All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

France's (frozen) Cultural Heritage

Restaurant Le MalesanImage by nedoho via Flickr
There are many facets of the French dream....chic women sipping mineral water in pavement cafes, old men in berets playing boules in sunlit southern squares, a glass of pink wine on the terrace as the sun sets over the  fields of lavender behind your holiday home, quaint villages silent in the heat of noon, the wine...and the food.

Yes, the food.

UNESCO evidently shares the dream as it listed French gastronomy as part of its intangible heritage programme in 2010, together with gingerbread making in northern Croatia and the technique of making leak proof joints for Chinese junks, which makes the hype about this in the French press somewhat overblown...but,there, if it is not overblown it could not be hype.

Following the earlier jacking down of the VAT rate on restaurant meals from 19.6% to 5.5% all should have been plain sailing in the world of fruits de mer and vol au vents, but someone has thrown a (frozen?) baguette in the roues.

The National Assembly is debating a proposition to oblige restaurateurs to mark with an asterisk items on their menus which are made from fresh produce, as opposed to those  using frozen or pre prepared products.

Panic in the dove cotes!

Why should this be?

After all, according to UNESCO's Paris press office one of the factors influencing the listing was
'The choice of good products, mainly rural, the assembling of dishes and wines, the decoration of the table and the gestures of smelling and tasting what has been served on the table.'

All right, you have to depend on the customers for the smelling and tasting bit...but the rest, the 'choice of good products, mainly rural' etc  is under the control of the restaurateur, so where is the problem?

One does not imagine, does one, that all this stuff that comes to your table under silver domes, lifted in unison by waiters rejected by the national synchronised swimming team, is anything but the result of' 'the choice of good products, mainly rural'?

No imagination is needed.
One knows.

Madame Cuistot will be seen in Leclerc loading up with special offer charcuterie and bags of mixed salad for her lunchtime buffet menu at the local caff..

The Argel delivery van will be unloading frozen cassoulet at the back street restaurant in Chiottes la Gare...

The Brake delivery van will be doing likewise with civet of hare at the market place restaurant in Benitierville...

While Monsieur Tourne-Fric, owner of Chateau Blanchelinge, has taken his own refrigerated van to the branch of Picard in the next big town but one to avoid
A. Frozen food delivery vans being seen to drive up to his restaurant...
B. Being seen by any of his clients in the car park of  the nearest branch.

I was not a great fan of eating out while in France...too many examples of 'le gastro' afterwards, but there is no doubt that good food is to be had...just look at Sarah Hague's evening out at La Reserve's just that it is not as prevalent as the French dream would have you believe.

I used to find that a fair clue was the length of the menu.
If it was more than a page long and promising everything from pike in yellow sauce to veal kidneys flamande then you could take a fair bet that the training of the kitchen staff owed more to smart co ordination of freezer and microwave than to co ordination between stove and table.
How would it be possible to offer so much if everything was cooked from scratch?
The waste bins would be overflowing with goodies and the night would be peopled with frugally minded British expats in balaclavas filling their carrier bags.

Good places have small menus..and that goes for the top of the range place right down to the caff, though there is a caveat with the caff....the menu is so small it might just be the 'plat du jour' and when that 'plat du jour' is andouillette it might be preferable to retire before hostilities commence.

How will you know if the 'plat du jour' is andouillette?
Because as you open the door of the caff a smell resembling the Calais sewers in an August heatwave will hit you.
That's how.

There was a brasserie in Angers which I used to like when in the was big, busy and bustling and had a few staple items plus one or two specials, so the kitchen could concentrate on getting things right.
It wasn't cheap, but it was good.

Not cheap either and generally not so good used to be the 'chateau' restaurants where a lot of emphasis was laid on the decor, the gardens, the lighting...but not so much on the food which was either straight from the freezer with a bit of decor or the chef owner's interpretation of 'fusion'.
Fission might have been a better description of some of the combinations on offer.
And nuclear my reaction on seeing the prices!

We occasionally stepped into these hallowed palaces of hype when we had had visitors who would persist on wanting to take us out as a thank you....though we felt that it should have been the other way round for all the pleasure and laughter they gave us, not to speak of the shopping, the cooking and the washing up!
It would have been more than churlish to refuse, however....the ladies had packed frocks and intended to wear them.

