Nuts, actual nuts, aren’t necessarily as hilarious as I found my two kids in the below entry, but they’re compelling, mostly because of their versatility. There are few ingredients that can be used and enjoyed in so many ways. I always have freshly toasted mixed nuts on the island in the kitchen, just in case someone needs a quick pick-me-up. Peanut butter is a given; a mix of ground nuts and spices are too, to insert into just about any dish you can imagine.
The French use nuts in cooking a lot, mostly almonds and walnuts, because the two are produced here in vast quantities. As in all French regional cooking, the local product goes into the local fare. That’s why you find walnuts everywhere in and around Grenoble and in the Dordogne, and almonds in Provence. Hazelnuts make their showing too. Peanuts and cashews are beloved as apéritifs, and a dessert wouldn’t be a dessert without an almond or hazelnut, it seems.
As I was testing recipes for Nuts in the Kitchen, I naturally fed them to my friends. I have an intimate circle that is quite international, ranging from Swedes to Roumanians, Syrians to Algerians and, of course, French. Many of them were my guides as I researched Nuts in the Kitchen, and you’ll meet some of them in the book. They were all lavish in their praise of the recipes, and more than eager to get copies so they could recreate them at home.
My wine group, which meets once a month is, on the other hand, a very French assembly. They, too, tried many of the recipes during the nearly two years I worked on the book. All the French I know are very wary when presented with food they don’t know and have never seen. Since so many of the dishes in the book come from other countries, they were often presented with gastronomic “challenges.”
I have noticed in my twenty plus years living here that when a French person sees something unfamiliar on their plate they inspect it, as though it was a science experiment, turning it over and around, whispering among themselves about it. I remember as a fine example when I served Thai pork and peanut sticky rolls. Little balls of glutinous delight, they shivered on their glossy banana leaves as everyone passed them around. Each person daintily took one and set it gingerly on their plate. Spicy, fragrant, the sauce served with them was peppery too.
Wary is not the best description of how they were received, really. Fear and loathing comes closer. Finally, the most outspoken of the group, Betty, who speaks English and always uses it with me, piped up. “Suzanne, what eese eet?” I gave the story, including the elephant ride and the evening I spent making them with a darling Thai family. Something about the story, the explanation of ingredients, the heavenly aroma that wafted from them was enough. Within minutes the little balls were gone and there was clamoring for more.
The stories open the door, as I think they always do, to a sheer gastronomic windfall. It’s the personal connection that does the trick, along with great, great flavor.