Sunday, December 18, 2011


Thanksgiving came and went at the Maison Conti without notice. It's not that we didn't mark the day with the usual gratitude for family, friends and our happy life, but no special meals were cooked in honor. Since moving to France we have generally celebrated Thanksgiving with a Saturday after dinner, which we share with an American friend of Emily's, Alex Tallen (Maison Conti cooking instructor) and her family. This year, however, both Jos and Alex's husband Aurelién were not available in November. The earliest time everyone could gather was the weekend before Christmas (that is to say, this last weekend).

Emily met Alex at George Washington University in 1997 when they were both freshmen in the theater program there. They discovered that they had a lot in common. They were born two days apart, they were both interested in acting, were vegetarians and loved cooking, and they both spoke French. The commonalities continued as life went forward. They both married European actors (Jos is Belgian and Aurelién is French) who are older, established in their respective careers, and both Emily and Alex moved to Paris and live just a few minutes walk from one another. Alex has a son Marlowe, who is 7 now, but Quinn and Beatrix, Alex's second child, were born just two weeks apart and are in the same class at the same bilingual school. Of course, we've adopted this family ourselves and Marlowe and Bea may as well be a couple of extra grandchildren.

As usual, the menu planned for the evening was an extravaganza of gourmet delights:

Roast pheasant
Cornbread stuffing with jalapeno and butternut squash
Cranberry pear chutney
Roasted cranberry sauce
Cranberry apricot and cardamon sauce
Autumn slaw
Brussels sprouts with shallots and mustard seeds
Kale with red onions and garlic butter
Sweet potatoes with garlic oil and fried sage leaves
Wild mushrooms with chestnuts and thyme
Mashed garden potatoes
Fresh baked dinner rolls
Apple cranberry crumble
Pumpkin ice cream

Alex is a professional chef, having earning a degree at the acclaimed Ritz-Escoffier Culinary School in Paris, and has worked in the kitchens of some acclaimed Paris restaurants.

Emily is a passionate amateur cook with a shelf full of wonderful cookbooks. We were in very good hands.

From the above photo of Emily cooking you can't see the advanced stage of her pregnancy. I love how the maternity styles these days don't shy away from letting the belly show its true shape! She'll be welcoming her little one early in the new year.

The third in the kitchen crew was James. He was able to get away from England a little early this year and has a couple of weeks to spend with us. Here he is with a basket of herbs fresh from the garden.

Aurelién works for the Comédie Française as a repertory actor. He also is a film and television actor. In fact he just began shooting a made-for-television movie in which he stars as both the president of France and an actor. He showed us photos of his make-up as the politician and he was completely unrecognizable.

We've known Marlowe since he was a baby and we've enjoyed watching him grow up. He is at a particularly charming age. Maison Conti is a place he's visited several times before, so he does not feel shy or ill at ease in any way. Children tend to love our big old rambly house. It's a little bit magic. Marlowe said to me at one point during the weekend, "You're very lucky to live in a hotel." At the end of the weekend both he and Quinn were reluctant to leave.

Marlowe was eager to help out with dinner preparations. Rick and he dug up the potatoes for the mash, which was Rick's assignment.

Marlowe, when not helping, was building boats. He became intrigued by a piece of bark he found in our wood pile and solicited Rick's help in designing a sailboat.

He was very pleased with the results and went on to make three others on his own.

They worked very well. He tested them all out in our fountain. They floated and stayed straight up, not listing from side to side as handmade boats sometimes will. I asked him if he had a place to sail them at home in Paris and he replied "my bathtub."

With Marlowe's help, Rick built a fire in our downstairs fireplace. I love it when there is a fire there. It's so cozy and warm.

Quinn and Bea are best of friends. And sometimes rivals. We had lots of running games, words of praise and love "Bea, are you wonderful?" "I love you, Quinn," and a fair number of rows as well. "Mine!" "No, mine!"

Before dinner some of the men folk reposed chimney side and talked while the rest of us served up.

The Autumn slaw was a particularly beautiful and delicious dish. It has raw beets, sliced very thin, red cabbage, apples, pomegranate seeds, hazelnuts and a dressing that is out of this world. It's from A Year in My Kitchen by Skye Gyngell, which has been mentioned before on this blog. It is a cookbook well worth having!

The spread was beautiful and copious, as always when planned by Emily and Alex. The plenitude was all from healthy foods, so one could enjoy it without guilt.

We ate in the downstairs dining room with another fire blazing and our holiday decorations here and there making for a festive event.

We were ten happy and well-satisfied people. I don't think I've ever had a better home cooked meal in my life. Call it Thanksgiving, call it pre-Christmas, whatever it was it was memorable.

A British director, who is working with Jos, sent him two huge bundles of forced narcissus as a Christmas gift all the way from London. Jos brought them along and they perfumed the whole room, promising spring to come!


  1. Waouh ! Nancy ! Je suis très impressionnée ... Après ça vous ne pouvez plus dire que nous les français, passons notre vie à table ! En effet, j'imagine que pour manger tout ça il vous aura fallu une journée entière. J'adore tous ces préparatifs entre amis. L'histoire d'Emily et d'Alex est fantastique et je comprends combien elles doivent être proches. Les enfants sont merveilleux. Montmirail est un vrai "spot" !

  2. I forgot to mention I love the names of the children !