Five French Favorites: Harriet Welty Rochefort

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Harriet Welty Rochefort is an author, speaker, freelance journalist, former professor of journalism at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po) and longtime resident of France.

Her latest book on the French, Joie de Vivre: Secrets of Wining, Dining, and Romancing Like the Frenchwas published in October 2012 by St. Martin’s Press. It was preceded by two  light-hearted but informative books, French Toast and French Fried, also published by St. Martin’s Press.

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A French-American dual citizen, Harriet lives with husband Philippe in the trendy east of Paris in a garden apartment with a tiny lawn just big enough to mow and a fig tree that has miraculously defied both Paris weather and pollution.

Harriet was kind enough to participate in a new monthly feature we’re calling “Five French Favorites.” Thanks so much, Harriet, for taking the time to share your expatriate expericence with us!

Here are Harriet’s Five French Favorites.

Harriet Welty Rochefort's French experience
l)  My favorite French paradox:

The French, I think, are the most paradoxical people in the world so to choose just one is hard. Can we go for three? The first one, the one everyone asks about the French, is  “how do they eat all that food and not get fat?  As I write in my chapter in Joie de Vivre on Small Is Good: Les Petits Plaisirs:  “A minuscule espresso, a petit piece of chocolate, a morsel of sharp cheese, a half-filled glass of wine: the French prefer tasting and sipping to gorging and guzzling. Small is good.”  They have mastered the art of savoring a small piece of delicious dark chocolate or an array of fabulous artisanal cheeses or a fabulous Bordeaux but they know when to stop.

 

The second paradox has to do with rudeness and politeness. It isn’t true that “the French are rude”. Some of the French are rude some of the time, some none of the time, like people everywhere. What’s so unusual and surprising about the French is that the same person can switch from rude to polite in a nanosecond. In Anglo-Saxon countries, we’re used to more of a divide: consistently polite people vs consistent curmudgeons.. We’re absolutely not used to someone who possesses  exquisite manners and at the same time can be extremely snippety or rude.   Here’s an example I give in my first book, French Toast.  One day I unwittingly took a parking place that an angry driver apparently thought was his – and did I ever hear about it.  I thought he was going to kill me!   The same night I attended a very chic party and by a rather horrid coincidence was introduced to a well-dressed man with impeccable manners who turned out to be…The Mean Driver! The kicker is very French: we each pretended we’d never seen each other before, exchanged a few words of polite conversation, and went our separate ways!

 

Then there’s the paradox of work and play.  The French truly exemplify a nation of people who work to live and who don’t  live to work. They have frequent and long paid vacations which they take joyously and with no guilt yet at the same time France is way high up on the list of the most productive countries in the world (I haven’t checked the statistics lately, but I think it’s 6th). Go figure! The uniqueness of France, as I write in Joie de Vivre, is that it’s a serious country whose inhabitants work hard and live the good life.

 

2)  My favorite “faux pas”:

Being too blunt!  The French have perfected the art of speaking in understatement or with allusions and nuances. They manage to get a message across without using the hammer.  I’m still very un-French in that I want to make sure everyone understands what I’m saying. They French consider laborious explanations an insult to their intelligence. (That’s why, by the way, people’s eyes glaze over when they ask you a question and you give them a long, detailed answer or they ask for instructions and you give them point by point rather than summing up the general idea in a few words).  I can’t tell you the number of times my French husband has stepped on my toes to prevent me from stating the explicit!

 

3)  My favorite French food:

I absolutely love French cheese.  Every time I return to France from a trip, I run to the cheese store and bring home an astonishing variety to put on a cheese plate:  Soumaintrain from Burgundy, a perfect Roquefort, not too sharp, not too mild, a creamy perfect raw milk camembert from Normandy.   My father-in-law is from Auvergne, that mountainous and volcanic central region of France that produces the St. Nectaire I so adore, not to mention Cantal, one of the oldest cheeses in France,  Salers, bleu d’Auvergne, a mild blue with true character, and the blue-veined Fourme d’Ambert, to name but a few.  I also love the dome-shaped Gaperon that’s flavored with cracked peppercorns and garlic. What I love in France, though, is that I need to qualify the previous by saying “when they’re perfectly aged” because the process is so important.  When I go to my local fromager, he asks me how I want my chèvre or my camembert – which is a very different thing from picking up the same cheese presented in a refrigerated case in a supermarket.  As you see, I’m passionate about cheese and the art of producing it and keeping raw milk cheeses (which was threatened by EU legislation a few years ago).  Other than cheese, what do I like? I love all French food and love regional specialties. My mother-in-law is from the Périgord so in her house potatoes are made not with butter or oil but with goose fat.  Whenever my husband is hungry and wants to rustle up a quick dish, he sautées potatoes and onions in goose fat, a real treat.  We have a country place in Brittany where we feast on crêpes and cider.  In autumn I love to go down the wine road in Alsace amid the little gingerbread looking houses and taste the Rieslings, Tokays, and Gewurtzraminers…  I could go on and on but suffice it to say that one of the great advantages France has is the enormous variety of food and wine. And I love the idea that people spend time on their food and at the table rather than reaching in the fridge for whatever’s convenient.  I must admit that in my first days here though it was hard for me to sit still for the two or three hours we were “à table”!

Harriet Welty Rochefort's favorite French food

 

4) My favorite French film:

“Un Homme et Une Femme” de Claude Lelouch is the French film that changed my destiny. I saw it when at the University of Michigan and decided that France had to be the most romantic place on earth and I had to go there.  I didn’t decide I was going to marry a Frenchman but fate intervened and I did!  I love all those Claude Chabrol films about adulterous couples in small towns and their complicated relationships (so French!).  I liked “Amélie Poulain” because it was a breath of fresh air and Audrey Tatou is so adorable and I think the French loved it so much because they liked to think the world could be like that (filled with generosity and tenderness).

 

5) My favorite French “frolic”:

I love to get out of Paris and have succeeded in visiting every single one of the country’s 22 regions mainly because at one point I worked for a travel guide that sent me out to report on the various regions of France (talk about a dream job!). As I mentioned above, each region has its own regional specialties in food and drink and of course in scenery and local history. One recent frolic was a trip to Périgord with my husband where we feasted on truffes and liqueur de noix and confit de canard to our heart’s delight.  But frolics don’t have to be far away or food-based: I love to go to Fontainebleau or Versailles for little day trips and I’m perfectly happy in Paris strolling down the street admiring the architecture of this or that quartier.  You can walk and walk and then sit and sit for hours in a café.  What more could one ask for?  C’est la joie de vivre!

 

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