Today’s expression is “joindre l’utile à l’agréable” (swandruh looteel ah lag-ray-ab-luh). It means “to join the useful to the agreeable.” Lately, I’ve found a way combine the business of learning French with a little fun with Duolingo. This free language learning website is available on their website or an App. After a placement test, you set a goal of how many points you want to earn each day. After that, you can select specific grammar points to work on or choose “Strengthen Weak Skills.” The exercises require you to work on all four major skills – reading, writing, listening comprehension and speaking. Some of the sentences are a little silly, (“I have the plans for the prison.” And sometimes a correct answer is marked as incorrect because there is more than one correct way to say the same thing. Overall, however, it’s a pretty good tool. Each evening, I get a message from my “Coach,” a little green owl wearing a tracksuit brandishing a whistle, telling me that It’s time to get working. As a result, I haven’t missed a day since I started using Duolingo. I’m enough of a fan to have assigned Duolingo as extra credit for my students over the Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks. It may take more than a reminder from Coach to keep them working at it once there is no extra credit to be had, but who knows? They may also decide to “joindre l’utile à l’agréable.”
The verb peaufiner (poe-feen-ay) means «”to refine, polish perfect” or “to put the finishing touches on.” The word peau means “skin” and fine is a cognate for the same word in English. It entered the language in the middle of the 19th century to refer to having a meticulous grooming routine. Since we moved into our new home in mid-August, we’ve been working on little projects that peaufinent (poe-feen) each of the rooms. Our most exciting find was a huge, gilded French mirror that we discovered in an antique shop in New Bedford, Massachusetts for a song. I don’t use my new mirror for my morning toilette, but it sure looks fabulous over the sofa.
I was reading an article about French super-star decorator Jean-Louis Deniot when I came upon a word that I did not know, décalquer (day-kal-kay). The context was “Je ne vais pas décalquer la même chose à chaque fois,” or “I am not going to trace the same thing each time.” I appreciate Deniot’s approach to décor. When I flip through décor magazines, I sometimes wonder what happened to the personalities of the owners. Deniot’s interiors are refreshingly distinctive from one another. To learn more about him, or to find some ideas to décalquer for your own home, check out this new book from Rizzoli, Jean-Louis Deniot Interiors.
I love the French expression poser un lapin à quelqu’un. It literally means “to put a rabbit to someone.” Figuratively, it means to stand someone up. What is the connection between the two meanings? The expression probably dates to the end of the 19th century. Apparently, the expression was related to the prize rabbits at the fair that seemed easy to win, but yet were always just of reach. It has come to mean any promise that is not kept.
I love the French word for slippers, les pantoufles (lay pan-too-fluh). It has a sort of Dr. Seuss quality to it. Slippers were one of the first things I learned how to knit. They’re usually the first thing I put on in the morning and the last thing I take off at night. I own four different pairs. My favorite pair of pantoufles is one I picked up in Paris in a little boutique, Mi Amor (10 rue Pont Louis Philippe) in the Marais. They are lightweight and stretchy and sewn in a pretty print with a rosette on top. I like them so much I bought a bunch to give as gifts. After a few years of loyal service, the soles on my favorite pantoufles are wearing out. I sense a need to return to Paris.
The word rocambolesque (row-kam-bow-lesk) means “fantastic” or “extraordinary.” It suggests that something is beyond belief, like a tall-tale. I smile whenever I see the photo of the “man” that I took on the beach in Nice. He was definitely an extraordinary sight, towering over the tables and chairs and dancing in the wind.
Known as “l’or rouge” (lor rooj) saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. Each red thread represents the pistil of a crocus, gathered by hand, and the harvest has started throughout France. Until the French Revolution, saffron was harvested by the ton in France. After having fallen out of favor, saffron is now very à la mode.
Each flower is delicately plucked by hand. It takes a great many to produce saffron. For one gram, 250 flowers must be gathered, for a kilo, 250,000 flowers are required. This is why saffron is so expensive – French saffron sells for 35,000 Euros a kilogram. This is twice the going rate for pure gold.
Each gram of saffron is the result of one hour of labor. The delicate pistil is separated from the flower by hand and only the red part of it is kept. When it is cooked, saffron gives up its aroma. It’s more than a spice; it’s an invitation elsewhere
Saffron is available at a variety of price points from several countries, including Spain, Iran, and France. How can you know you are getting top quality saffron? According to chef Olivier Roellinger, you get what you pay for. Powdered saffron is usually blended with cumin; up to 80% is not actually saffron at all. Inexpensive filament “saffron” is worse; it is often fine leaves that have been dyed red. There is no short-cut for a labor-intensive natural product. And a little bit of saffron goes a long way – one gram is sufficient to flavor 100 dishes. Bon appétit.