It’s the holidays, so you know what that means: ’tis the season for eating and drinking and generally overindulging! To that end, we’ve got a doozy of an interview for you in this week’s Chewing the Fat. Though we’re having a merry old time here in Vietnam slurping our way through piping hot bowls of fragrant pho and wandering around in sandals and t-shirts, I have to admit that the winter holidays are the one time during the year when I legitimately wish for snow and miss the comforts of home. Neither Tony nor I are ready to leave Asia just yet (will we ever be?), but if I could teleport out of this hemisphere just for one day of glorious gluttony it would probably be to France. Then I could feast on bread and cheese and wine to my heart’s/stomach’s delight! I would also gain about 10 lbs, but it would totally be worth it.
I haven’t learned to apparate just yet, so for today, I’m offering up the next best thing: an interview with Emily Monaco, a born-and-raised New Yorker who has been living in Paris since 2007. (Talk about living the good life, eh?) For the last six years, she has made a living from her joint love of food and history, offering walking — and tasting — tours of the city and contributing freelance to a number of travel and foodie publications, and even earned her masters degree in 19th century literature from the Sorbonne in 2013! Today, she extends her love of cooking and France to television journalism in Paris and blogs about her culinary adventures over at Tomato Kumato.
So pour yourself a mug of egg nog (or mulled wine if that’s more your speed… just make sure there’s a little something special in whatever you choose!) and read on as I grill this bona fide francophile about just how French ladies stay so slim, the magical properties of duck fat, the country’s food scene outside of Paris (it exists, I swear!), and so much more!
We’re a big fan of “foodcations”—on more than one occasion we’ve taken trips motivated solely by the desire to eat our way through our destination. Of all the places you have visited in your travels, if you were limited to only eating the food from one country, which place would you choose and why?
I have to preface this by saying that there are a lot of places I intend to visit solely for the food. But of the places that I’ve visited where I’d happily stay and eat until I burst, I’d have to say Mexico. I went to a resort with my family near Manzanillo, but on a few occasions, I took a small boat into the neighboring town and ate some of the best street tacos of my life. In the same town, I went to a restaurant and ate some very, very spicy shrimp — I think they were called devil’s shrimp — with tomato sauce and rice. Not to mention the margaritas and excellent tequila. I’d love the opportunity to explore even more of Mexico’s cuisine; it’s food that I’m certainly familiar with but not enough (yet!) to be making the sorts of dishes I tried and loved so very much at home. (Not to mention that I live in France, where you’d be hard-pressed to find a jalapeño)
And the flipside: of all the places you’ve visited, which country had your least favorite food? Why was that and were you surprised?
I was disappointed by some of the food I ate in a few very touristic cities — Barcelona and Rome come to mind — but I think that had more to do with my poor planning skills than anything else. I will say that I grew up eating Italian food and was very surprised by how little I liked the food I ate in Rome; it’s very different from what I ate growing up. I didn’t dislike it, but it was far from my favorite.
What’s the most exotic/adventurous edible you’ve sampled and what did you think about it?
I ate tripe once and wasn’t a big fan; it had little to do with flavor and a lot to do with texture. But I’ll try anything once… I’m not scared off easily. I ate haggis in Scotland and loved it.
Many travelers mention succumbing to McDonald’s or other fast food cravings while on the road… what is the guilty pleasure food that you indulge in when traveling?
While traveling, especially in Europe, I often find myself craving vegetables, especially on long trips. When eating in restaurants, there’s a lot of meat, cheese, butter, wine, etc… but very little green! There was a particularly memorable backpacking trip I took with two friends for five weeks, and about three weeks in, one of the girls and I had had enough, went to a grocery store in Bordeaux and bought bagged salad and plastic forks and had at it. For my next trip with a different group of friends, I was sure to always keep some apples and some bagged broccoli florets and hummus in the hostel fridge; my friends laughed at me, but they soon understood why!
Sometimes you don’t know a good thing until it’s gone! If there were one food from back home that you could eat RIGHT NOW, what would it be?
I only get one?!? I’m known for my requests for three things — half-sour pickles, kale and corn on the cob — whenever I return home. But I guess if I could only have one, it would be half-sours. I can get through a jar in a day, easy.
If you knew we were coming to visit you in your hometown (you can use Paris or your home back in the States), what would be the one food you would make sure we tried?
If you were coming to Paris, I’d want you to be sure to have a really good confit de canard. It’s something that a lot of French families make at home because it’s fairly easily available, but it’s even more delicious in a restaurant with a side of duck fat potatoes and a good glass (or several) of red wine.
One of the hardest things about living abroad in a country whose native language differs from your own is the little communication gaffs that occur along the way. You have been living in France for a while now and speak the language quite well, but do you have any stories of where you accidentally misordered, thinking you were getting one thing but wound up with another? Are there any ingredients that are run-of-the-mill in French cooking or feature in popular dishes that English speakers heading to France would be smart to learn in advance?
