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  • Aine Dougherty

Week Eighteen in France: Baklava and brandade de morue


A wonderful Mediterranean meal in a trendy locale.
The view from the Vauban Dam in Strasbourg.

18/01/2020: I woke up physically and mentally exhausted, but I am so, so glad that I pushed myself to be social and take the train to Strasbourg to meet up with my friend A., who is currently au pairing in Paris and was visiting Alsace for the weekend. We began with a stunning panoramic view of Petite France from the historic Vauban Dam at the edge of the island. Then, we made our way to the Musée d'art moderne et contemporain. Set in a stunning glass building, this modern art museum was one of the best I've seen. We saw everything from Picassos to Jesus painted on the inside of a beaver's pelt, and we even got to try our own hand at drawing in a very well-done interactive exhibit. After an hour and a half spent exploring the space, we headed to a fun bar in town to meet up with my fellow Fulbrighter, G. I started with a refreshing kir crémant with crème de pêche and finished with the elusive Monaco, a cocktail I've always wanted to try – beer mixed with bright red grenadine syrup.


Next up, dinner. Still no Alsatian food, even though we were in the capital of Alsace – they eat quite a bit of meat around here, so to accommodate my vegetarian friend and her vegan travel buddy, I decided on a fairly new and decidedly trendy Mediterranean restaurant in Petite France called Tzatzi. I couldn't hide my excitement at the funky wallpaper, pink bar, gold accents and white and blue-tiled walls (my friends made fun of me). Luckily, the meal was as amazing as the ambiance. We shared pita, hummus with preserved lemon, falafel, beef and lamb keftas, fried chicken, and roasted cauliflower while I sipped on my cocktail, a sparkling Greko Spritz with mastiha (my favorite Greek liquor) and pink grapefruit. We shared a half-liter of a rhubarb-forward Côtes de Gascogne white and finished with honeyed baklava before saying our goodbyes and heading our separate ways. It was lovely to share mezze and break bread with a group of friends connected by (almost) seven degrees of separation – I knew G. and A., A. knew her travel buddy P., G. knew her boyfriend S., and, somehow, good food brought us all together.



19/01/2020: C'est l'heure de Sunday lunch, this time at J.'s dad's house with the whole family. In between laughing at old family photos, we devoured two casserole dishes of brandade de morue, a luxurious Portuguese concoction made of salted cod, crispy potatoes, cream and parsley. I've been hearing about this dish from J. for ages, and it did not disappoint. Neither did the buttery, melt-in-your-mouth cookies from the sweet Alsatian neighbor that we had with coffee after the meal. (Apparently, she likes to make them at 3 a.m. and uses a sausage-filling machine to get their long, flat shape. Interesting.) I settled down for a food coma nap afterwards, eyes closed and content. I could get used to this.


Glamour shot of the workplace.

20/01/2020: After a long Monday at school working with students and helping them prepare for the bac, the big, scary test at the end of the school year, I headed to the supermarket to pick up some essentials for the week. When I finally got home at 7 p.m., I cooked up some bowtie pasta and chicken and ate it with pesto rosso and lots of parm. And don't worry, for all those who are worried about my health, I ate some greens too (with olive oil, vinegar and a hefty grind of black pepper on top). I'm feeling more comfortable and confident at the school and in my routine every day. The evening ended with a calming cup of English breakfast tea and admiring Liam Neeson's badassery in Taken.


21/01/2020: My equally long Tuesday started off on a high note: a croissant and Bonne Maman redcurrant and raspberry jam from the box of minis that my friend I. got me for Secret Santa. I need to find a good boulangerie nearby because, sadly, the slightly limp viennoiseries from my (albeit high quality) supermarket just aren't cutting it anymore, even with a quick trip in the toaster oven. I do enjoy all the butter that clearly went into them, though. But who among us wouldn't? Meanwhile, the temperatures are dropping mercilessly, so when I got home, I collapsed in front of a crackling fire downstairs with T., E. and the dogs. They invited me to have dinner with them, and again, I gratefully accepted – especially because they were eating one of my (and France's) favorite dishes: tagine! The couscous was fluffy, the lamb fell apart on my fork, the broth-braised vegetables were tender à mort and it all went perfectly with a (cheeky) glass of Lambrusco.


22/01/2020: Thick fog and biting cold temps do not a pleasant morning make, especially when I have to wake up at 7 a.m. Luckily, after my first class of the day I got to settle in and stay cozy in Le Nid for the whole afternoon, snacking on lemon-poppyseed cake, messing around on the computer, planning lessons, writing postcards and working on some administrative stuff, like starting the process to renew my teaching contract for next year (!). The excitement is real.



23/01/2020: I got to host my third Pop-Up Stories workshop with a class of premières this morning – and I couldn't be prouder. Some of them are still searching for inspiration, but others are really motivated and creative, with great ideas to boot. Today, we worked on creating outlines, peer editing and stage presence, and the momentum is so reassuring and encouraging. After classes, I stopped by the post office to mail some letters and embarrass myself before heading to Le Nid again for a quick café au lait and homemade tiramisu. It was impossibly creamy, but the cake still held its texture, and the thick dusting of (appropriately chocolatey, not bitter) cocoa powder on top took my goûter to another level. I tasted one bite and knew it was going to be a great weekend.


The last time I had a similarly revelatory tiramisu, I was eating lunch by myself in Paris and feeling impossibly lonely – this time, I was still eating alone, but I couldn't feel more surrounded by love and friendship here in Mulhouse.

 

Today's second revelation was related. In America, we're constantly told to always be bettering ourselves, to always be searching for our next opportunity, to never be still no matter what this mad dash to an unknown finish line does to our bodies, our minds, our hearts. In France, while I'm still learning and growing every single day, I finally feel like I can breathe. I feel like I can allow myself to be happy and not kick myself for letting life slow down a little bit – and I need to grant myself the serenity to bask in this feeling and quiet my stress and anxiety for the future.


If something feels right, why try to change it? Let life take me where I didn't even know I needed to go.

 

24/01/2020: Anyway, back to food. No plans on a Friday means helping J. discover the wonders of a good old American staple – mac n' cheese. I made my silky smooth roux, added generous helpings of cheddar and Emmental, mixed in the pasta, sprinkled parm on top and baked it until the top layer was crunchy and golden brown (just how I like it). Then, I brought my creation downstairs for dinner with the family, some of their friends and my flatmate S., featuring my mac n' cheese (which was a hit despite being a touch dry), duck legs, roasted vegetables, choucroute, cauliflower and chickpea curry, and a delicious, fudgy chocolate cake for dessert. I knew this was going to be a good weekend. And it's only just begun!

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