I first visited the south of France when I was 18 and I could tell right away that the South of France knew something I didn’t.
When the train from Paris pulled into the station, I tossed my pack on my back and wandered off to a sleepy Sunday afternoon in the seaside town of Cassis. Sundays, especially back then, were days off in France. Sure, you’d find the lights on at a café or two, with couples and families sharing a carafe of wine, but for the most part, towns are shuttered and quiet. Sundays are considered a day to spend with people you care about the most, take a walk in the park, play some pétanque, and watch the tide come in.
I stayed at an old provincial mas five miles outside of town. At the time, I had as many spare dollars as Cassis had Sunday bus routes; which is to say, I took a long walk up the hill and into the countryside rather than hail a cab. Five beautiful but hard-fought miles later, I checked in to the ivy-covered farmhouse. The same fleur-de-lys tile from the 1800s was underfoot in the entrance hall.
One thing missing though was food. After the uphill schlep, I could barely muster “je cherche un restaurant” to the propriétaire, only to be told that it was Sunday, nothing was open. No boulangerie or patisserie, no brasserie… no café. Nothing at all except, he told me, down the road aways, there was a couple and their three daughters who had a pizza oven in their backyard. They made pizzas every Sunday. I could try there, if I wanted, he shrugged.
A few more miles added to my day of walking and sure enough, I found the only backyard with signs of life. It seemed that the entire village was already there, lounging around tables and devouring slice after slice. They’d sometimes sing, other times fall silent. The old couple in the corner would kiss and the guy in plaid would bang on his table, shouting to his friend across the way. The father threw more wood on the brick oven. The daughters refilled wine bottles as they emptied and everyone passed Pastis from table to table. The family kept a constant barrage of pizzas and cheese plates on the tables as the local fisherman and cheese monger welcomed the American kid, taught him the lyrics to La Marseillaise (wait, is your national anthem seriously all about blood in the streets?), and made sure his glass was never empty.
The whole neighborhood gathered in one spot every Sunday just to be together.
That sense of community is something I’ve sought out ever since. It’s one of the foundations of Moveable Feast: good people around a big table. These past four years of long tables, white dinners, empty bottles of wine, and big ideas have been the most gratifying moments of my life.
For now, our table is just the three of us, Laura and I cheersing our wine and Misa throwing her food to the dog from her highchair. We are counting down the days until we can all be at a table again together (even if we have no idea how long that countdown will be.) It’s been a joy to see the responses to our little quarantine survival tips and know that every message received makes us feel like the empty chairs at our table aren’t so empty. We miss you guys.
So with that, I thought I’d share what’s on our table tonight. It was a staple during my years in France and you can probably make it with what you already have in your fridge, given our collective state of stockedupedness. And stay tuned tomorrow– we have a roundup of recipes (because we told you to bake bread!), reading lists (because we told you to read paper!), and other recommendations (the best sheets for naptime and the best candles for morning time) to round out our quarantine tips coming your way as our final installment.
Prep time: 30 or so minutes
Cooking time: 1 hour
5 cloves of garlic
1 ⅔ cups (400ml) whole milk
1 ⅔ cups (400ml) cream
A few sprinkles of ground nutmeg
2.5 pounds potatoes
2 tablespoons of butter
Salt and peppa
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Peel a couple garlic cloves and cut them in half and then rub down your gratin dish with the garlic. I used a cast iron pot, but anything with some depth, minimum about, 3 inches will get the job done.
Chop up all the garlic and add it to a saucepan with the milk and cream. Sprinkle on your nutmeg. Add a pinch of salt, stir it up, and bring it to just about a boil.
Peel, wash, and wipe the potatoes dry (when do we really have enough time to peel 2.5 pounds of potatoes on a random weeknight? Sheltering in place has some upsides). I used a mandolin but slice your potatoes as thin as you can get them. I’ve heard 1/10th of an inch is the goal but I’ve never broken out a ruler in the kitchen.
Arrange your potato slices around the dish, slightly overlapping with each other. After each layer, add some salt and pepper. Pour the milk-cream-garlic mix over the potatoes.
Cut your butter into thin slices and distribute it over the top of your now delightful looking dish. Stick it in your preheated oven for an hour. Take it out once the top is nicely golden.
Eat it by yourself or with someone you like a lot.
2 regional variations for your Frenchy knowledge
– Add a grated cheese like Gruyère in between each layer and your Gratin Dauphinois will become a Gratin Savoyard. Voilà.
– Take a pound of porcini mushrooms, clean ‘em up and remove the stems. Slice the ‘shrooms and sauté them with some butter and chopped garlic. Add this mix inbetween potatoes layers and you now have Gratin Bordeaux. What a time to be alive.