Two Weeks with Two Families in France

I am still down in Pau, or thereabouts, studying French and am making considerable progress (says I) and reasonable progress (says my teacher).  I am into the second week of the course and now staying with the second family: even a French oil company is not cruel enough to foist me upon a single family for two weeks.

Apart from the obvious benefit of being forced to speak French, the time spent with the families has offered a fascinating insight into real French life (bear in mind all the French I have met at work so far have been expatriates).  One of the most obvious things I noticed, which came as absolutely no surprise, was that the quality of food surpassed anything else I’d encountered in Europe.  I was fed extremely well, and by that I refer to the quality of the food rather than the quantity.  When I first came to France a few years back I noticed that the quality of food – particularly the meat – was way higher than in the UK.  Step into a random brasserie on a Paris street and most of the time you’ll get a decent lump of meat for about 20 Euros, which has been cooked properly.  Step into a random eatery in London and the meat will likely require the use of carpentry tools to consume.  For sure you can find decent food in London, but you need to know where you’re going, whereas in Paris you don’t.  And that’s a major difference between the two cities in my opinion.

The quality of meat I was served with the families was superb, and varied at that.  One weekend I ate guinea fowl for the first time: two had been cooked whole in a casserole dish.  I also ate oysters – both cooked and raw – for the first time, a provincial French family being the first people I’ve trusted enough to convince me of their freshness.  I learned that I prefer them cooked.  The food was been quite rich, and most times far from simple in terms of ingredients – there was usually a wine sauce or some north African spice thrown in somewhere – but the method of cooking seemed straight forward enough with most dishes being left on a stove or in an oven for a few hours before being ready to serve.  Slow cooking seems to be popular in France.  On one occasion my host family used a Moroccan thing called a tajine which consists of a ceramic plate with a ceramic witch’s hat on the top, with the whole thing being put on the stove with food inside and left for hours.  The results were good.

Food

Between the main course and dessert (all the dinners, and the lunches at the weekend, consisted of four courses followed by coffee) a platter was brought out on which rested five or six types of cheese (names like Mimolette Vieux and Saint Albray I wrote down, the former being Dutch) which everyone tucked into along with the bread sliced from the baguette which had been on the table from the start.

Cheese

At this point I’ll mention that it dumped it down with rain non-stop during the first 11 days of my 14 day stay.

Rain

It rains a lot in the south west of France (in fact, it is similar to England in many respects, and indeed belonged to us for three hundred years) meaning there is lots of lush pastureland.  Lots of pasture means lots of cows, meaning lots of milk.  The Acquitainians need to do something with all this damned milk, so they turned it into cheese.  Having barns full of cheese is all very well but you need to find somebody to eat it, and therefore traditions were invented and laws past requiring everybody in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques to eat cheese at half-time during meals.  And the whole of France followed suit.  (Note: I’m an engineer, not a history professor.  But they do get a lot of rain and there are a lot of cows.  And they do eat shit loads of cheese.)

I love cheese at the worst of times, and I tucked into this French (and Dutch) stuff like Obelix tucking into wild boar.  It was great.  This part of the meal usually took about 20-30 minutes, meaning the whole meal was spread over two hours.  The French meals take ages.  Who knew?  Anyway, along comes dessert, usually something genuinely very simple, and then coffee.

Needless to say, wine is flowing like a river throughout the whole affair.  From 20 mins before kick-off until the final whistle, wine is consumed by the bottle by the whole table.  I observed a few things about wine during my time with the families.  Firstly, the French wine is damned good.  Secondly, they mix the wines during the meals.  You may start with white wine (depending on the starter) and then move to red, but as a bottle is finished it is not replaced by one of the same brand.  So it is quite possible to drink several glasses of three or four different types of wine during a French meal, and nobody bats an eyelid or cites rhymes about it being a bad idea.  I trusted their judgement and followed suit.  Thirdly – and I asked them about this – they do not always drink the same wines in general.  They’ll have some favourites, but will always be on the lookout for new ones.  If they find a decent one in a restaurant or at a party, for example, they’ll take a photo and seek out a crate later.  The French are remarkably open-minded about their wine, and will drink anything provided it is French and good.  Or at least European.  I saw bottles of Spanish and Portuguese wine but nothing from the New World or the Penal Colony.  On the weekend we went to a small vineyard to partake in some wine tasting (and buying).

