BAM! Frenchman Impressed!

By many, it is considered impossible to impress the French; I have, however, found a loophole.

During my most recent trip to le boucherie with MB, the butcher started chatting to me about being American.  Apparently, he had been a butcher in San Francisco for a stint (I’d love to know what that visa was).  After discussing the prerequisite things: where are you from, what are you doing here, etc.; he moved on to every Frenchman’s favorite topic…

“In America, you eat this?”  He said as he held up the groin of a pig.

As if he didn’t know.

“Not so much,” I responded.  “We are a bit precious about what we are willing to eat.”

He looked at me sadly.  “Oui.”

I think there is nothing that depresses a French person so much as someone who doesn’t enjoy good food.

Quickly, MB stepped in, “She eats everything though; she is very good.”

I looked at him with an amused expression.  Apparently, this was a point of honor for him.

“Ah, mais c’est bon!”  The butcher says, smiling at me.  “Pour vous, mademoiselle…”  He says as he cuts a healthy slice of a gelatinous, multi-colored terrine.  “I want to present this to you.”

“Merci beaucoup,”   I say without flinching.

“You know what this is?”  There is a devilish smile on his face.

“Oui,” I return, pleased that I could get this one right.  “ Fromage de tete!  I have already tried it before and I like it.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Head_cheese)

The butcher grins from ear to ear; a look of happy approval spread across his face.

BAM!  Frenchman impressed!

Upon my arrival in Paris, I ordered not one but two steak tartares on the first day.  At the restaurant of the second steak tartare, the waiter tried to get me to order something different.

“Does she know what it is?”  He asked MB.

“Of course, it is her favorite!”  He told the waiter.  “She already had one for lunch!”

I smiled up at the smug waiter sweetly…waiting for it.  Slowly his smug look was replaced with one of surprised appreciation.

BAM!  Frenchman impressed!

Everyone knows that the French love their food but not everyone knows quite how excited they get about it.  MB still tells people about the first time we met and how I told him that cassoulet was one of my favorite dishes; this is what piqued his interest in me…an American girl who loved food (BAM! Frenchman impressed).  I remember him looking at me dreamily from across the table as I described how good a hot bowl of cassoulet is on a cold, wintery evening.  To this day, I don’t know whether it was me or the thought of cassoulet that put stars in his eyes.

On my first weekend to meet and visit his parents I know they must have been worried; what would this American girl be like?  Would she turn her nose up at stinky cheese?  What if she is a vegetarian?! * At the first dinner, I could feel the tremor of apprehension in the air as food was set on the table…will she eat it?  Foie gras, homemade pate, pickles from the garden…

I almost passed out from excitement.

I pleased them immensely by devouring, fully, everything that was set before me and having no problem accepting the ‘seconds’ that were offered.  They were ecstatic.  (BAM!  Frenchmen impressed!)

The French connection with food is spiritual, in the truest sense of the word.  It is an integral part of every man, woman, and child; it is an integral part of being French.  Now, you might be thinking that all over the world people get excited about, and love to share, their food.  And to that, I say, the French are just like the rest of the world, only more so.**

Therefore, it is possible to impress the French; not just possible but utterly satisfying…on a variety of levels.    So, go for it!  Don’t order the hamburger or the steak frites; try the fromage de tete, order the tartare.  You might discover something that you love that you never knew existed and hey, even if you can’t stand it at least you have the satisfaction of surprising a society that has perfected the art of being blasé.

BAM!

*I’m not sure that the French government would allow foreign vegetarians into the country, as for the natural born vegetarians…they are tolerated.

**subtle Casablanca reference for those of you in the know

 

 

 

 

 

Fromage Part II: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The French attitude towards cheese is sort of like the porn industry’s attitude towards sex…no matter how bizarre your tastes are; someone out there is making something for you.

“Oh dear god, this is ridiculous.  MB – please, seriously!”  I have just opened our refrigerator and the smell of cheese has become completely over-whelming.  I am assaulted, almost knocked backwards by the pungent odour.    

“Quoi?”  He replies, as he wanders into the kitchen, unbothered.

