Culinary Adventures

Culinary Adventures

I’ve been away from France for almost two months, travelling in exotic and distant lands, primarily for work. Since my work – and my passion – is food, I taste and delve, looking for the simple, the authentic, the traditional wherever I go. My goal? To get to know the culture I am in as intimately as possible.

China was a revelation. Although I was often in large cities I did manage to make my way to a farm where I tasted a beautiful drink made with an infusion of lemon grass, a touch of sugar, and a hint of mint. On a blistering day, it seemed nothing could taste better and the minute I’m settled back on Rue Tatin, I’m going to make this and incorporate it into a dessert.

In the cities I tasted everything from pillowy, bean-filled pastries to a cook-it-yourself meal of lamb strips seared over coals then seasoned with cumin and hot peppers. I didn’t know, when I sat down at a street-side table where cars and motorcycles practically brushed my arm, that I would be cooking. Imagine my delight when a pot of coals was set on my table, and a big metal pan set atop it to get hot!

Travelling Far and Wide

Los Angeles is a haven of wonderful food. There my two favourite dishes were a cup of tofu soup I sipped while wandering the Studio City farmers’ market, and a plate of corn topped with cream, crumbled cheese, lime juice and cayenne pepper at Chinatown’s Homegirl Café.

In Bosnia, my favourite dish was potato “pita,” an astonishing pie made with paper-thin dough rolled around grated potatoes and onions, and coiled into a baking pan before being baked in a wood-burning oven. That doesn’t include the tahini ice cream I tasted, nor the gorgeous “peka” – a stew of veal and vegetables cooked for hours over an open fire.

Those culinary adventures fuelled my summer as I taught, wrote, transcribed recipes, and visited producers and cooks. I was astonished at so many things: the finesse and quality of the food I had in China; the taste of  boiled corn in Bosnia, where corn varieties still have flavour and not just “sweet”; the fun of food in Los Angeles, where cuisine is touched by every culture under the sun.

But oh, am I happy to be back in France! I’ve always maintained that the air here smells of butter, and I re-discovered this as I returned home. I inhaled, and there it was, that wonderful, golden scent.

The familiar scents continue. I’m taking a few days on the Côte d’Azur. The crowds have gone, leaving the locals to enjoy vegetables at their peak. At the market the air is redolent of garlic and basil, tomatoes hot from the sun and ripe melons. Peaches and nectarines lend their perfume, as do soft greengage plums. Celery is dark green and juicy; carrots are cracking-crisp; fennel couldn’t be better, and salad greens vie for space on the stands with that wonderful wild green, purslane.

I missed the abundance of colour and flavour while I was away. There is nothing I know of to rival it. Yes, there are markets everywhere – in China, I visited an open-air market in Beijing. Stashed near a high-rise, behind a corner in a huge courtyard, it was fascinating to see the crowds hover around a grinder churning out sesame butter; a vendor selling all manner of mushrooms; another with gorgeous long beans that curl over and around on themselves. I loved it, as much as I loved the market in Studio City, and the roadside stands of Bosnia.

But here it’s better. Perhaps I think that because it’s home. I will revel in the quality of produce and other ingredients in this dear country and I will incorporate the ideas I have gathered during my travels.

When I returned from China my suitcase was filled with different peppers I found in the markets there, many of them which pleasantly numb the tongue for a few minutes after eating. I’ll add these to several dishes, from first courses to desserts, to spice things up a bit!

From Los Angeles, I’ll remember that idea of corn and lime juice – it’s a heavenly combination. From Bosnia? Well, just yesterday I was walking down the street in Saint-Laurent- du-Var, and I passed a hand-written sign advertising farcies. Looking closer, I saw a tray of stuffed tomatoes and zucchini. I started when I saw them. I’ve had farcies and I knew they were indigenous to the Côte d’Azur. But I’d just spent two weeks in Bosnia eating almost exactly the same dish.