Vineyard

I noticed more stuff.  The French eat dinner late, way later than in the UK, and go to bed immediately afterwards.  An expatriate mate of mine, inviting me to dinner at 9pm when I first arrived in Paris and hearing me complain that at 6pm I was already starving, told me I’d better get on a French schedule without delay.  Surprisingly, I was able to sleep straight after eating, but then again I didn’t stuff myself.  French food is not served in bulk and that, along with the slowness of the proceedings, allows your stomach to be quite settled within a very short time.  Which explains why so many of them are not fat bastards despite being in love with food.  It became obvious that the centre of French social life is to be found at home (as opposed to down the pub), and the culture revolves around – and is absolutely inseparable from – the food.  The dinner table is where families and friends meet and discuss things, with by far the favourite topic (and I paid attention to this carefully) being – you guessed it – food.  At first I thought it was only discussed because I was bringing it up (as a subject, not chundering over the floor like a Brit on a Saturday night in Manchester), but even if I said nothing on the subject at all the conversation would inevitably move to food and remain there for an hour or more.  The French discuss food like Brits discuss house prices, and I know whose dinner table I’d rather sit around.

That said, I’m not surprised the French don’t discuss housing, being inferior to those in England.  For instance, the swimming pool in the garden below could be a bit bigger, and I’m pretty sure you can enjoy a view of snow-capped mountain peaks from the average living room in Coventry.

VistaYeah, these French have got it all wrong.

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27 Responses to Two Weeks with Two Families in France

  1. dearieme says:

    What you need, young man, is to become a keen student of Elizabeth David’s “French Provincial Cooking”. Or some equivalent in French.

    The best steaks I’ve ever had have been in France and Italy. The “Anglo-sphere” doesn’t compare, whatever the louder-mouthed may say.

  2. dearieme says:

    So moved have we been by your writing, Tim, that this evening we opened a fine, large tin of Confit de canard du Sud-Ouest: served on a bed of rice with a dressed side-salad, it has gone down very well. The wine was Portuguese.

  3. TNA says:

    Get yourself a copy of the concise (not the complete) Larousse Gastronomique, my son.

  4. PeteC says:

    Some things for you to try if you haven’t already:

    -Cassoulet – a white bean, sausage and duck stew; pretty much made for this rainy weather.
    -Aligot – kind of a turbocharged mashed potato with cheese and garlic. Sometimes eaten on it’s own as a street food, or served with sausages. Either way, it’s yum.
    -Confit de canard, as dearieme suggested.
    -Armagnac – a type of brandy from Gascogne
    -Steak Tartare – raw steak, minced and served with raw egg, capers, shallots, salt & pepper, Worcester sauce(!). If you’re brave.
    -Foie gras – fatty duck or goose liver. Amazing served lightly fried on top of a steak tartare – this is called ‘Tartare de boeuf a la rossini’. Extra bonus: peta will love you for it.

    If you make it over to Toulouse then feel free to ping me an email and I’ll buy you a beer.

  5. JoeBlow says:

    +1 for Cassoulet

    Along with a decent cast iron dutch oven, a tagine is very useful in the kitchen for winter cooking purposes.

    Shin Beef dry rubbed with Ras-al-Hanout, leave to season overnight and cooked in a tagine on a low heat for 5-6 hours and served up with couscous is rather moreish.

  6. Tim Newman says:

    Thanks for all the tips everyone, they’re most welcome!

  7. dearieme says:

    For Cassoulet, we find that Borlotti beans are excellent. We grow them ourselves. They are also a beautiful decoration to the garden before you harvest them (that is, if you like scarlet pods).

  8. enoriverbend says:

    “I saw bottles of Spanish and Portuguese wine but nothing from the New World or the Penal Colony.” I believe this is largely due to taxes, not to taste. The last time I was in France for business, I got into a conversation with French colleagues about private wine cellars (we all wanted one, we all sort-of-had a substitute). All the French guys raved about the quality of certain California and Aussie/NZ wines as being wonderful deals for the money *at the price they could buy them when visiting the US*. But the price as imported into France was a killer, if they were available at all.

  9. I totally love tagines, but I don’t think I have every had one in France. I have had many in Morocco, though.

  10. Bardon says:

    Yes nice food, good wine and quality company is all that one could ask for in life. Something that I am fortunate enough to frequently enjoy.

    Not sure if you are aware of the “French Paradox”, I became aware of it when I read the Great Cholesterol Con written by a Scot, Dr Malcom Kendrik. It’s a recommended read and a definite must if some quack is trying to sign you up to supply you a lifetime of Statins, he also has an interesting view on hypertension as well.

    On the subject of wine variety, I visited Paris last year which was about 26 years since my last visit. I was staying near Vendome Place and discovered this what to me at least, novel way of sampling different wines and socialising at the same time. What you have is a wine bar of sorts with banks of glass fronted stainless steel cabinets, containing a massive variety of reds and whites from all over the world. When you enter the bar you purchase credits and they give you a card that you simple enter and automatically pour your chosen variety in various sizes. I was like a man with no arms on a hands free phone in that place, I can tell you. I don’t know how common they are in Paris or France, but it was a great idea and one of my fondest memories of that visit.

