Friday, March 10, 2006


I was 17 years old when I first went to France. My French pen friend, Nolwenn, had visited the year before and at the end of the summer we realised that we actually liked each other and wanted to meet up again. The following June, armed with my stupidly large suitcase (I've always had the tendency to overpack) and my three years of high school French (which meant that I could just about say "Bonjour"), I boarded my flight filled with both excitement and nervousness.

One flight, one metro ride and one train ride later I found my way to Lorient in Brittany. It was there that I met Malou, Nolwenn's mother. Her parents spoke little English and my French at the time was non existant but somehow we managed to understand each other. Nolwenn was an only child so for that summer I was her younger sister and Malou became my summertime mother.

Malou was possibly the best home cook I have ever met. She introduced my palate to French cuisine and taught me about French cooking. Breakfast for her always consisted on a bowl of strong black coffee, half a sugar, toasted baguette with lashings of salted Breton butter and a cigarette. Afterwards, she would start work on our next meal. Roast chicken, merguez, ratatouille, soupe a l'oignon, mousse au chocolat- everything she touched tasted amazing. Each day there was a new taste sensation. At the end of that summer, I returned to the States a Francophile with a few Frenchy habits as souvenirs.

Their house became my summer haven and when Nolwenn had a summer job, I would spend more time in the kitchen and at the market with Malou. As my French improved, our conversations got more in depth and covered everything from life to far breton. When I lived in Paris, I relished my weekends away in the countryside and often brought friends who were also in need of mothering and a hot meal. Over time she became one of my food heros and from her I learned to take pleasure not just in eating my food but preparing it. Her cooking tips have stayed with me and cover everything from never using the same knife for the cheese and the butter to the secret ingredient to her French Onion Soup- adding a packet of onion soup mix to the soup.

Last week, Malou passed away after a long battle with cancer. I wasn't able to say goodbye or to thank her for her kindness over the last 14 years but I know that each time I sit at the table and trim green beans or dip a toasted baguette coated in Breton butter into my coffee, there is a bit of her food legacy that lives on.

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