“Are you really going to tell me you can’t smell this?”  I say, one hand on the refrigerator door and the other on my hip. 

“Ouais!!!  It smells amazing!”  I can practically see his tongue start to salivate. 

“Okay, I know, honey, but there is cheese from four months ago in there.”

“Ah oui?  Which ones?  They are probably perfect now!”

I can see my point is not getting across. 

“Okay, sweetie”, I say in my nicest voice, the same voice I would use if I were trying to coax a rabid dog away from a bone.  “The cheese is taking up about two-thirds of the fridge.”

“Ouais…”  He replies, nervously.

“We don’t have room for other groceries.”

He remains unphased, apparently a diet consisting entirely of cheese would be completely acceptable for him.

“I really need you to go through all this stuff and figure out which ones we are going to keep and which ones we are going to get rid of…please!” 

He looks like he’s been shot, and suddenly I feel no better than the Nazi officer in Sophie’s Choice.       

He gives me a sullen look, and then slowly begins to pull the cheese out of the refrigerator (it ends up covering the entire counter).  Gingerly, he opens each paper to see what treasure lies within.  There is brie from the market, the over-powering goat cheese that we bought from the farm in the mountains, the St. Felician that is almost completely liquid, the hard, soft, sweet, and bitter blues. The variety of mold is stunning.  I remember a cheese he once gave me that apparently had tiny little maggots in the surface which made it appear as though it were moving, ever so slightly.  Silently, I pray that we haven’t let that remain in the fridge for two months. 

He pulls out one huge round of what was once cheese and is now primarily a science experiment.

“Ah, okay, maybe this one we can get rid of,” he says, looking up at me. 

I stand stock-still and say nothing, not wanting to frighten away this inclination.

“No, what?  Am I crezee (crazy)?”  He looks relieved, as though he has just missed an incredibly close call with death.  “We can use this to make something great!  Maybe tartiflette!”  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tartiflette)

I think about this for a minute.  I mean, I really do like tartiflette.  Maybe we should go on and keep this cheese but others definitely have to go.

He continues on to the next one.  The mold is so thick I can’t even see the cheese underneath. 

“Oh MB, seriously, this ones gotta go!”

He cuts off one thick side to reveal the clean part of the cheese, and holds it up to my nose.  I almost pass out from the intensity of the smell…at the same time; my mouth starts to water a bit.  Damn you, tastebuds, you traitors!

“Perhaps in a fondue?”  MB looks at me and smiles.  He can sense my weakening resolve.

As we move through the cheese on the counter, a scraping of mold here, and a little trimming there creates the appropriate excuses to keep all the cheese.  One by one, they all end up returning to the refrigerator, only better organized. 

Finally, we come to the last ones.   He finds two little rounds of hard goat cheese (MB’s favorite), they are stuck together, one on top of the other, glued by a layer of dense, black, gooey-looking fungus.     He pulls them apart, and removes the offending fungus, then attempts to plunge a knife into the middle of one of them.  The knife nearly breaks in the process.  He pulls out a sharper knife and through great struggles, finally penetrates the cheese.  He pops a piece into his mouth and I hear a ‘crack’.

“Woah!”  He sticks a finger in his mouth. 

“What?  Is everything okay?  Oh my god, did you chip your tooth?”

“No, ca va.  I thought for a minute, I had though!” 

“Okay, so this one we can get rid of then?”

“Mais no…it is perfect, you want a piece?”

I look at him like he is crazy.  This man wants me to eat something that he almost cracked a tooth on. 

“Well, maybe just a little one.”

They eat horses, don’t they?

Watch this clip from The Neverending Storyhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y688upqmRXo.

This is what went through my mind shortly after my first experience eating horse meat.  We had just bought if from the chevaline (horse butcher), and we came home and ate it as a tartare…and god forgive me, it was delicious.  Every bite was riddled with the flavor of forbidden fruit; I could hear the angels weeping as I gobbled it down, yet still, I couldn’t stop myself.  What would Atreyu have thought of me?  He never would have fished Artax out of the swamp of sadness only to eat him.  But then, The Neverending Story wasn’t a French film. 

I remember when I first found out that they eat horse meat in France.

