- Posted August 21, 2014 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Who taught you to love food?
Thank you Mamie - Merci Mamie
Once upon a time, in a tiny village in Normandy, France there was a small farm run by Mamie, my rough and rustic grandma and her husband. Why did I single out Mamie for this story? Because, she took care of her grand-children for a couple of years and without us (and her) being aware of it, she taught me a lot about the basics of food as I practiced them all along my professional life as a professional chef and even to this day.
At the time, I was about 8 years old and the only thing I knew about food was that it was right there in front of me on her rough farm table where she put it for us to eat. In the beginning, I didn’t know where it came from but I was about to learn very quickly.
Now, there was nothing fancy about her farm. It was tiny by today’s standards. It did not have in-house plumbing and toilets (the trip to the outhouse in the middle of the night was an adventure), no central heating and certainly no air conditioning. And yet, we were happy. Her little farm was (mostly) self-sufficient. She had her own “jardin potager” (kitchen garden) which she grew with care without any chemical pesticides. Mind you it was not a pretty flower garden. It was for food only. Mamie was all about been practical. She also raised and killed her own rabbits and chicken for food and eggs. Once in a while, she would trade a chicken for one of those 2 kilos “pain de champagne” (country-style bread) she would stretch for a whole week. The one memory I have of that bread is that we were never allowed to eat it fresh. We ate it only “rassis” (stale). That way, she made sure we were not tempted to eat too much of it. That was not economical.
Although we knew she loved us, she was no sweet old lady like you can find in the storybooks. She was a “paysanne”, rough and tough with large hands reddened by the added laundry she did by hand for the rich folks for extra spending money. The last thing you wanted as a kid was to have her pull on your ears or give you a spanking. You would remembered that for a long time, believe me, and learned not to repeat the same mistake twice.
During spring or summer, she would send me to the garden with instructions, “Go pick a salad, a couple of tomatoes, a few radishes and some herbs”. I was taught how to pick the veggies at the peak of freshness. Sometimes a few leaves were eaten by our miscreant “escargots ou limaces” (snails or slugs) that loved her lettuce. Whatever the local fauna needed to live on by stealing a little bit of food here and there from her, birds, bugs, rabbits and other local rascals was what she called “nature’s take”. She showed me how to clean and drain the salad with a “panier a salade” (salad strainer), wash the tomatoes and trim the radishes. That was my job. I had to earn my keep. No lazy bum around that farm.
She grew as much fresh food as possible during the growing month and jarred the excess for the winter. So, even though we were not allowed to get close to the large boiling pots of water used to sterilize the jars, we were expected to pull the strings off “haricots verts”, clean and pit the few fruits we had: apricots, peaches and a few strawberries to help prepare jams and jellies for the long cold season. There was a lot of work to be done and we were not given breaks very often during canning season. I probably learned my work ethics from her way back then already. No slacking was put up with around her farm. We had to survive on our limited resources. My grandpa did not earn a lot of money. He was a taciturn man whose lungs were damaged during World War I and the only job he could find was to be a night guard at a nearby factory. He worked all night and slept most of the day. We were told to go play far away from the house or stay very quiet in the kitchen if it rained while he was resting.
Although Mamie’s food was no “cuisine”, it was solid poor folks peasant food. All of it was fresh, solid, non-processed and home-made. She never really taught me how to cook but I was expected to help with some of the kitchen duties and chores. Lesson learned. We had fresh food from the garden with some local cheese and “charcuterie” during growing season and lots of soups and stews with “pain rassis” (stale bread) during the cold winter days. She never baked. We did not have an oven. No dessert, no fruits unless they were in season or canned. She kept the best ones for canning. We ate the not so perfect ones. Once a year only, we received one orange as a Christmas gift. She was using her rustic wood-fired heated stove for cooking and even used it to heat water for our weekly bath taken in a large laundry tub place in the middle of the kitchen, the only room in the house that was heated by our fireplace. No central heating and no running hot water in those days. And you know what? Not only we survived, all of us turned out to be strong and healthy kids.
So, what did I learn from Mamie? I realized much later that good, healthy food did not have to be fancy. It was certainly not processed. There was no chemicals sprayed on her garden so her food was untainted by poisons in pesticides and we had learned that nature taking its share was the natural way of things. Our fruits and veggies may not have been perfect and shiny but they sure tasted great. Once in a while, when I knew she was not watching (remember those large hands?), I would steal a strawberry still warm from the sun and savor its warm juices while pretending to do my job and it was great! A little guilty pleasure was added to the yummy strawberry flavor and it made it taste even better.
All of that rambling on to say, “Thank you Mamie for teaching me to appreciate real food”.
A Votre Sante – Chef Alain Braux