lundi 13 septembre 2010

F is for Food

F is for food

Trop de cuisiniers gatent la sauce — too many cooks spoil the broth

The cheese counters and shelves of any large French hypermarché are probably around the size of your average Tesco Metro in London.

Charles de Gaulle once asked: “How can anyone govern a nation that has 246 different kinds of cheese?” And Winston Churchill said in 1940: “A country producing almost 360 different types of cheese cannot die.”

You see, that’s the trouble with French cheeses, no one really knows how many there are. It’s thought there are now around 400 different varieties, although Wikepedia puts the number as high as 1,000 — but they are probably including different types of the same cheese. Complicated, isn’t it? Problems of government aside — I am sure Nicolas Sarkozy does not rank cheese high on his agenda, and Carla probably thinks it’s too fattening — we have vowed to taste every one, from Abbaye du Mont-des-Cats to Vieux Lille. (My current favourite is Pechegos, an absolutely delicious goats’ cheese that we buy direct from the producer.)

When eating out, restaurant portions are not as big as those in the US. But, as there are exceptions to everything, here are some helpful pointers. If a second waiter and the proprietor come up to check whether you really do want a portion each of the dish you have ordered, you know a mammoth plateful is on its way. And if the waiter leans over and asks in a stage whisper whether you want a ‘petit dessert’, you can bet that the concoction soon to be set in front of you — perhaps with a sparkler fizzing away on top of it — will contain several scoops of ice cream, a mound of Chantilly, some chocolate sauce, a handful of strawberries, a wafer and a slug or two of strong liqueur. You have been warned.

If you decide to order your steak, lamb or duck ‘bien cuit’ (well done), be prepared to wilt under the disapproving glances of anyone within hearing distance. Not that it really matters — however you ask for it cooked, the dish put in front of you would undoubtedly merit the description ‘rare’ in the UK.

It’s true to say that the French appreciation of food begins early. At the primary school in our road, alongside a notice urging parents to check their children’s heads for nits, they display the three-course daily lunch menu that the kids will enjoy. Today, duck breast and veal in mushroom sauce feature. Even with the efforts of Jamie Oliver, I can’t see UK schools offering similar fare.

There are some French foods that divide opinion. Foie gras has Sir Roger Moore picketing the stores that sell it, but is on every menu here. You can still find butchers that specialize in horse meat, and how about some donkey sausage for lunch?

To some, snails are a delicacy, to others a fate worse than a Bushtucker trial. The main problem with snails is actually getting at them. They are served in their  shells, in their own specially-designed dish and come with the appropriate tools, namely a pincer and a pin for getting at them. But get your grip wrong, and your snail — which is covered with lashing of garlic butter — flies across the restaurant and into the potage of the lady at the next table. She smiles weakly and, you guess through gritted teeth, murmurs ‘Ce n’est pas grave’ — that wonderful French phrase for ‘It’s OK’ that is so useful in such situations. You, in your turn, mutter, ‘Je suis désolé’, the catch-all for ‘I’m really, really sorry’.

Frogs legs too are delicious, but so fiddly that I’m never sure they’re worth the effort.

Personally, it’s tripe, whether in the mode of Caen or a l’ancienne, that has me screaming ‘non merci’. I still remember with horror the time we mistakenly bought some andouilles (tripe sausages). They. Were. Horrible. And pigs’ trotters are definitely a taste that I have yet to acquire.

However, offer me a plate of confit du canard, moules et frites, boeuf  bourguignon, fruits de mer, charcuterie [cold meat] or cassoulet and I won’t say no. And although you can’t get a decent curry, you can get amazing couscous and paella.

Outside large towns, France is not really that geared to vegetarians, whose choice is invariably limited to crudités and a mushroom omelette.

P.S. Perhaps now is the right moment to apologise to the waiter at our local restaurant. We really don’t know why our guest suddenly decided to thrust her lettuce, complete with dressing, into your hand. But, anyway, je suis désolée.

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