“What, are you serious?”  I looked at MB incredulously.  We were still living in Australia…a country where this idea would be absurd (why would you eat a horse when there are kangaroos?).

“Ouais…c’est normal,” he responded nonchalantly, as we strolled through the grocery store. 

“No,” I said.  “No, it is not normal!  How is that even legal?  They are horses!”

He didn’t react.

Horses,” I repeated, as though perhaps this emphasis would make The Yearling all of a sudden flash into his mind. 

“Quoi?” 

This was the end of the conversation.

In France, Seabiscuit wouldn’t have been Horse of the Year; he would have been dinner.

Coming to terms with this was, at first, shocking to me.  In the United States, it is illegal to sell horse meat in most states; in the U.K. it is legal but basically no one sells it.  Eating horse had just never previously occurred to me.  Sure, I knew that in ancient times the Mongolians would throw horse meat under their saddle to tenderize it before eating it tartare style (which must have had an interesting raw-hide, sweaty essence to it); but that was in the olden days right?  Not so much.  Horses are eaten in lots of countries, all over the world; and really, how could one expect the French not to eat something that is edible?  They have practically made a national pastime of frightening Anglos with their various “delicacies”.  Why would horse be any different?  Why should horse be any different?  I mean, what is it that makes this animal less appetizing than a friendly cow or a cute little lamb? 

And so it began…the rationalization that allowed me, the girl who cried when Boxer was sent to the glue factory in Animal Farm, to commit my horsey betrayal.

I have now eaten horse on two occasions. 

I mean, it does make for the best tartare on earth, being both rich in flavor and essentially devoid of fat.  Anyway, I have nothing to be ashamed of; lots of people do it.  Stop judging me!  Whatever, I don’t care; I know its okay.  I’m fine with it; I don’t feel guilty…at all.  So what if I haven’t been able to look a horse in the eye since?  That doesn’t mean anything!

Sometimes they eat Vegetables in France

“Mais oui, there are vegetables in the dish; it is a fondue with mushrooms.”

Over the past weekend, MB, my parents and I journeyed through Provence.  A region full of stereotypes about how beautiful it is and how great the food is and what a relaxing atmosphere it has…they are all true.  Through the great efforts of MB, we were able to avoid the inevitable throng of English tourists that take over the south of France in July and August and find smaller, quieter areas.  We had a wine tasting in Chateauneuf du Pape (the only varietal that uses up to 13 different grapes), we drove through Orange and saw one of the best preserved Roman Theaters in the world, we swam in the Mediterranean, we played Petanque (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P%C3%A9tanque) and drank rosé, we relaxed and enjoyed the unbelievable scenery.  But most importantly, we ate.

Now, most of my time in France has been spent in the Rhone-Alps in winter.  This is a region known for things like cheese fondue, raclette, and tartiflette.  When I order a salad, it is not unusual for it to come dressed with things like poached eggs, foie gras, gesiers (gizzards), magret de canard, and a variety of other fattening and delightful items.  Once, I had a salad in which the salad dressing was literally liquid cheese (it was fabulous).  So, while vegetables always make an appearance, my experience, in France, has been that they perform the back-up vocals for the stars: meat and cheese.  Not so in Provence; in Provence, it is just the opposite. 

On our first afternoon, we were startled to see plates coming out of a kitchen with plain fish, carrot, turnip, snails, and green beans…there was no cheese, there was no meat.  I began to think I had wandered into an alternate universe when, luckily, the huge bowl of aioli arrived at the table and I felt reassured that I was still in France.  But even with this, it was a revelation, the vegetables and the fish were the headliners and the aioli was the subtle accoutrement (okay, not so subtle – it was a spicy, intense, awesome, garlic endorphin rush).  Where was the butter and cream laden sauce?  Where was my meat, wrapped in meat, cooked in meat fat? 

Later that evening we went to a restaurant in Castellet* (http://www.provenceweb.fr/e/var/castellt/castellt.htm) for a 10:30 dinner…only in France can my parents stay up this late.  The waiter comes to the table as we are pouring over the menu and kindly offers some advice:

“You are in Provence; you get the vegetables.  Foie gras ?  No, this is for winter.”

