I was so thrilled to have the opportunity to interview positive psychologist Dr Ilona Boniwell for the book I’m writing. She has developed a set of Strengths Cards which are the practical equivalent of tarot and angel cards because you pick what really makes you light up and what you might like to develop, or where your potential lies. Of course it wasn’t long before I related the above to cooking. Food and how people eat is always on my mind. This formidable half-Latvian-half Russian woman who studied and lived in England for 15 years advises commercial companies, educational institutions and has helped the Government of Bhutan create a happiness-based public policy. Yet she revealed that learning to cook for the French since she married a French man a few years ago, has been a major challenge.
I hope you are as entertained and as inspired by her words as I was:
‘I used to feel very confident about cooking until I came to France. I thought I was very good at it. But this is where I realised I didn’t know how to cook at all. My husband in his very French fashion invites everybody for lunch at the weekend. I had to learn what it means in France when you invite people over, which in France you do all the time: you meet someone and say come for lunch next weekend.
‘First you have to produce a nice aperitif, but you can’t produce peanuts with this. You have to have a range of five to six little salads or little nibbles. And they have to be good. Then you have a starter. God forbid that you serve a simple home-made soup or smoked salmon. You do this, you are eliminated. Coming from England I thought that if I make a nice homemade soup like a parsnip curry soup with some bread rolls this would be nice. But in France you can’t do this. You can’t make basic, cheap food for guests. You can’t even serve the best smoked salmon because there is no skill in this, it requires no effort. Maybe you can get away with good smoked salmon as one of the nibbles with the aperitif, but definitely not as starter.
‘Whatever you present must require effort. The compliment is: How did you make it? So if you get the question “how did you make this?” that means you are succeeding. The main course has to be a very good dish, one that displays serious, cooking skills. An important requirement of French cuisine is that you have to be present the whole time with your guests, which means choosing something good that has been cooked in advance and can continue cooking whilst your guests are there. And this requires creativity. Oh, and preferably something unusual.
‘Then there are the cheeses and God forbid you buy these from the supermarket. You must have something a bit unusual that preferably only your fromagerie does. Dessert you are kind of allowed to buy. I’ve been to lunch with people who have served two starters (a risotto dish a pasta dish), and then two main courses (fish and meat), and then the sweetest most amazing homemade desserts. Yes, in France you prepare all weekend for your guests.
‘My husband didn’t know a woman might not know how to cook according to French standards, but he soon figured out this was me. I went into panic mode when we had people over. It was a disaster.
‘I gained confidence by first refusing to have people over for a while. I practised a lot on my husband. I cooked lots of things I thought I was fantastic at in England, but to a French man these were all so low key and not possible to serve to guests. In England for example I made casseroles, or seafood with a white sauce and some nice rice. My husband said: “No, you cannot serve these.” In France putting something in the oven is not enough. You have to learn how to cook properly; you have to know what to do with different cuts of meat, how to make the 7 hour lamb with different spices, you have to know the different types of couscous, all the ways to cook pork. Whatever you make has to be good. It’s absolutely unforgiveable to serve dry meat, and anything that is less than delicious. And of course there is the ritual of wine matching the wine to everything throughout the meal.
‘I now have a limited range of dishes that I do well and are acceptable. My husband is encouraging –but only on the basis of my successes. He will say something is very good if it is, and if not, he will say “that was rubbish”. Yes I do cry sometimes! The French are very critical and far from shy with their criticisms. If the meat is dry they will say so. Or they will say the meat isn’t good c’est pas grave. C’est pas grave it doesn’t matter –but they’ve said it’s not good!
‘It’s taken me a few years to gain confidence in cooking. It’s important, to gain confidence, that we focus on our accomplishments. So I’m telling everyone how I learnt to cook like the French ;)’