All featured products are curated independently by our editors. When you buy something through our retail links, we may receive a commission.
With coronavirus making travel a tricky and even potentially dangerous prospect this year, we’re embracing the summer staycation. All week (and all summer) long, we’ll bring you transportive flavors and travel-inspired ideas from around the world, so you can take your tastebuds on a trip and give your mind a mini vacation while you’re still at home. Here, a recipe for a French blueberry clafoutis—served with a side of scandal.
Sheltering in place over these last few months has presented a number of silver linings for me, including catching up on my ever-expanding to-read list. My line of work normally has me (happily!) devouring cookbooks cover to cover, but I don’t think I’ve managed to read this many of the non-cookbook variety since well before my daughter came into this world more than a handful of years ago.
One of the most exciting among the lot is one I’m affectionately dubbing the book of the summer: “The Margot Affair,” by Sanaë Lemoine. Without giving away any spoilers, Sanaë’s debut novel centers around a 17-year-old’s coming-of-age during the unraveling of a decades-old family scandal, set against the backdrop of Paris. The reader follows Margot Louve in her days toiling away studying for the national baccalauréat exam, or le Bac; ducking into cafes to escape the city’s wet, winter chill; and stretching out in August when the City of Light empties and the pavement emanates heat long into the evening from the hot, still days. Armchair travel goals, unlocked.
Elegant writing and layered character development aside, one of the most prominent points of “The Margot Affair” is the role food plays, both as innocuous prop and metaphoric subtext. Whether it’s a weeknight pasta that’s quickly thrown together with pantry ingredients or a caramelized pear clafoutis meant to entice both the reader and fellow characters, you’ll soon see from my chat with Sanaë that the inclusion of food as a quiet undercurrent wasn’t an entirely accidental one.
Read on to learn more about Sanaë’s culinary influences, which she weaves in throughout the book, and find out how to make a summer version of the quintessentially homey French classic, the clafoutis.
HANA ASBRINK: Congratulations on your first novel! Can you give us a little background about yourself?
SANAË LEMOINE: Thank you! My father is French, my mother is Japanese, and I was born in Paris, where we lived until I was four. We moved to Melbourne and returned to France eight years later. I came to the U.S. for college and have stayed here ever since. I’ve always loved to cook and hoped I could make a career in food alongside writing fiction. Right out of graduate school I worked in the test kitchen of a meal kit delivery startup called Martha & Marley Spoon. I didn’t have any professional culinary training, but because the team was so small at the time, I was able to quickly learn on the job. I had two brilliant and generous mentors who taught me how to test, develop, write and edit recipes. As a writer and reader, I was naturally drawn to the world of cookbooks, and soon I transitioned to editing cookbooks at Martha Stewart, and then Phaidon.
HA: How did your experience in food publishing influence your writing, if at all?
SL: For the most part I’ve loved how different working in food is from my writing life. For instance, the physicality of being on my feet and cooking a meal or testing a recipe is a welcome contrast to the sedentary life of a writer. With cookbooks, what I enjoyed most was shaping a narrative with the author that went beyond the recipe themselves, whether it was a personal story or the broader historical and cultural context. One of my early morning pleasures is to read a cookbook for the stories around the recipes: the introduction, headnotes, chapter openers. The perfectionist in me also likes the technical aspect of editing recipes! Whereas fiction writing requires plunging into uncharted territory and never knowing whether I’ll have to throw away the pages and start from scratch the next day, a recipe provides clear instructions and follows some kind of structure. Although there are a million ways one can write a recipe, I’m comforted in knowing that there is a tangible result at the end: a finished dish one can eat.
HA: I loved seeing how food played both a literal and metaphorical character in your book. Did you know going into writing it that food would play such a role, or did it emerge organically?
SL: It’s been fascinating to hear readers and reviewers respond to the theme of food in the novel. I’ve always felt that my food descriptions are pedestrian. That said, I’m often thinking about food, it’s somewhat of an obsession (What will I eat next? What should I cook for lunch? What will I order at this restaurant?) that it’s almost impossible to write characters without a similar awareness, even if it’s an acknowledgment that they don’t care about food or cooking. Food plays several roles in the novel. Sometimes food is utilitarian—a straightforward meal, simple physical nourishment. Other times it’s a tool of seduction, like the scene with the caramelized pear clafoutis. I also thought about the sharp edge of appetite. There’s something wonderfully intimate, and therefore terrifying, about accepting a meal from someone else. To eat a dish prepared by someone other than yourself is an act of blind trust.
