Fall-N-France

Conversations with France, Cultural Differences, French Food, Holidays in France

I am walking through the neighborhood market when I spot France picking through a basket of Girolles (Chanterelles).

ME:  What up, France?

I put my hand up for a high five but all I get back is an eye roll.

FRANCE:  Bonjour, Américaine.  Why is your hand up?  You are going to hit me or what?

ME:  Like you don’t know what I am doing.

FRANCE:  Knowledge is not the same as compliance.  Bise like a normal person.

ME:  Didn’t you read my last post about that?

FRANCE:  Quoi?  Of course I don’t read your blog.

France looks indignant before leaning in to look very closely at a mushroom.

FRANCE:  …as though I would care what you write about me…

ME:  What?  I couldn’t hear you.

FRANCE:  Of course you couldn’t!  I wasn’t speaking four decibels too high; I am sure your Américain ear can only hear sounds that shatter glass.

I sigh and start to walk off.

FRANCE:  Quoi?  I thought we were having a conversation and now you just walk away without a word.  You know, I don’t know why you call me rude… vraiment!

ME:  Incorrigible.

FRANCE:  What was that?

ME:  Nothing.  So what are you getting?  Going to have something special for dinner tonight?

FRANCE:  I haven’t decided yet.  You will have a cheeseburger, non?

ME:  Yeah, I eat cheeseburgers all day every day.

I am being sarcastic.

FRANCE:  I know you do.

I give France a look but France just shrugs and lights a cigarette.

FRANCE:  This is the month of your “Thanksgiving”, yes?

ME:  Yep, in two weeks, I’m surprised you remembered that.

FRANCE:  Yes, well it’s hard to forget about a holiday based on you massacring a people and then celebrating it year after year by overeating and giving yourselves diabetes.  Sort of sticks in the mind.

I roll my eyes.

ME:  You know it is actually a really nice holiday.  You have all your family around, maybe your friends as well and you take some time to contemplate the things you are grateful for in your life.

France puts out the cigarette and continues walking towards the cheese vendor.

FRANCE:  Why do you need a holiday for this?  Can’t you just be grateful all year long?

I sigh again.

FRANCE:  Do you have a breathing problem?  Today you sigh very much.

ME:  Maybe it’s all the cigarettes.

I smile sweetly.  France smirks and gives me a look of approval.

ME:  But yeah, of course you should be grateful all year long – Thanksgiving is just a reminder to really think about it and talk about and share it with those that you love.

FRANCE:  Sounds exhausting, you Américains always needing to talk about your feelings.

ME:  So you don’t want to tell me anything you are grateful for?

FRANCE:  Pfff…I’m grateful to be French, quoi, so I don’t have to go through this stoopeed ritual every year!

ME:  MB is French and he is excited for Thanksgiving.

FRANCE:  Ah, you mean this man who lived in Australia for 6 years and is now married to an Américaine.  Oui, of course he is excited.

ME:  We’re going to have a big party you know…

I look at France with my eyebrows raised in a question mark.  France ignores me and looks into the cheese display.

ME:  If memory serves you had a pretty good time at the 4th of July party.

FRANCE:  WHAT?!  I did not!  It was average at best, huh!  A good time, who do you think I am?  Brazil?!

ME:  All I’m saying is that you stayed pretty late and seemed to get along well with everyone.

FRANCE: pffff…

ME:  So….?

FRANCE:  Quoi?  So?  What?  You are so tiring, why you must drag everything out?

ME:  Maybe I like to watch your squirm?

France suppresses a laugh.

FRANCE:  Sometimes you don’t make me want to gag, Américaine.

I smile and give France a pat on the back.  France quickly shrugs me off and looks at me with disdain.

FRANCE:  Everything is so difficult with this relationship.  I have no idea what cheese to bring that will go with turkey!

ME:  Oh, but won’t you be thankful to find out?!

France gives me the first real smile of the day.

 FRANCE: Peut-être, Américaine…peut-être.

 

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Life and Foie Gras

French Food, Uncategorized

“So what do you think?”

MB and I are whispering in the kitchen.

“I mean, I guess we could,” he says.

“Is it too much?  Maybe it is too much.”  I am feeling doubtful as I look over at my guests.

“Well, it is probably too much but who cares?”

This seems like a good point and I grab the jar of foie gras out of the cupboard.  A friend of mine from the U.S. is staying with is for one night with two of his ski buddies that I have just met.  Even though they are not hungry and we are going to fondue later that evening, I cannot resist the urge to ply them with French goodies.  I have already put out a cheese plate and now I am pulling out a bottle of sauterne and onion confit for the foie gras.

“Wait!  We don’t have baguette!”  MB says.

“That’s okay,” I say, throwing on my coat.  “I will go and buy some!”

MB looks at me incredulously.

“Really?”

“Yeah, it’s totally fine, you stay here and drink wine.  I’ll be right back.”