I’m sorry, did I hear that correctly?  Did a Frenchman just tell me not to order the foie gras?  We adhered to his consul and enjoyed a variety of vegetable heavy dishes: vegetables stuffed with sausage, vegetable carpaccio, pesto soup with vegetables, etc.  Granted, afterwards, my parents and MB shared a huge entrecote (big hunk o’ beef), but again, it arrived unencumbered by rich sauces or salty cheeses and instead was presented by itself, beautifully cooked (my Mother salted it and I’m not sure my Father has forgiven her).

So, Provence has broadened my food horizons in France to include more than just meat and cheese.  Now, I will feel less guilty about serving vegetables as a main course at dinner; I will just tell people it is ‘Provencale’.  It is summer, afterall.  Perhaps, I will change my whole cooking style and for the rest of the year MB and I will focus on vegetable heavy meals with low-fat proteins like fish…I mean, except for tonight of course, our neighbor offered to make us a fondue, its not like you can say no, that would just be rude, right?  Anyway, I’m sure they’ll be mushrooms in it.    

*If anyone wants any further information about where we stayed or ate on this trip just let me know and I’ll be happy to provide details.

Perfection and the Art of Junk Food

MB looked down at the bowl I presented him with apprehension. 

“Just try it,” I say.  “If you don’t like it, no big deal; it’s a weird American thing.  Trust me; I’ll finish it if you don’t want it.”

He smiles wanly, but gamely picks up his spoon and has a bite.  He looks up in thought, as though considering the best way to describe it.

“It is strange (MB pronunciation: strenge),” he says. 

He may be the first French person to ever bring themselves to eat Kraft Macaroni and Cheese (or at least to admit it).

The French like to pretend that they only consume high quality cuisine and that an American diet consists only of fast food, flavorless food, fried food, and fatty food.  More than once I have been told “ketchup cuisine” in reference to American cooking.  It seems that regardless of what chefs or restaurants we produce, the stigma stays. 

When I first arrived in France, these methods of intimidation had worked; I believed that the French would never deign to eat something processed (!!) and only consumed quality, fresh, or homemade foods.  Then, one dark and stormy night (okay, so on a normal Wednesday evening), MB came home with something…unexpected, frightening…something that would change my French life forever.

The thunder cracked as he threw the grocery bag down on the counter. 

“I went shopping,” he said, full of innocence. 

I turned from the stove to look at him.  The light from the storm cast malevolent shadows across his face as he smiled. 

“Oh?” I questioned, quickly returning to my sauté pan.  The oil (okay, fine, it was butter alright? BUTTER) was getting hot and I jumped as an angry bubble burst and snapped at my forearm.  The air was tense. 

MB went to the double doors in the kitchen and threw them open; the thick, humidity entered the room like a presence.  Chills ran up my spine.

“So, check it out,” he grinned, as he slowly reached into the grocery bag. 

I looked up, and just as the product emerged, lightening lit up the room.  I gasped and stumbled back a step.  He held the hot pink metallic rectangle up in the air like some sort of ominous beacon.

“What is it?”  I said, tremulously.

“Just try one…” he replied, as he pulled a red cube from its sheath.

The thunder rumbled in the distance, perhaps as a warning.  Tentatively, I plucked it from his hand and began to unwrap.  He watched me, anxiously, as I brought it to my mouth. 

“Blech!  What tha-what is this?!?”

He flipped the light on.  “Quoi?”

“I don’t understand what this is.  It’s like ham flavored processed cheese.”

“No, it’s delicious!”  He popped one in his mouth and began unwrapping a second.  “There’s ham, tomato, goat cheese-”

“Goat cheese,” I interrupted.    “Goat cheese flavored cheese?  Why not just get actual goat cheese?”   

“Ouais,” MB said nonchalantly, as though that somehow answered the question.

I had just been introduced to Apericubes (here is just one example, there is a wide variety: http://bernartze.unblog.fr/files/2010/09/apericubetourdumonde.jpg ) , processed cheese cubes flavored to taste like vegetables, meats, other cheeses; life would never be the same. 