I wasn’t the person ordering, but on two separate occasions I’ve accidentally messed up when translating someone else’s order! The first one, I mistranslated tripe and told a friend it was a kind of white fish. Luckily, she ordered something else, so I didn’t have to face that particular mishap. I also once told an ex-boyfriend that he was ordering lamb in a restaurant. While it was true, it wasn’t the whole truth: the dish was rognons d’agneau, or lamb kidney. In general, the French are a lot more laissez-faire about offal and organ meats, so if that’s something that makes you squeamish, be sure to learn the words for them in advance, or simply say to your server, “Je ne préfère pas les abats ; est-ce que vous en avez sur la carte ?” (Which means: I don’t love organ meats. Do you have any on the menu?) so that you can spot them out and avoid them.
All this being said, a good ris de veau — veal sweetbread — is incredible! Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it!
In the North American media, there seems to be something of an obsession with France, particularly in terms of how their cooking is so rich and naughty, yet the population on the whole is still quite slender. In your opinion, is the French approach to food fundamentally different from that of North Americans? In what ways would you say the food cultures of France and the United States are the most disparate? Were there any similarities between the two that surprised you?
This is a question that I get a lot. I think that the North American trend of concentrating on French cooking is a double-edged sword. We’re looking for ways to bring the French way of life to America, but in seeking out simple elements instead of the entire philosophy, we’re kind of missing the point. Fad diets are not as much of a thing in France; a lot of women’s magazines will have “morning after party” breakfast suggestions or “week after vacation” menus. They pair the rich, hearty food they’re famous for with meals of moderation. They enjoy the food, the company and the ambiance of a good meal, but they know when to have a cup of coffee and a plain yogurt for breakfast to make up for all the calories they consumed in wine and pâté the night before. I also rarely see French people eating on the go, or even standing up. There’s an entire philosophy that revolves around enjoying your food and not eating just for the sake of eating. Snacking is not something that you see very often. I think that it’s this entire philosophy that makes the two food cultures so different. My French friends are far more likely to go the whole day without eating if they don’t have time to sit down as opposed to grabbing something on the go. I get far too hungry for that, but I like the philosophy of sitting down to eat.
As for similarities, I’d say most of them are more recent. Many of my French friends don’t really know how to cook and gravitate towards things like pasta and jarred pesto, which their parents never ate growing up; my French boyfriend’s mother grew up hating pasta because she associated it with the coquillettes her mother would make when one of the children was sick. Younger generations are moving towards a more American philosophy, with more on-the-go options and a lot more ready-made meals than their parents ever had. And the obesity statistics are increasing as well. Coincidence? Perhaps…
When most travelers think of France, they think of Paris. But France is actually a very diverse country with many different regions, each with different local specialities. What are some of cities or regions outside of the country’s capital that you think deserve bit more attention, and what are the can’t miss dishes worth seeking out if you’ve gone to the trouble to visit them?
When I first moved to France, I lived in the North, which is close to Belgium and, consequentially, a lot more famous for beer than for wine. There is a really delicious local stew called carbonnade made with beer that is great to try. It’s also home to my favorite cheese, Maroilles, which is very, very stinky but surprisingly not all that strong in flavor.
I also spent a lot of time in the south, near Perpignan, which is actually very heavily influenced by Catalan cuisine. There are a lot more spices in the local food than you’ll find anywhere else in Paris. A favorite is boles de picoulat, which are seasoned meatballs served with olives and white beans. Some versions have spices that we in the States tend to associate with autumn, like cloves and cinnamon.
There are lots of other regional specialties — too many to name them all — but if I had a general recommendation, it would be to try the local cheese. Every region has at least one regional cheese, and it can be very telling with regards to local agriculture. The Basque region has a lot of sheep’s milk cheese; Normandy is famous for its soft, runny cheeses like Camembert; the Loire has some really amazing goat cheese.
In the battle of the soft cheeses, which one wins (and why): Camembert or Brie?
Ooh… that’s tough! I’m actually usually the one reaching for Coulommiers, which is kind of halfway between both as far as flavor is concerned. I probably like the complexities of Camembert better, but it has a much stronger flavor, so if I’m making a sandwich, I usually choose Brie. Either way, I usually have a bit of both in my fridge. The only game-changer would be Normandy Camembert au Calva, which is Camembert soaked in calvados liqueur and then rolled in breadcrumbs. I’d take that over pretty much anything!
Bisous to Emily for taking the time to answer my questions so thoroughly that I now sit here drooling and lamenting the fact that despite colonization efforts by France, the only cheese to be found here in Ho Chi Minh City requires minimal refrigeration and features a laughing cow on the box… To that, I say Ba Humbug!
Like what you read here and want to be featured in a future installment of Chewing the Fat? Great! We’re always looking for new people to dish about dining with! You don’t have to be a long-term traveler, or even have your own blog to participate; all you need is a healthy appetite and an appreciation for food. Contact Us letting us know that you’re interested in taking part in this series, and we’ll get back to you with all the information you need to get started.