Many travelers planning European trips this spring and summer will opt to stay at rental properties rather than hotels for a number of reasons. Homes and even apartments are usually far more spacious than most hotel rooms. They appeal especially to larger families who want to live together under one roof. And accommodations with a working kitchen offer the convenience and cost savings of not having to go out for every meal.
Yet, there’s always a steep learning curve when staying at a new place for the first time, both in terms of getting acquainted with the property and the surrounding community. This also may entail learning some new customs and traditions.
For five years, Lynne Martin and her husband, Tim, sold and stored all their belongings so they could travel around the world extensively. Remarkably, they did this without maintaining any home base. Lynne wrote about their inspiring adventures in Home Sweet Anywhere, which was translated into eight languages. Now, Martin has teamed up with chef and restaurateur Deborah Scarborough to co-author a new book, Cook Like a Local in France: How to Shop, Cook and Eat as the French Do (Countryman Press, 2019).
Forbes.com spoke with Lynne Martin to find out more about the book and to learn her secrets for cooking like a local in France.
Although you’ve traveled abroad to many countries, France is so food-centric. Did that make cooking easier or more daunting?
Lynne Martin: Cooking in any country where I’m not fluent in the language is always challenging. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve discovered that what we thought was coffee cream turned out to be sour cream. That makes for a lousy morning mood!
However, cooking in France is a joy even when I make mistakes! Ingredients are of such excellent quality that almost everything I attempt turns out to be delicious. Even a paucity of equipment can’t dampen my enthusiasm for cooking in France.
Many travelers think that cooking at home robs travelers of time that might be better spent exploring. How would you respond?
LM: When we travel, our primary goal is to live as the locals do! Interacting with vendors and other shoppers is a marvelous way to become part of the neighborhood and learn first-hand how locals behave with one another. After all, food is the universal language, and much can be learned much about a culture through its cuisine and food-related traditions.
We usually have breakfast at home (See Deborah’s inventive tartine recipes). Then we spend the day seeing the sights, eat lunch out (sometimes we take a picnic), and dine at home in the evening. When you stay longer than a few days in a town, there’s plenty of time to do it all.
In the book, you mention inviting friends over for meals, parties, etc.? The French are stereotyped as standoffish. What are some tips for making friends in France?
LM: It’s sad that the French are saddled with that reputation but that bad rap has been given by people who don’t know much about French culture! Yes, the French seem more restrained than North Americans, which is true in many countries. We find that using fundamental courtesy words like merci, Excusez-moi, and S’il vous plaît goes a long way towards bridging the culture gap. A smile helps, too. This rule applies to all countries.
We usually get involved with the ex-pat community, which leads us to meet local friends. There are meet-up groups in many cities, and we make new friends whenever we attend those gatherings. For instance, we met a German woman at a Paris soiree. When we moved to Berlin, we had an immediate entree into the social scene there. Look up supper clubs or dinner clubs online in the city you’ll be visiting and you’ll have a great experience.
What regions or areas might you recommend to a first-timer, especially a food lover, renting an apartment or villa in France?
LM: Food and wine tend to highly influence our travel destinations.
The South West (Sud-Ouest) is divine for Bordeaux wines. You can rent a flat in the city or enjoy the tranquil countryside among the vineyards. The wines are less expensive in Bourg and Blaye, and the people are delightful. The villages of Bourg and Blaye are more off the beaten path and far less touristy than the big name villages. You can bicycle to many chateaux to enjoy wine-tastings and wandering along the Gironde.
Biarritz is elegant and offers fantastic ocean views. It’s known for its beautiful beaches, and the shopping is excellent. It’s upscale compared to other coastal areas, but laid-back because it’s a popular surf destination.
Villages along the Loire are magical. The pastoral countryside is gorgeous, and chevre is so abundant that you can purchase it from vending machines! We especially love Amboise, which has a sweet town center and a castle. Renting bikes for wine tasting in the area is excellent fun. Chinon is another idyllic spot.