The whole afternoon before the evening reservation, every bathroom and most of the bedrooms would be occupied by ladies undergoing titivation while the men anaesthetised themselves on the balcony with a few cold bottles, only to disappear into the garden for something or other the moment the ladies emerged, primped and preening.
By the time whippers in had been sent to gather the men, all the bathrooms and bedrooms would be occupied again by men being pushed unwillingly into something more formal than shorts and polo shirts and the whippers in re titivating themselves.
You needed a pack of collies to keep that lot under control.

The GPS would be confiscated and we would set off in convoy travelling dark country lanes which seemed to become narrower at every turning until the back end of the convoy would start flashing headlights to signal alarm and despondency.
It was fatal to stop and go back to reassure them that yes, you did know where you were...yes, you did know where the chateau was...because inevitably the driver of the last car had a concealed GPS about his person which was intent on sending him to the destination via two motorways and a grass track.
It was safer just to drive on until reaching the chateau gates, where a lighted drive led you to the car park which was usually some distance from the restaurant area so that views of the gardens could be preserved.

High heels scrunching on the gravel...and the party stops for the man who managed to evade his wife's surveillance and kept on his sandals who now has gravel under his socks and will not go a step further until it is removed.
Wife displeased and vocal.
The man holding open the doors of the restaurant puzzled.

Arriving in the bar to a sotto voce argument about sandals going on in the background, the whole farce would swing into action....aperitifs and nibbles.....ordering, requests for translation followed by disbelief...'foie gras and hibiscus jelly?!.... 35 euros for a bit of pollock?!....more aperitifs, male muttering about enough of these whiff-whaffs and where was the grub?...and we're in the dining room, all chandeliers, table linen in strange pastel colours guaranteed to clash with the food and the inevitable wonky table.

I'm not sure whether it was because it was a party of foreigners or whether the serving staff were picked on the basis of looking as though there was a bad smell under their noses but almost inevitably there was an air of condescension about the service which would degenerate into downright disapproval as one member of the party, having become disgruntled at the wine waiter's practice of keeping the table's wine at a distance and going into a trance whenever one tried to catch his eye, got up and brought the wine coolers to the table where the party served itself. idea how to behave...

It was fun to dress up and go out, but I think I had more pleasure in some of the little places we dropped into by accident, coming back later than expected and in no mood for cooking.

One such was on the edge of a hunting property, a cottage with long tables and benches, where Madame served pate, stew and cheese.
Take it or leave it.

We took it....and so did a big party coming in shortly afterwards, led by an ex President of France.
We ate pate, stew and cheese, drank wine from the store kept by for the Ex's parties and finished the evening to a chorus of trompes de chasse playing out in the road with half the village gathered to enjoy it.

Forget the lilac table linen and the chandeliers...that was real ambience.

And that was one place that would have had no problems with the asterisks.

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  1. Brilliant post Fly. And so true. Of course it's not just France. It happens everywhere. We have many restaurants here, in the tourist areas, who have vast menus, like small paperbacks, not only offering Turkish cuisine, but French, Italian, Chinese, Indıan. You name it...they can produce it. The tourists flock to them. How can they be so stupid as to think all these dishes can be produced by one Turkish "chef" assisted by a couple of boys from the villages?

    I stick to the small family-run lokantas whenever we get a chance to eat out. A few delicious Turkish dishes, beautifully cooked and very cheap.

  2. My first travels through France were as a passenger in a lorry (truck) traveling to deliver China Clay from Cornwall and load up with wine on the return trip. Ever since I have chosen "Routier" road side restaurants with the fullest parking lots as a sign of good food. I miss being included at the tables reserved for the drivers, but they're still a sure bet for quality.

  3. Indeed, the brief (and seasonal) menu is usually the better option.
    If only all menus came with such witty prose on the reverse...

  4. If ever we're out and about and need a good lunch, we look for the bar with the most artisan's vans outside it.

    They're the indication of excellent food and good prices.

    Smashing blog today, really enjoyed it.


  5. Good places have small menus - that little nugget of wisdom is the most palatable and delicious of all.

  6. A sensible proposal from a government, for a change. What is the world coming too? I wonder if it will be passed. And if so, who will check on compliance.

  7. Ayak, when in Turkey...well, when anywhere really... we looked for places off the tourist beat - and had super food!

    English Rider, we were so far off the beaten track in France that there were no 'routier' places nearby, but when travelling by car we sought them out.
    Mark you, the sight of lorry drivers taking a glass of eau de vie with their breakfast coffee could be a bit disconcerting...

    dinahmow...I blush, disclaim and retire....

    SP... ditto above! Thank you.

    Steve...I should just have left it at that, really, shouldn't I?

