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Susan Loomis

An American In Louviers - An interview with Susan Loomis

Since the days of Elizabeth David and before, rural France has been an inspiration to cooks and food-lovers the world over. Susan Loomis is another outsider who has managed to bring her own perspective to this rich source of recipes and stories; in fact, who better to get under the skin of a small village community than a cookery writer? Susan Loomis takes readers on an enchanting journey into village life - the characters, the politics, and most of all, the food.

We spoke to Susan Loomis and asked her to tell us about life On Rue Tatin.

In your book On Rue Tatin you write about France with a passion. Can you tell us what drew you to France initially?
Food drew me to France initially. I wanted to write about food and I wanted to learn how to cook. So that's why I went. That was in 1980.

And had you had much experience with French food previously?

No, I'd always cooked, but never French food. I also wanted to learn how to speak French, I have to admit. I knew that if I wanted to learn to cook, France was the place to go. So I went on an exploratory trip as everybody does in their twenties. Then I went back to stay when I was twenty-five, to do La Varenne.

You were a strict vegetarian before you started a cooking apprenticeship at La Varenne. What made you change your diet then and what does your current diet consist of?

I was a vegetarian for 10 years. I was a vegetarian all through the cooking school part, but I would taste the meat. I decided I had to taste it to know what it tasted like, what was good cooked meat and what wasn't. But it wasn't really till I was out of school and I was working on a book, where I got to eat in restaurants all the time, that I started eating meat. It was just too tempting.

I never did it for moral reasons, I did it for practical tastes. I'm not a big meat-eater, even today. My husband loves to eat meat and our son likes it and I'm not against it, but I think there are a lot better foods. I'm just naturally healthy and always have been.

I did the whole vegetarian thing while I was in college cooking for myself, and even after - wholewheat flour, no honey - and I still have a lot of those principles. Although I use a lot of sugar now and I don't worry about it. I use a lot of butter and cream, I love cream. I think that our food at home is quite healthy because I try to cook with really good ingredients. Eat a lot of salads. I make sure my kids have some green on their plates, I feel fanatic about trying really hard not to give them a boring plate.

There are lots of gorgeous recipes scattered throughout On Rue Tatin. Which is your favourite French recipe and what would be your idea of the perfect meal?

That's a hard question, I love food! The recipes in the book are among my favourites. I love to make fruit tarts - there's a recipe for apple and thyme tart. I would make a tart everyday. Its easy for me to do, they're beautiful and they taste incredible.

My perfect meal would be steamed asparagus with a little bit of olive oil and sea salt. That's it, eat it with your fingers. I had something last night that was really good, sort of a truffle sauce, that's nice too.

Then I would have scallops that were sautéed in olive oil, garlic and parsley. That would be great. Then I would probably have lamb chops. Something simple with rosemary and lemon juice. Then I'd have a fruit tart and that would be the perfect meal.

Probably some potato, somewhere. I like the little organic kind and I like to roast them, in fact there's a recipe in the book and it's really a good recipe: you take these little potatoes, you roast them, you cut them and then you mix cream with herbs and put the cream inside them. That is a very elegant recipe. It's so simple.

You mention how some of the French store owners were sometimes reluctant to assist you. This must have been a bit strange for you, coming from the US where everyone is so friendly. How did you deal with these different attitudes?

First of all you can't quite believe it. There's a sentiment sometimes that you go into somebody's store and it's like they don't want you there. It doesn't make any sense from a commercial standpoint. So it becomes a joke, "I went into a store and it's one of those where they don't want you to come in". How do they expect to do business? There are stores like this in our town and I never go in them, they lost my business.

I don't know if it's prejudice against us, sometimes I think it might be. I think there really are people who don't like different people. We are white, which is in our favour, but we are foreign. But that's not the major element and it becomes kind of a joke.

You formed some special relationships with people during your time in France. How true is it to say that your life is shaped largely by your relationships with people? Do you think life in Louviers would have been different had you experienced more hostility?

Definitely, it would have been different. Some people are never going to change, but people can really change a lot. Because a lot of that is just misunderstanding, cultural misunderstanding, like the chapter about the forest. Also they were afraid of us. I try to put myself in other people's position, because it is true that we needed them. I can't stand to live in disharmony.

When I was a student I tried to get a full grade scholarship, because I wanted to move to France and I wanted to do food and diplomacy, they're silly to have turned it down because was a great idea. I wanted to show how over the table, over food, so many problems go away and it's really true. You realise that you're eating with people and that they're really nice people. It's like these four are really nice people, but I would never have guessed it from the way they worked.

Every Christmas I take presents to the people around us. I'm cultivating all the time. Things come up during the year, you're late paying the bill and they get mad, but you just keep it going it's a relationship like any other. It's fun.