After that fateful, evening I started noticing things that had theretofore gone unseen.  Suddenly, processed cheese was everywhere and there seemed to be an unusual amount of fast food places.  I noticed 6 brands of crabsticks (you know the fish shaped to look like crab legs) in the grocery store and a plethora of frozen, yet fully constructed (bun and all), cheeseburgers in the frozen food section.  The cereal aisle was full of sugary cereals; muesli filled to the brim with chunks of chocolate.  Even the French eat junk food!  (!!!!!!!!)    

Once at a neighborhood wine store, the clerk asked me where I was from and I told him I was American.  “Ah well, nobody’s perfect,” he responded with a laugh. 

Clearly, the French have one of the best cuisines in the entire world, one that they should be (and are) justifiably proud of; no one is arguing that.  But to all those “ketchup cuisine” snobs who look disdainfully at American cuisine, I would like to offer an Apericube and remind them that “oui, nobody’s perfect.”

Congratulations! You’re having a cheese baby!

For most of my life I have basically fluctuated between the same ten pounds; I have either been at the low end or the high end since I was about 16.  In recent years, (years spent in outdoor adventure lands like Australia and New Zealand) I have stayed at the low-end.  However, after only 3 months in France I am 5 pounds up and creeping towards my highest weight.  I don’t often weigh myself; I think it is an overly-critical, typically inaccurate, and a cruel thing to do to oneself; rather, I judge weight by one pair of jeans.  If they fit perfectly then I am doing alright, if they are loose then I’m doing better than alright, and if they are tight then it is time to make the tough choices.

 For the last few weeks, I have been ignoring the ill-fit of my favorite pair of Sevens but when I arrived for my physical at the consulate a few days ago there was no hiding it; there were two extra kilos (4.4 lbs) that did not exist a few months back. 

“Don’t worry, you are normal, see,” said the nurse as she showed me a chart with my weight on it.  “Ca va?”  Not ‘ca va’.

Later, on the tram ride home, I grimaced as I re-adjusted my jeans to cover my newly acquired gut that I lovingly refer to as my cheese baby.   I know that I need to cut back and be more reasonable about what I am eating but I’m just not sure how to do it (I ponder this as I drop egg yolks into the blender to make homemade mayonnaise).  Is it really reasonable to ask any food-loving person to cut back on calories after arriving in France?  It would be like asking Keith Richards to hang out with a drug cartel for a year but stay clean.

When I arrived, I had no idea how much trouble I was going to be in.  I have felt like the awe-struck Julia Child in Julie&Julia when she arrives in Paris and after tasting an exquisite dish exclaims, “the French eat French food everyday!”   On my second day in town I was riding through city centre and I thought to myself, cool, there are so many good French restaurants!  Doh!  I have made myself so accustomed to looking for French restaurants in every town I’ve lived in that I literally didn’t think about the fact that I was in France (first red flag).  For the first few weeks, I regularly dined on lunches consisting of baguette, pate, and cheese (glorious cheese) followed by 3 course dinners out.  Hey, I was in Europe now, there’s no getting fat, right?  I’ve turned into a street dog, which is afraid at any moment; their food bowl will be taken away.  Eat it now, eat it all now!

Somehow, I am going to have to convince myself that France is not going to stop producing cheese and foie-gras, that they will continue to provide me with warm, crusty bread and cream laden sauces.  I need to remember that I actually live here and that this isn’t a vacation…I have over a year to try to eat France.

Le Fromage: Part 1, The Faith

(Part 1 because one can only assume that there will be further cheese posts as this is a blog about France)

This is how it goes: 

I’m having a nice, quiet evening at home, alone.  I have a glass of red wine and I’ve just finished a delightful and satisfying meal.  I’m not really hungry anymore; perhaps I just need a snack to top myself off.  I could just have a piece of chocolate…I could.  Instead, I reach for the baguette and rip off a hearty chunk. 

It begins. 

Lovingly, I design the plate; taking a slice of this and a wedge of that.  The smell that emanates is both menacing and enticing.  I look, expectantly, at the fat-laden ooze making its way, lethargically, across the plate.  Do I really need to have a cheese course when I am eating at home alone in front of the television?  No, but it is just so damn good.

