Aromas greet me as I open the door; chicken roasting in butter, garlic and thyme waft from the kitchen. In the distance, the rhythmic sound of a whisk and the cook speaking French. You might imagine that I am visiting Paris or a French restaurant, but instead I have just walked into the home of my daughter and son in law, Alex and Sarah Berton, here in Greenville.

Alex is preparing a four-course dinner to be enjoyed al fresco on the terrace. There are no cookbooks, just a man working from memory to create the tastes of home. He grew up in Tours in the beautiful Loire Valley. After moving to the United States a few years ago, he and Sarah married.

What insight I have gained into French culture by having Alex join our family! Most of my life, I have associated French cooking with rich sauces and decadent dishes and although this is a part of the cuisine, there is also an underlying simplicity that’s sometimes missed in the American opinion of French cuisine. It is simply about finding the freshest vegetables or the ripest fruit and preparing them to gain the most flavor; each bite should be a delight to the senses, soaking in its aroma, taste and beauty. The experience can only be enhanced by a chosen wine.

Interestingly, food and wine are the priority of the dinner and the tablescape is secondary. A few flowers or herbs picked form the garden are all that is needed. There is a casualness to al fresco dining that creates a light and relaxed mood. A French lunch will likely move into evening and a dinner late into the night, so candles are the perfect finishing touch.

Although the French have cultivated a form of entertaining that seems effortless, the preparation is not. Alex may go to several grocery stores to find the freshest organic meats and vegetables. Another stop for wine and a bakery for a freshly baked loaf. After the perfect ingredients have been selected, everything slows down. He takes his time preparing this feast and guests will do the same in consuming it.

What seems so different about dining with the French is the length of the meal. The emphasis is on taking the time to savor each course, which might take hours. Conversation and wine flow freely and the clock is ignored. At the end of the evening, the table is scattered with bread crumbs and candles are burning quite low.

Fresh greens tossed in homemade Dijon vinaigrette topped with warm toast and goat cheese starts the meal, followed by a mouthwatering roasted chicken with carrots, potatoes and eggplant. The first time Alex prepared this dish for us, watched in amazement as he massaged the chicken with butter,
something new to this southerner, but the end result was sensational!

Some of his cooking skills were learned from observing his mother but he was also fortunate to be exposed in other ways. A few of Alex’s family friends were restaurant owners and at times he was allowed to go in the kitchen and help the chef. This experience began his love of cooking. Jump ahead to Paris where he attended college and was surrounded by a group of friends that shared his passion; often working in the same kitchen, each person preparing a dish.

To follow the chicken, Alex chose a variety of sumptuous soft and hard cheeses served with bread. Unlike the American appetizer, the French cheese course is traditionally served between the entrée and dessert. Last but not least, a delicious tart topped with fresh strawberries is served.

What a unique and wonderful experience it has been to blend this culture with our southern one. I hope you’ll head to your summer market and select your favorite fresh ingredients. Add some wine and cheese and invite your most loved guests. Eat and talk for hours enjoying every bite. This is the true essence of the French meal.

Goat Cheese Toast

  • French Baguette
  • Sliced goat cheese
  • Herbs such as parsley, oregano and Herbs de Provence

Preheat oven to Low Broil.
Slice the bread in 1/2inch thick circles and place on sheet pan. Add a 1/4inch slice of goat cheese on each and top with combined herbs of your liking (or simply drizzle with honey).
Place in preheated oven until cheese is bubbling and partially melted.
Remove from pan and top plated salad with 2-3 toasts.

Salad Dressing (Tante Renée’s recipe)

  • 1/4 c. Dijon Mustard
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1/4 c. Olive oil
  • 1/8 c. Water

Whisk dijon, salt and pepper and slowly add olive oil. Create a little emulsion that thickens like a mayonnaise, then add water and whisk to make it a more liquid consistency.