Eat It, Learn It, Teach It

It occurs to me that both the stuffed peppers of Bosnia and the farcies of Nice may have their origins in the same place. The Ottoman Empire, the French and the Austrians had their moments in Bosnia; among their influences, aside from a penchant for boiled coffee, was the idea of vegetables stuffed with a savoury blend of meat, rice and onions. Or perhaps these cultures discovered the idea in Bosnia and incorporated it into their own cuisines, transporting it with them as they filtered through Europe and down to the Côte d’Azur.

That is what I plan to do. I will incorporate ideas from my travels into my cooking, which I will then teach to others, as has been done throughout history. That is why in Normandy we are proud of our confiture de lait, a rich, caramel like spread that has its origins in Central America, but has become definitively Norman. That’s why we find pain d’épices, a dense, honey, rye and anise-seed cake-like bread, in Dijon and surrounding areas, because Genghis Khan fed his troops with a similar bread. That is, perhaps, why farcies are so important in Nice – because at some point in its history, someone who had touched either the Austria-Hungarian Empire, which in its turn had touched the Ottoman and French Empires – landed in Nice. This is the how the world, and its culinary treasures, works.

As I ruminate on how I’m going to adapt the ideas in my head, I want to leave you with two simple recipes. One is for eggplant garnished with garlic, lemon zest and parsley, an idea that combines the produce here with the influence of Italy; and another for zucchini with their flowers attached, braised in a garlic broth, which is of my own making. Both dishes are informed by my travels. Each is reflective of the season and will, I hope, delight you!

Braised Zucchini with their Blossoms

16 small zucchini with their blossoms attached

4 cloves garlic

Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 cup basil leaves

1. Carefully rinse the zucchini. Remove the pistil from each flower.

2. Place 2 tablespoons olive oil and the garlic cloves in a large pan over medium heat. When the garlic cloves are sizzling, place the zucchini in a single layer in the pan, and cook, covered, until the zucchini are golden, 3-4 minutes. Turn the zucchini and cook until they are slightly golden on all sides, then add 1/2 cup water to the pan. Season generously with salt and pepper, cover, and cook until the zucchini are tender through but not mushy, 10 to 15 minutes.

3. Remove the cover, increase the heat to medium-high, and continue cooking until all the water has evaporated, shaking the pan occasionally to be sure the zucchini don’t stick to the bottom, an additional 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and serve either hot or at room temperature.

4. Right before serving, scissor cut the basil leaves over the zucchini, and serve.

Roasted Eggplant

This is a simple, end-of-summer preparation of eggplant that’s guaranteed to please. Use very firm, small eggplant for this dish. If they are fresh, they won’t need salting before cooking, because they won’t be bitter. Makes six side-dish servings.

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

6 small eggplant, rinsed

Fine sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 cup mixed fresh basil and parsley

The zest from 1 lemon

1 large clove garlic

1. Heat 3 tablespoons oil ina large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the eggplant and sear on all sides, which will take about 6 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium, season the eggplant generously with salt and pepper, cover, and coo until the eggplant are tender through, 25 to 30 minutes. You will need to turn the eggplant frequently and press down on them gently as they cook so that, eventually, they weill be fanned out, and also to be sure that they don’t burn.

2. When the eggplant is almost cooked, mince the basil, parsley, lemon zest and garlic together.

3. When the eggplant is cooked, transfer them to a serving platter. Sprinkle with the herb mixture, then drizzle with any oil remaining in the pan, and the additional oil as well. Serve either hot or at room temperature.*

*If you plan to serve at room temperature, wait to mince the herbs and zest together until right before serving OR, place the minced herbs and zest in a bowl and cover with oil, then spoon this over the eggplant.


SUSAN HERRMANN LOOMIS teaches cooking classes in Normandy and Paris ( Find her cookbooks online in the France Today bookstore.

Originally published in the October-November 2013 issue of France Today



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  • Mikki
    2014-03-28 14:03:29
    Lovely article! I haven't traveled as much but I certainly have noticed the smells of food in certain cities, bread in Italian cities and would someone tell me what the unusual fragrance is in Barcelona? Both my sister in law and I noticed it the moment we stepped out of the airport and all over the city. Is it the jamon or a certain spice/herb that they cook with? Intoxicating! I am going to Paris soon and will smell the butter!