The premise of this novel, The Little Paris Bookshop, is that books are medicine for the heart and the soul. I love that idea and believe it’s true.
Books have been my constant companion since childhood, my comfort when sad, and my solace when all hope seemed lost. I remember my grandmother, Nana Jean, reading to me when I was perhaps three or four years old, and she skipped a few sentences and I immediately told her “Nana, that’s not how it goes!” My mother, in the rare instances that I was disciplined for being bad, had no other alternative but to ground me from reading. I didn’t care about anything else, just my books. And how little has changed.
(Yup, that’s me, with a book and our dog, Brownie……and horrible slippers!)
The main character, Jean Perdu, has spent years of his life mourning the loss of his married lover, Manon, who wrote him a letter when she left him. He only opens it 20 years later, and its contents spur him into an adventure along the country waterways of France in the large houseboat that is also his book apothecary. It’s a beautiful book that pays homage to grief and letting go of a love long since gone, another theme that has been strong in my life. I spent years loving a man who wasn’t able to love me back in the way that I needed, and though it was the hardest thing I ever did, letting him go and moving forward with my life has reaped many rewards and joys. This book gives us hope that we can still love someone, and yet be able to move on and find new life, new love and new happiness. Reading this book was indeed like medicine for my soul, and reminded me that we can be healed spiritually by the simple joys like delicious food and wonderful books.
The impetus for Jean’s opening of the letter is when he meets Catherine, a similarly grieving woman, for whom he develops a deep friendship that becomes love. They get to know one another while cooking a simple, yet lovely meal of fish poached in cream and white wine, served with new potatoes roasted in garlic and rosemary, pears and cheese, and some beautiful French wine, a combination so quintessentially French that I was inspired.
“Catherine had inspected his red mullets, the fresh herbs and the cream from broad-beamed Normandy cows, then held up her small new potatoes and cheese, and gestured to the fragrant pears and to the wine. ‘Can we do something with this lot?’ ‘Yes. But one after the other, not together,’ he said…………Soon the windowpanes had misted up; the gas flames were hissing under the pots and pans; the white wine, shallot and cream sauce was simmering; and in a heavy pan the olive oil was browning potatoes sprinkled with rosemary and salt.”
Red mullet is nearly impossible to find in landlocked New Mexico, so my friendly fishmonger Ryan at Nantucket Shoals recommended tilapia. So I did. This is the method that worked for me, based on this lovely recipe from Ben O’Donogue of the BBC Saturday Kitchen, with some tasty little twists of my own.
1 finely diced shallot
Drizzle of olive oil (drizzle being the technical term)
6-7 tilapia fillets
1 cup of good, drinkable white wine. I used Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc.
1 cup of heavy cream
3-4 fresh bay leaves
About a handful of finely chopped flat-leaf parsley – my flavoring twist
Sea salt and ground black pepper
1 tablespoon of capers – another added twist
Finely chopped almonds
6-7 new or little red potatoes, sliced thinly
1-2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
4-5 cloves of garlic, finely chopped (I got to bust out the mezzaluna for this one!)
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, finely minced
In a large cast-iron or other metal pan, add the drizzle of olive oil and saute the shallots, adding a sprinkle of sea salt to release their moisture and keep them from burning. Saute for about five minutes, until translucent, then add the white wine and the heavy cream. Season with salt and pepper, then add the parsley and bay leaves.
Stir to mix and let come to a gentle simmer, but keep stirring it so it doesn’t curdle. Lower in the tilapia fillets and cook for about five-10 minutes, or until the fish turns opaque. You want to make certain the liquid completely covers the fish fillet. Keep an eye on it so it doesn’t overcook or undercook. Because, you know, who wants raw fish? This ain’t a sushi blog!
In a large bowl, add the remaining olive oil, the potato slices, the minced garlic, the rosemary bits, and some sea salt. Mix together with your hands so that everything is nicely coated and harmoniously glistening with oil. Get out a skillet and toss the rosemary-garlic-flecked potatoes into it. Cook over medium-low heat, letting the potatoes dry out and brown, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes darken and crisp, and you can smell the wonderful, starchy scent mingling with the garlic and rosemary. It’s a perfume I would dab behind my ears if I could.
Transfer the tilapia fillets to a plate with the potatoes, turn up the heat under the pan with the cream and wine, and bring it to a boil. Add a large tablespoon of capers to the liquid. Keep stirring it so that it reduces and thickens into a luscious, unctuously thick sauce. Like this!
Turn off the heat, give a good last stir, and pour the sauce over the fish and spuds. Garnish with the almonds, which give wonderful crunch and look beautiful! Eat with the sounds of La Vie en Rose running through your imagination, or better yet, imagining you’re on board Jean Perdu’s floating bookshop. Heaven!
“Books were my friends,” said Catherine……”I think I learned all my feelings from books. In them, I loved and laughed and found out more than in my whole nonreading life.”