When visiting the south, we have found that renting a car and going where the train doesn’t stop gives us a more authentic experience. Saint-Tropez is wonderful for sunning on the beaches and people watching while enjoying a glass of wine at a cafe. It is an artist’s enclave, so it attracts interesting people.
We love Avignon because of its proximity to the Rhone, home of some of our favorite wines. We adore visiting Chateauneuf-du-Pape with its enchanting medieval streets. There is so much to see, drink, and eat that we could stay forever.
What resources would you recommend to someone looking for a vacation rental property in France?
LM: We are sold on Airbnb and have also used HomeAway and VRBO. These outfits offer a degree of certainty with guarantees about the efficacy of the listings. They also handle the money and are available to help if something should go wrong. Aside from some minor irritation, we have never been too disappointed in the dozens of places we have rented.
Can you offer any tips on how to determine if a kitchen is workable in a vacation rental?
LM: Well, let’s just say that there’s workable and then there’s WORKABLE. We’ve had ridiculously wonderful kitchens, ridiculously trying kitchens and everything in between. I always prefer a gas hob, but once I lived in one place for a couple of months with only one working burner on a hot plate and no oven. The rest of the apartment was just perfect, so we rented it anyway. We had a lot of stir-fries, and we ate out more often than we usually do.
As long as there is a modicum of counter space, a working fridge, and decent light, I can usually get along. A great stove is a definite bonus! I can solve deficiencies like no drying racks or dishtowels with a trip to the local dollar store or farmer’s market.
Is it necessary to carry any kitchen tools/equipment with you?
LM: No kitchen is workable without sharp knives. It’s the one item a cook can’t do without. I always take a small plastic knife sharpener when we travel, since most places have knives that couldn’t cut pablum. I take a sharp vegetable peeler for the same reason. And of course, Cook Like a Local in France will always be uploaded in my Kindle for use wherever I go.
How long a stay is ideal to truly immerse oneself in a neighborhood and have the opportunity to cook like a local?
LM: Tim and I make it our practice to never stay in a place for less than a month. More time is even better. It takes at least a week to get oriented to the neighborhood. By the second week, we’ve generally become a part of the community in some small ways like getting a nod and a smile from local shop owners. By the end of the month, we are always sorry that we didn’t allow more time! By the end of three months, we feel as if we’ve lived there forever.
When in France, what do you miss most about cooking/eating in America?
LM: Are you kidding? France is the food capital of the world – at least that’s our opinion. We are always delighted with the quality and variety of ingredients and the glorious food choices we find in restaurants and shops. But I must confess, though, that after months on the road we begin to fantasize about a juicy, fat hamburger – preferably from the iconic In-N-Out California chain! If we need a “home” fix, we can always find an Italian, Chinese, or sometimes a Mexican restaurant, since those cuisines are as American as fried chicken.
What is your favorite recipe in the book?
LM: I’m a big fan of all of Deborah’s recipes because they are easy to produce without any special equipment, whether at home or on the road. The one I return to most often is her Chicken (poulet) with Tomatoes and Olives. Being a lamb fan, I also love to make her Mead and Honey Braised Lamb Shanks (Souris d’Agneau). Deborah says that if you’re low on mead (a drink of fermented honey and water), you can always substitute white wine or beer!
What inspired you to write Cook Like A Local in France?
LM: Deborah and I were friends long before she opened Black Cat Bistro, her popular restaurant on California’s Central Coast. We had traveled together and fantasized for years about working together. Once, when I was home in California for a few months, we began to talk about what that project might be. We were well into our second bottle of an excellent French Rose and several plates of delicious snacks when we came up with the idea for Cook Like a Local in France. Within a week we were pestering my agent for her suggestions for a book proposal. The entire project was a joy and we hope everyone will have as much fun using it as we did writing it.
Given your wanderlust, do you have plans to expand this book to a series?
LM: Of course! We think the concept will work well for any destination. Our next stop will be Italy, and we’d like to move on to Spain and Portugal. Let me see, just how many countries are there in the world? I think we’ll be busy for a while.
Cook Like a Local in France will be published on June 4, 2019. It is available for pre-order now.
This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
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