  8. Pueblo girl, compliance? Probably the usual story in France..a quick backhander...

  9. Yep, white van man rules :-)

  10. Rosie, what amused me was that some places were proud to say that such and such a firm did their food!
    Down in the next village the caff promoted their food with a notice
    'As bought from.xxxx'!
    The firm was, however, based just down the road and most of the potential clientele worked there.

  11. One of the things we have been surprised by is the number of French clients who tell us how pleased they are that we use fresh ingredients.

    This legislation will surely scare the pants off at least one of our "locals".

    I, too, wonder about an army of civil servants inspecting and enforcing.

    Fortunately, being a gite with food, we seem to escape mainstream classification.

  12. I wish that I had read this post before our recent trip to France. As a result of a cheap meal on our last night there I had a very uncomfortable ferry crossing the following day.

  13. Mark in Mayenne, I too can think of a number of candidates for asterisk inspection...and, as you say, being 'out of the box' in terms of classification you should remain untroubled, though I'm sure you could asterisk every item!

    cheshire wife....and it's not only the cheap meals!

  14. Chow hounding fresh and tasty food in busy off piste eateries is my primary raison d’etre when travelling abroad and probably the only subject I could never tire of either reading or talking about. Pompous maitre d’s are my natural nemesis’s, so I no longer park myself in those white linen covered dominions they love to preside over. If I can’t hear a bustling cacophony of cheery, animated conversation, loud enough to lay mute the sounds of cutlery jinking against china, then I move on till I can. Like you, any menu with more than four pages gets my brow furrowing, whereas no menu what so ever makes me smile and gawp at the kitchen door for the earliest signs of my first plate of food emerging.

    Your final tale concerning the meal at the cottage on the edge of the hunting property rings all my bells and then some. The perfect eating orientated experience bar none. Moments such as that, rarely get much better. I’ve had the good fortune to share in a number of them myself and they remain as epic and joyous in my memory as ever, to this day. I empathise with the poor guy wearing sandals over gravel, it’s such a bummer when that happens. In all frankness it was a similar experience that got me up onto high heels in the first place. Those front cross straps are so much better at crimping all your toes together aren’t they.

    A wonderful and tasty post with a great desert to finish off with.

  15. Bish Bosh Bash, I had no idea you were into foot binding...!

    Like you, I like to hunt out decent food and like you, some of the places dropped into by chance have been the best.
    I can remember a workmen's cafe in Tunisia...stunning flavours!
    And while I think about it more and more come to mind...but none with starched linen.

  16. Pub up the road from me has a sign that says ' only thing from the freezer we serve is ice cream'

    Which remins me of a sign there used to be behind the bar of the pub in my village in Northumberland

    'There's one conversation here - join in or bugger off!'

  17. Mark...and the sign in the loo at a friend's B and B....
    'Nothing to go down here which has not been passed personally.'

    They were on a French septic tank system and that notice worked where mere reminders did not.

  18. Love this post and now I have the perfect link to send people who joke when we tell them we moved from France, "You probably left cause you couldn't get anything good to eat, ha ha" and I say, yes, that's part of the reason. If they see your post, maybe they'll believe me when I say one of the main criteria for choosing a restaurant was "will I get out of there without food poisoning?"

    Thanks for putting it all across so entertainingly.

  19. Amy, we have never had food poisoning in either Costa Rica, Nicaragua or Honduras despite eating in wooden shacks or from BBQs on the roadside...can't say the same for French caffs or restaurants...
    Hey, isn't it great to be living again!

  20. It always surprises me here...the lack of really good food. It's not at all what I expected. It's as if all of France is resting on its laurels thinking we're going to salivate all over them just because it's France. But the great food the most unlikely places. The best place I have ever eaten here is at a mas(ranch) in the Camargue. OMG, Sylvie's Bouillabaise ...or Moules Mouclade just knock me over....every time. And we're all in our cowboy boots and dirty jeans. Love it!

  21. Delana, how I agree!
    But good food was to be friends' houses for the most part!

  22. Oh, the sound of the Brakes Bros vans in the light of early dawn!

    Smashing post as usual, Fly, and just too true. We do find good food at reasonable prices in our bit of Normandy, but not often enough. I can think of a couple of village/small town restaurants with small menus and a large, loyal clientele, where we are never disappointed, but the best meal I've ever had in the area was at a friend's kitchen table - just mouthwatering.

  23. Perpetua, good food was at a premium in my area...lots of caffs with everything from the freezer and up market joints with same...but, like you, the best meals were at the tables of friends...those ladies could cook!