MB can’t believe his luck; this never happens.

Normally, to get me to leave the house at night time when it is about -10˚C (7˚F) there would need to be some sort of disaster, maybe there is a burglar or a fire…even then, it is possible I would choose death over being cold (depending on how much wine I have consumed).  However, the mere notion of being able to serve foie gras for the first time to two people I’ve never met has me shooting out of the house like some sort of weird food-oriented super hero (maybe with an “FG” logo on my unitard…and a slight pot belly).

Upon return from the bakery, I crack open the foie gras and pour the wine.  I watch, expectantly as our two guests try their first ever bit of foie gras.  Casually I take a sip of my wine, acting as though I don’t care at all whether or not they think it is totally amazing.

Slowly, one of them begins to speak.  “It’s-,” he breaks off and takes another bite.  “It’s not what I expected.”

“Not what you expected good or not what you expected bad?”  My voice sounds tense as I desperately try to keep my cool disinterest.

“Definitely, definitely not what I expected in a good way.”

MUHAHAHAHA!  SUCCESS!

I’m thrilled.

Throughout my entire life, I have cherished the moments when I’ve been able to watch someone else enjoy something that I, too, have enjoyed.  It’s like sharing a wonderful secret.  Once, in a book store a lady exclaimed loudly at me in excited terms about a book that I was considering buying, her family looked at her aghast at her show of enthusiasm towards a completely random individual; but I totally got it.  One of the most wonderful gifts of our existence is to share the things that give us joy.  It’s the reason your neighbor comes to make you fondue, or why you take your parents to your favorite spot in a new town, it’s why you sit through a movie you’ve seen a million times just so someone else can see it for the first, and it’s why, with a migraine headache in -10˚ weather, you will run out to buy baguette for two brand new acquaintances.

A Visit from France on the Occasion of My One Year Anniversary

Conversations with France

France:  “Bon anniversaire!  Bon anniversaire, bon anniversaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaire, bon anniversaire!”

France is standing at my front door holding a cake with candles and singing.  I look confused.

France:  You going to let me in, huh?  I don’t know, maybe you prefer I stand here all day with this cake that I bring for you.  I mean, you know, it is warm out here, non?  Just February, just a deep freeze all through Europe.  No, it is fine; I will just stand here until you are ready, huh?

Me:  Oh right, so sorry, come on in France!  What is the occasion?

France:  Oh la la la la…you are serious?  All the same, you Americans.  I can smoke in here?

Me:  No, actually we don’t smoke in th—

France has already lit a cigarette and is walking around the apartment.

France:  So you don’t know what today is?

Me:  Uhhh…no?

France:  This is your one year anniversary in France!  I don’t know, maybe this is not important to you, I can go.  Enjoy your day, Americaine!

France says “Americaine” like an accusation.

Me:  Oh wow!  You are so right – I can’t believe I missed it!

France looks at me petulantly.

Me:  It’s just been so wonderful that the time has gone too quickly; it never seemed like a year already!

France is placated.

France:  Hhmmff.  Well, what do you have to drink?  Let’s have some wine, huh?

Me:  It’s 10am.

France:  You exhaust me.

Me:  I just (I realize defense is futile)…I’m sure I have something.

France:  What is this thing you people say, “it’s 5 o’clock somewhere”.

France starts laughing maniacally and chokes on cigarette smoke.

France:  (*cough cough* ) Sooooooooo (*cough cough)* stoopeede! (stupid)

I give France a very serious look.

Me:  You know, I can play the song for you if you would like.

France:  You have the song?!

More maniacal laughter.

France:  That is too good, that is great, I love you people!

I smirk at France’s amusement and pull out a bottle of red wine.

Me:  This is okay?

France:  Oui, parfais!  Vin rouge with a chocolate cake.  This makes sense.  Maybe we have some cheese first.  There is cheese yes?

France looks at me with narrowed eyes and suddenly I feel like I am being tested.

Me:  Cow, sheep, goat?  Which would you like?  Perhaps I put out some of each?

The side of France’s mouth twitches, threatening to turn into a smile before being consciously pushed back into a line of disinterest.

France:  Ouais, meexte (mixed) is good.

Me:  Ah – I don’t have baguette though!

France shrugs.

France:  Not a problem, of course I have baguette, huh?  I am France, non?

France pulls two baguettes out of the bag the cake came in.  Even though it is -7C (19F) they are still warm.

Me:  You know, there is some pate and cornichon as well, I can put that out too if you like.

France:  Ah ouais?

France seems surprised.

France:  Porquoi pas?

I begin to arrange the cheese on a board. 

France:  So…one year in France, what do you think?  You like eet (it); do you think you are different?

Me:  Why France, you never ask questions like this!  It’s so personal, so concerned, are you afraid that I haven’t had a good time here?

France:  WHAT?!

France appears horrified by the implication.