Depending on what source you reference, the French have anywhere from 50-1000 different types of cheeses.   The official cheeses from the AOC (appellation d’origine controlee) run somewhere between 45-55.  When France decided to join the EU, one of the major concerns of the French people was that their cheese would suffer (this concern remains today).  So is it any wonder that I’ve fallen prey to the seduction of French cheese?  Le fromage is a religion in France and these are a devout people. 

I had thought that I knew cheese; I wasn’t a processed-cheese-eating, kraft-single American.  I went to the markets and Whole Foods and bought good, interesting cheeses.  I have now come to understand that I knew nothing.  It started back in Australia, when, on our second date, my boyfriend (from now on to be known as MB: ‘Monsieur Boyfriend’) offered me some of his cheese that had been shipped to him from France, the stench was over-whelming and wildly romantic.  We locked eyes and he waited with anticipation as I took my first bite.  The flavor was transcedental; something between passion and hatred.  The satiny, smooth, milky richness sat in my mouth for but a moment before transforming itself and pinching the sides of my tongue with tangy, bitterness.  My eyes rolled into the back of my head and when I came-to, I again found the gaze of MB; there was a new understanding between us, I had been brought into the fold.

So, I suppose now there is no going back; I have committed myself fully in my devotion to le fromage.  It is a relationship full of suprises and unexpected sensations but never, ever boring; and I suspect I will be a dedicated follower for life.

Small Victories

“Immersion is the best and easiest way to learn a foreign language,” everyone says.  This may be true in the long run, but in the short term it’s madness.  You have to battle anxiety just to take a walk around the neighborhood for fear that someone might speak to you.  Clearly this opinion is espoused by people who either have an unhealthy amount of self-confidence, or have never done it.  Now yes, I listened to my CDs relentlessly before coming, and I thought that I knew enough to get around, but in real life no one speaks like they do on language CDs.  Hearing a woman repeat the word ‘l’appartement’ 50 times with perfect enunciation does nothing for me when I hear people use it in conversation.  Last week, we had a maid come to clean our ‘appartement’ and she and I had so much trouble understanding each other that I eventually went to google-translate and typed my question in and showed it to her.  “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

So when I arrived at my Boucher’s yesterday and he began peppering me with questions I was, understandably, unnerved.  I froze, my palms sweating, my mind racing.  Please God, don’t let me be the disappointing foreigner (insert: American) who hasn’t bothered to learn the language!  Desperately I searched my mind trying to pick up a word or two out of the sentences that I understood so that I could figure out what he was asking me (note: I would like to thank my Elementary School teachers for enforcing  the importance of context clues upon me).  Then, like the sun from behind the clouds, recognition dawned in my brain:  he wanted to know how long I had been here.  By some miracle, I answered…perfectly.  He understood me and continued with the questions until we had completed a civil and relatively informative conversation.  YES!

“Okay,” you might be thinking.  “You spoke to your butcher; that’s totally amazing.” (eye roll)

Well.  It is. 

This is one of the great things about traveling and moving overseas that no one ever tells you about and which I am finding even more true when there is a language barrier:  you get to become a child again (in the best sense, not in the ‘people telling you what to do all the time’ sense).  Managing to accomplish little tasks is a big deal and feels amazing!  When you have just moved to a new country and you are figuring things out, everything is a triumph.  When you figure out how to open your bank account or set up your cell phone; you feel impressed with yourself.  You may have lived in a large and complicated city back home, you may have street smarts, but the first time you navigate the subway or tram system in your new town you will give yourself a pat on the back.  When a stranger asks you for directions and you can give them you will feel oh-so-cool.  And yes, the first time you manage to understand what someone is saying and how to respond to them you will feel like skipping all the way home. 

It’s a beautiful reminder that travel gives you; the reminder to appreciate yourself and your ability to adapt and learn things.  The reminder to challenge yourself, come what may!  As a child we have these moments all the time; every new thing we learn fills us with a sense of pride and elation at our own ability to have accomplished something.  And why should that ever change? 

So, merci Monsieur Boucher, I appreciate the gentle reminder…oh and the caillettes were good too!