How I learned the meaning of a French word: Bonheur, a guest post by Shannon Grochowski
A jar of lavender sits on my shop desk next to my well-used cookbooks. When I ache for France, I open it and take a whiff. Instantly, the heady aroma transports me to a place where I learned the meaning of a French word: Bonheur.
I began encountering Bonheur, which translates to happiness, a few months after a feisty Frenchman requested my hand in marriage. After the proposal, my intended and I took an obligatory flight from Montana to Paris, to get acquainted with his maman and papa. As my monsieur ushered me through the Charles de Gaulle airport, I was without conviction they would approve of me. I didn’t speak a lick of French. I was American. And a divorcée.
Claude, my husband’s ever-so-elegant Parisian mother stood out at the airport, clad in a full-length fur coat, jet black hair tightly pulled into a bun, wearing sunglasses the size of saucers and bright red lipstick. Jean-Pierre, my husband’s father wore a WW2 U.S. army jacket and spoke English without a trace of French accent.
After a hasty introduction with pecks on each cheek, and a jetlagged drive into Paris, my future belle-mère blurted out “Mon Dieu, vous parlez français comme une débutante!” So much for the language crash course on the airplane. With bruised feelings, I later fell asleep in the bathtub, sipping a glass of Chablis and failed to hear Claude’s ear-splitting à table!. She glared across the table in my direction. That’s when my beau-père asked what my profession was. I had recently quit my job as a technical writer to open a chocolate shop (a decision that bewildered my American parents). “Ohh-là-là,” he smiled tenderly. And like a macaron, whose crisp shell gives away to a softness, relations became sweeter with these two Parisians.
The next day, under the tutelage of Jean-Pierre and Claude, we swirled around their beloved city. They presumed that French flavors and its culinary character would be excellent research for my business. Jean-Pierre told me that after you’ve seen all of Paris, you should begin again because it will be a different experience the second go around. He had been born and raised here, never losing any enchantment with his beloved ville. As early darkness pressed, my tastebuds tingled, and I felt my heart beating to the pulse of this city of light. My fiancé, noticing my pleasure whispered in my ear “Paris can be everyone’s city, including yours. Treat her right, and she’ll show you her wonders and embrace you, too.” He alluded to Paris as one might speak of an elegant, generous, enchanted woman, I mused.
Over the course of the week, we entered pâtisseries, chocolateries, and boulangeries that dotted the broad boulevards and rues, tarrying over tea, while a trail of buttery crumbs fell from our napkins. Barely noticing the city landmarks, I spent most of each day loitering around shop windows filled with towering pyramids of chocolate truffles, dusted with gorgeous, amber cocoa powder. I soaked up all of this inspiration and began scribbling down new flavors, recipe ideas with illustrations. I yearned to bring it all home and re-create these flavors in my chocolate shop: my love letter to Paris.
We married shortly after that delicious trip to Paris and built our small business back in Montana. But, before we even tied the knot, we knew we wanted to raise our blended family of four young boys and one young girl Franco-American and instill the same reverence for France we possessed. We scrimped and saved, driving the same old Volvo, and living contentedly in a small house so that we could afford the plane tickets for our brigade of children. We invaded Grand-mère and Grand-père‘s small Paris apartment each summer. With barrack-like sleeping arrangements, we squabbled over dirty laundry and dawdlers, yet we knew that time with our children and Grand-mère and Grand-père would force us to slow down, inspire and restore us.
We would often use French sweets for consoling sad feelings, nursing hurt bodies or teach good manners. One summer, Jacques, our middle son missed his cat back in the states, so we brought him to Ladurée for Langues de Chat, the little flat cookies that resemble cats’ tongues. Our youngest, Ethan, accidentally tripped on Grand-mère‘s rug one evening and busted her china cabinet into shards of glass. He narrowly escaped shattering her entire collection of hand-cut red Baccarat glasses. Ethan suffered a swollen black eye from this and luckily Grand-mère didn’t give him another black eye with her fist! Afterward, we consoled him with an entire bag of his favorite plump madeleines from St. Michel.
One coolish afternoon, Grand-mère took the children to the Angelina Tea Salon for a lesson in French manners. She treated them to chocolat chaud, Mont Blanc (because they thought it looked like spaghetti), financiers, and flan. They politely ordered in French, ate with their knife in the right hand, fork in the left and “Mais non!” they dared not put their hands under the table. Grand-mère was pleased.
With each new adventure, our family’s mutual awareness flourished. One sweltering summer, we crammed like sardines into Grand-père‘s un-airconditioned Mercedes and drove far south to the Côte d’Azur. Our fighting, sweaty kids exasperated us. However; once we stepped foot on the beach of Bandol, every tiny grain of frustration lifted. We found joie de vivre dipping into the sparkly blue water and nibbling sandy pain d’épice. The boys didn’t even seem to notice the topless ladies on the beach! We bribed them to exchange snorkels for binoculars one day and take a side trip to the marshy Camargue to see the cowboys and pink flamingos. After tasting the delicate and crunchy Camargue fleur de sel, we stuffed our suitcase with jars of it swirled it into a pot of caramel once back home.
Over the years a joyous kaleidoscope of countless memories endure through anecdotes and laughter around our dinner table. French bonheur immeasurably shaped and enriched our family’s way of living, helped us create award-winning recipes from its scents and flavors, and to build a successful business upon it. Quel bonheur!
Shannon Grochowski founded La Châtelaine Chocolat Co, along with her French husband. When they’re not in working in their bustling shop, they’re restoring a house in Burgundy, where they teach Chocolate and Pastry-making workshops.