Saturday, August 05, 2006

Among friends

A few days ago I received in the post a thick envelope of cinnabar red decorated with stylized Chinese characters. Inside was an invitation to a wedding reception to be held in Alsace, hosted by "Mr & Mme Klinger of Druesenheim, France" and "Mr & Mme Bui of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam." My thoughts immediately flew back to last summer, to a garden party, and to Thanh and Christian announcing their engagement.

In retrospect I realize that in the course of five years spent in Strasbourg I cultivated five friendships, Thanh being one of them. Their backgrounds were as diverse as could be (five women of French, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, South-African origin, all whom ended up in Strasbourg for one reason or another) but they shared one thing in common and that was a passion for food -- buying it, preparing it, eating it, offering it, sharing it.

Xiaofei, who hailed from Beijing, was like Thanh -- in Strasbourg she met the man of her life and that person happened to be an Alsatian. Meals chez Eric and Xiaofei reflected that happy fusion: a stir fry of spicy chicken and walnuts served with a galette de pomme de terre on the side, or a plate of chacuterie followed by Chinese-style seafood fondue. At their wedding banquet I took note of the delightful pairing of foie gras and quetsch jam served on toasts of pain d'epice. An even more lasting impression was the surreal tableau of revelers setting up mah jong tables on the illuminated grounds of the chateau.

On Xiaofei's wedding night I met Cristina, of dual Spanish/American nationality, and her boyfriend Michael who worked as a magistrate at the Palais de Justice. They shared a bohemian apartment in the Petit France quarter and had a flair for collecting and connecting people. On her birthday Cristina hosted an evening of tapas and guitar music and got everyone merry on sangrillas. When Michael was posted to Guadeloupe she threw a going-away party with a Carribean theme: roasted chicken spiced with Old Bay-ish seasoning which we ate from plates on our knees piled with rice, avocado and banana slices. In the kitchen I watched her take blanched almonds and shake them in a bag with Tabasco sauce -- a fiery aperitif snack that I haven't stopped making since.

Anya too, from South Africa, had relocated for love. Troy, her husband, was an "engineer of democracy" and she worked tirelessly to help set up his non-profit organization in Strasbourg, seat of the European Parliament. I suspect people attended meetings just as much for Anya's scones and muffins as for Troy's ideals. An avid baker she would make trips across the border to markets in Germany for nuts and grains she couldn't get on the French side. Afternoons with Anya meant Rooibos red tea and addictive grainy chocolate (apparently Cadbury bars from South Africa have a superior taste and texture to the UK product) and leaving with a beautiful loaf of home-baked bread. She also taught me about detoxing after culinary excess with a regimen of fruit and vegetable smoothies.

Sophie, a native of Cannes, had come to Strasbourg for her studies and stayed after getting a job at the Council of Europe. I first met her and her British partner Lee while visiting a maternity clinic. Both expectant mothers-to-be, we bonded instantly. Several months later we each gave birth, to a boy and girl respectively, born one day apart. Sunday afternoon gouters became a tradition; while we chatted about the newly discovered wonders of parenthood Lee would make tea in the way only Englishmen can and on cue Sophie would pull something out of the oven. One day I asked her how she had made the delicious fruit crumble -- she just smiled and remained vague. This was one of the many lessons I got about French women, the first being that they don't give away so easily the secrets of their charms. But then, perhaps it was the Anglo-Saxon infuence of her other half, on the next visit she recited to me the recipe. I think of her whenever I make her almond-based crumble, especially in this season when apricots are abundant.

Back to Thanh. We met during a summer language course and became friendly when she offered to show me the one Asian grocery in town (called Paris Store, for some reason) and to teach me how to make Vietnamese nems. I remember watching with fascination the way she cut open limes (asymetrically, to avoid the seeds falling out when squeezed) and the delicate movements of her fingers as she wrapped shrimp, egg and purple basil in wetted rice paper. At that time she was determined to perfect her French and find what she wanted to do in life. Then she met Christian. At the engagement party, hosted by her adopted French family, tables were laden with arrangements of fruit and flowers as well as a rich array of desserts. I panicked inwardly -- I have an inexplicable aversion to buffets of any kind and usually end up not sampling anything at all. As if reading my thoughts Thanh floated over in her summer dress, pointed to a glass cut bowl and said, "C'est moi qui l'ai fait." If I were to take only one thing, her tone implied, it would be the ginger icecream she had made herself that morning. As always she was right and the ice was divine. Although I probably won't be able to attend her wedding I plan to make a batch on that day.

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