maybe that’s not the panacea for our French language acquisition either!

Every French student will be able to relate to Alexander when he describes his self-consciousness speaking French to a Frenchman. As Alexander says:

The real problem for Americans and Brits, according to some linguists, is that the phonemes of French, with its rolled r’s and nasal intonations, sound so silly to us that when we pronounce them properly we feel like we’re doing an Inspector Clouseau parody, so we shy away from the correct pronunciation.

I know exactly what he means. I call it the “A-hole American Tourist” syndrome, when we come back to the States and try to keep using our hard-won French accents, calling Paris “Paree” and the croissants “cwahssahn” — until our friends and family all roll their eyeballs and beg us to stop. Pas plus!

But still, against the odds, despite the frustration, and in the face of linguists who insist it is just not possible (c’est impossible!) to become fluent in another language post-childhood, we keep learning and trying and practicing our French. And thanks to William Alexander, we are not alone. And we’re laughing along the way. Pas mal, pas mal.


Flirting With French: Highly recommended


For Further Reading: (Only kidding a little bit. Don’t know what I’d do without it.)












–The American Girls Club in Paris, by Margie White