In the States I wouldn't have thought about it because you don't think about cultivating relationships like that because you don't have to. There's no barrier. It doesn't take me much time to bake a few cookies. Also in France you don't enter people's private space, like you do in America. In France even eye contact isn't that easy to establish.

So I think it's kind of a forwardness on my part to take the food to them, you can get away with things as a foreigner you couldn't get away with as a French person and they like it.

As you discovered French attitudes towards pregnancy differ from those in America. For example, the ladies of Louviers provide champagne, goat's cheese and potent plum brandy to celebrate your news of pregnancy. How difficult was it for you to bridge the cultural gap between American and French traditions?

Well that's an interesting one, because with my first child I was in the States and of course in the States it's like 'oh my God, you don't drink', even coffee. I remember going to a restaurant in California and I was seven months pregnant and I ordered a coffee. The waitress wouldn't serve me coffee because I was pregnant. I was like "wait a minute, I'm educated, I can do what I want!" and that was silly.

But in France, people were constantly serving me champagne and I drank it, I didn't think about it. It was just a cultural thing. Medically it's the same, medically if you're going to screw your child up, you're going to screw your child up. There's just so much more fear about all that and I really think America is so extreme about everything to do with what you eat and the way you raise your kids.

The French are famous for their unusual delicacies such as snails and frogs' legs. Can you describe some of the most unusual dishes you have prepared or enjoyed eating in France?

Well, snails is a big thing. One of the things I do during the cooking school is take people to a snail farm. First of all no-one thinks of snails in a farm! You could make lots of jokes, but it's really fun to go. One of the weirdest things I prepared is a snail salad and it was actually not that good. I wanted to put it in the book, because I like to encourage people to eat unusual, not weird, things and I thought it could be fun but it wasn't. So I thought if I can't make it good, and I'm a pretty good cook, I'm not gonna foist that on other people.

So that's one thing, and brains is another. I wonder if I wrote about the brains in there? No I didn't, I'll have to write about it somewhere else. There was a month about three years ago when people kept giving me brains. Well I got this lamb brain first, and I'm not a big brain person, I'm not a big offal person. I was going to cook it and then a friend of mine's brother got sick and her brother loved lamb brain soup, so I gave the brain away. When I got a couple more brains, I thought I really need to cook this thing. The texture is kind of like hard scrambled eggs, the flavour is nothing. It's kind of a smooth texture, it's a more textural thing. It's nothing I would walk across the street for! I'm just not a brain person, but there are people who love brains. You can't really buy them anymore, it's hard to get them because of the problems with the animals, that's the part of the tissue where the disease is.

Eel was another weird thing. I haven't really cooked a lot of eel since I've been in France but I love it. That's another animal you have to reckon with, if you get a live eel. They're hard to kill. To get the skin off is like peeling a glove.

Can you give us a few of your secrets to success in the kitchen?

The main secret, it's not a secret but people don't pay enough attention to it I think, is to buy fresh food. The best food and spend money on that, because in the end I think it's money well spent. If you by prepared food you're spending a lot of money on it anyway and you don't really know what's in it.

Another secret, I mean a real specific secret, is for roasting a chicken or a duck. Right before it's finished, before it's taken out of the oven you pour vinegar over it. It makes the skin really crisp and it makes the juices kind of tart.

Fresh herbs are vital, you can really dish anything up with fresh herbs. We have herbs in the garden, but even if you live in the city you can grown them in a windowsill. Even if you're making an omelette.

Omelettes are really wonderful food, they're quick, light and healthy. If all you have to put in an omelette is fresh herbs it's unbelievable how sophisticated that is. Take two eggs and make a really pretty little omelette, you don't really have to put anything inside of it, you just mix the herbs in with the omelette.

I like to tell people you should have four things in your refrigerator cupboard; good dried pasta, good olive oil, that's dinner, and if you have a pot of herbs that's nice dinner! Or eggs, if you get good organic eggs. An egg is a beautiful thing.

Can you tell us a little bit about the cooking school you recently opened?

For now I'm doing about 5 or 6 weeks a year, and each week is a five day course. People come on a Sunday for dinner which I prepare, and then I put them to work. We have two classes Monday, two classes Tuesday plus lunch and dinner. Wednesday we go to the market, have a picnic and then we do a class in the evening. So they don't have a lot of free time.

Thursday we go out and visit Honfleur we have wine tasting and we go out into the countryside. That's really fun. Friday we do a little visit and then we come home and make this really fancy dinner. That's the celebration dinner at the end. If the students of the class have come with partners who's been doing something else, then everybody comes to that dinner.

So they get a chance to cook a lot and learn the sort of secrets that I'm talking about, which are really simple but you really have to see them, and they get to meet people. I have a friend who's a goat farmer, and you know with this foot and mouth thing I can't take people to his farm. He doesn't want people coming anyway. He comes to dinner and he brings his cheeses then we do a cheese tasting.

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Susan Loomis:

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