France:  No!  Of course not, you eembeceele (imbecile); only a philistine would have a bad time here!  Pfff…I don’t know why I ask thees (this) at all.  C’est obvious, you have not changed a bit.

France stubs out the first cigarette and lights another.

Me:  Oh France, don’t get your panties in a bunch –

France gives me a look of utter disgust at my phrase.

Me:  Of course I have changed!  You don’t scare me as much as you used to.

I smile thinking this is funny.  I get an eye roll in return.

Me:  I have eaten many interesting things.

France:  Ouais…

Me:  Horse tartare, fromage de tete, calf brains…

France:  Pas mal…

Me:  I’ve seen a lot too!  My first trip to the Mediterranean, the French Alps, 13th Century castles…

France: …13th Century…not that old…

Me:  …the Eiffel Tower!

France:  Pffff…the Eiffel Tower…ruined Paris, you know…

Me:  I’ve learned a lot of French.  I’ve realized that French women aren’t as intimidating as I first thought…

France:  …wait until you are here longer…

Me:  I’ve eaten Dijon mustard in Dijon and boeuf bourguignon in Burgundy!

FranceBourgnone, not Burgundy.  Pffff…what is it with you Americans and bouef bourginone anyway?  You are all obessessed because of this Julia Child person.  And why can none of you pronounce bouef properly, huh?  Boooouuuueeeeffff…c’est ne pas difficile!

I put my hand on France’s shoulder and give it a little squeeze as I place the tray of cheese and pate on the table.  France makes a barely audible sniff. 

France:  Well, this is good.  You realize the good things of France; I am happy for this.

France absently turns the wine bottle on the table, looking at the label intently and I detect the lightening rapid movement as a hand wipes an eye.  Then France crushes out the second cigarette and looks at the cheese tray.

France:  Ah mon dieu, what are you doing putting the epoisse like thees (this) on the tray, no, it must go in a bowl!  Pffff…what will we do with you?

I smile at France and bring a bowl over.

France:  Maybe we keep you for a bit longer so you can finally get things right, huh?

I lift my wine glass and smile to myself.

Me:  Yes, maybe.  I want to thank you for a wonderful first year, France!

France:  Ouais…

Me:  Santé!

France:  Santé!

France raises the wine glass but doesn’t meet my eyes.

Me:  FRANCE!  You know you have to make eye contact; it’s the rules!

France looks me in the eye and gives me a broad smile.

France:  Ha!  Americaine!

And this time Americaine doesn’t sound so bad. 

The France Fifteen

French Food

Apologies for being a bit late with this one…

Fall has arrived in the Rhône- Alpes.  There is a chill in the air; the mountains are changing from lush green to oranges and yellows.  Coats and scarves are being brought out of closets; and heaters are being turned on for the first time.  Now is the time when dinner tables begin to be adorned with tartiflette, raclette, and fondue (MB did manage to eat fondue twice in July).  It is the time to revel in the rich, heavy, delicious cuisine of the Savoyard region.  It is the time for…

What the F?

That can’t possibly be right.

I look down at the scale again, willing the numbers to change.  Quickly I do the math from kilos to pounds…sweet jesus.

Now is the time to go on a ridiculous Hollywood-style cleanse?

This first year in France reminds me of the first year in college when girls are destined to gain the dreaded “freshman fifteen”.  Everyone tells you it is going to happen and you nod along; but secretly you think, “not to me.”  Then the next thing you know you are zipping your jeans up with pliers and scared to squat because they might rip open.  Just like this, the “French fifteen” is a very real thing.  And now, just when things are getting cold and all I want to do is munch on fat-laden food, I find a scale.

For months now I have been skating by…knowing that I have gained weight but pretending that it is not as bad as I think it is in my head.  At first it was funny; I would stare down in the shower and think, “wow, that belly was not there before; it’s kind of cute!”  But the days of laughing at cheese babies have long gone and I have realized that it is time to get serious.

But how does one engage in un régime (diet) in the Rhône-Alpes in winter ?

I can see it now.  MB will come home to find me licking the wallpaper.

“What are you doing?” He will say.

“It’s delicious; you should have some!”   I will say this with a slur, as my tongue will not leave the wallpaper completely.

“Baby?”

I will turn back to look at him wild-eyed.  “The fondue!  It’s melting down the walls; don’t waste it!”

And then I would have to spend the rest of my life in an insane asylum (although I’m guessing that, in France, even in insane asylums they have good food).

In the meantime (pre-cheese hallucinations), I’m going to have to buckle down.  The tartiflette will have to wait; and raclette will be something I enjoy in the new year while I desperately attempt to shed some of my “France fifteen”.  So if you happen to be wandering through our region in the next couple of months and see a girl crying outside a fromagerie, you can safely assume that it is me.

BAM! Frenchman Impressed!

French Food

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

French Food

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.”

Le Fromage: Part 1, The Faith

French Food

(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.