As for the dishes themselves, I chose food that felt authentic to everyday home life, whether it’s pasta with pre-packaged grated cheese, soup from a carton reheated on the stove, panini stuffed with fries, or a tomato tart with a fennel salad. For the most part these are not glamorous French meals. The clafoutis is a perfect example of a comforting, rustic dessert. The ingredients come together in a blender or with a whisk and it’s almost impossible to overbake, unless you burn the top! (And even then, it would be edible.)
HA: As a writer with both French and Japanese cultural influences, how important did food have in your upbringing? How has it shaped you as a writer?
SL: Food had such an important role in my upbringing. Both of my parents love to cook and eat, and I spent most of my childhood in the kitchen, watching my mother cook. The two culinary influences—French and Japanese—were almost equally present in our household. My father is from Brittany in the west of France, his grandmother made buckwheat crêpes for a living and his parents owned an artisanal cider company. I learned to make crêpes as soon as I could hold a ladle. My mother’s cooking is mostly Japanese. Breakfast was rice and vegetables or savory leftovers from my school lunch, and I ate most of my meals with chopsticks. Her cooking is an essential part of my identity, perhaps because she didn’t raise me speaking Japanese, and therefore it’s my primary connection to Japan. That said, if you asked me what my comfort meal is, I’d be unable to choose between a bowl of short-grain rice and baguette with salted butter!
HA: What are some of your favorite French pantry ingredients?
SL: Does butter count as a “pantry” item? If so, salted cultured butter, ideally Beurre de Baratte by Rodolphe Le Meunier. We buy it from Saraghina Bakery in our neighborhood. It’s our splurge item and we can’t live without it. Our household of two goes through half a pound of butter a week, mostly for spreading on toast. (We joke that we slice it like cheese!) Next is Dijon mustard. My husband’s father is from Dijon in Burgundy and his vinaigrette is so thick with mustard that it’s more of a paste than a dressing, barely coating the lettuce leaves. And finally, fleur de sel, a delicate sea salt, often harvested on the coast of Brittany. I buy large bags at the market in Rennes (where my father’s family is from) and bring them back in my suitcase. This is the salt I use for almost everything. It has a beautiful sharp salinity and crystals that don’t perfectly dissolve, unlike table salt or kosher salt. I like the irregular bursts of saltiness, even in my baked goods.
HA: What are your top 3 must-stop food places in Paris each time you visit?
SL: Poilâne for the tartelettes aux pommes, chaussons aux pommes, and walnut bread. When we lived in Australia, my parents and I would return to France in the summers. I still remember getting off the plane after a long flight and going directly to Poilâne bakery with our luggage. We’d arrive at opening and pick up a chausson aux pommes, hot from the oven, to eat for breakfast.
Kunitoraya for a bowl of steaming udon. My mother and I would often have lunch there. The restaurant is on a street corner and flooded with light from floor-to-ceiling windows. It’s best to go at opening as it fills up quickly.
Breizh Café for the crêpes and galettes (buckwheat crêpes). The batter for galettes is made with buckwheat flour, water, and sea salt, and they taste almost like my father’s. Laced with tiny holes and incredibly crisp from being cooked on both sides and slathered with salted butter. My favorite filling is cheese and shiitake mushrooms. (The owner’s wife is Japanese, and I love how Breizh Café marries flavors from Brittany and Japan. I’ve always felt that buckwheat flour acts as a bridge between my Japanese and French selves, from galettes to soba noodles.)
HA: I know your book has only *just* come out, but please let us know of any other projects in the works or future books (cookbooks??) you aspire to write.
SL: I’m in the early stages of writing a second novel. It’s quite different from my first novel, more of a sprawling family story. There’s a wider cast of characters, it takes place over several years, and is set in Argentina and Japan.
I would love to work on a cookbook. I was in the middle of two proposals for food projects before the pandemic, but those seem to be indefinitely paused. If I’m shooting for the stars, my dream would be to write a cookbook inspired by my French-Japanese heritage. Maybe one day!
Brigitte’s Blueberry Clafoutis Recipe
Brigitte’s Blueberry Clafoutis
More Ways to Take a Break without Leaving Home
The Ultimate Summer Staycation Guide
Header image courtesy of Sanaë Lemoine.