    As the other commentator mentioned above the only problem with Penal wines is tax. In that bar above I ended up back on the Barossa reds, the Lebanese red ran a close second but was about five times the price. Although Australian wine was the laughing stock of the world in the early eighties, it’s market uptake and worldwide ranking has been second to none since then and even pipped French wines at one stage, not sure if it still does. The French may have decried the Australian innovations of cask wine and screw tops in lieu of cork (only because we were being screwed by Portuguese cork suppliers) but the market facts speak for themselves.

  11. John B says:

    “It rains a lot in the south west of France (in fact, it is similar to England in many respects, and indeed belonged to us for three hundred years) meaning there is lots of lush pastureland. Lots of pasture means lots of cows, meaning lots of milk. The Acquitainians…”

    Care! France is a big place and the South West covers a large topographically diverse area. I live there. I can tell you much of the South West is not lush pastureland, is poor agricultural land which is why it has so many vineyards, grows few crops. Most livestock is ducks (foie gras), chickens, goats and sheep with goat and sheep cheeses being the signature cheeses of Midi Pyrénées and Dordogne.

    Meat, apart from pork, is expensive particularly beef and lamb and the latter of variable often poor quality. Of course if you pay enough you can get the best cuts. Pintade (guinea fowl) isn’t cheap.

    The French don’t cook, they buy tins and jars of stuff and heat and assemble, buy ready prepared stuff from traiteurs and desserts from pâtisseries.

    If you live here, the novelty wears off and you find that French cuisine is very conservative, and meals of beans with meat and confit de canard, though nice, become tiresome.

  12. bloke in france says:

    French conversation:
    First course: people you know
    Entrée: other food
    Cheese: sex
    Dessert: politics
    Coffee: business
    Them’s the rules

  13. dearieme says:

    Cheese and dessert must be rather dominated by M Hollande at the moment, I suppose?

  14. Bardon says:

    Hey Tim I know that you love your sport and are a patriotic Englishman that is also not necessarily the biggest fan of the boring English teams union tactics. Also not sure if you are senior enough to guarantee a seat at the Total Corporate Box at the Stade de France, but somewhere in the stadium your attendance would surely be a great opportunity to further learn your French language aspirations?

  15. Bardon says:

    I got cut off too early and before I could say that the overall contribution to La Marseillaise by the players and fans at the game start was light years more inspiring than the dull rendition of God Save The Queen by the poms.

    I like this Gallic spirit, it means a lot.

  16. bloke in france says:

    The best national anthem is the Italian one. (Does anyone know the words?)
    And then they lose.

  17. dearieme says:

    “it is similar to England in many respects, and indeed belonged to us for three hundred years”: strictly, it belonged to the Frenchmen who also ruled England.

    “The French don’t cook, they buy tins and jars of stuff and heat and assemble”: we tried John B’s approach to lunch today, opening a tin of soup and heating it, and then opening a jar of cornichons to eat with our cheese. We hadn’t previously thought of this as a sophisticated French style of lunch, just as something we occasionally do when we seem to have run out of our lunchtime favourites.

  18. Tim Newman says:

    @envirobend:

    I believe this is largely due to taxes, not to taste.

    I tend to agree. The French who I met tended to drink wines from places they have visited or are acquainted with, which is I think why I saw a few Spanish and Portugese wines. You don’t see much Australian wine on sale in France, and so I guess most French just don’t get the opportunity to taste it.

  19. Tim Newman says:

    @John B:

    Care! France is a big place and the South West covers a large topographically diverse area. I live there.

    Interesting stuff, and many thanks for posting. I generally comment on what I see, and am happy to be corrected or enlightened further if I am generalising or getting something wrong.

    The French don’t cook, they buy tins and jars of stuff and heat and assemble, buy ready prepared stuff from traiteurs and desserts from pâtisseries.

    That certainly explains the really shit kitchens in Paris apartments!

    If you live here, the novelty wears off and you find that French cuisine is very conservative, and meals of beans with meat and confit de canard, though nice, become tiresome.

    Interesting, and entirely believeable.

  20. Tim Newman says:

    @Bardon:

    Also not sure if you are senior enough to guarantee a seat at the Total Corporate Box at the Stade de France, but somewhere in the stadium your attendance would surely be a great opportunity to further learn your French language aspirations?

    Tickets are easy enough to come buy, either legally or from a tout, but alas I didn’t go. I would have, but chose to stay another day and take a day-trip to Bayonne, Biarritz, and Saint Jean-de-Luz. Given the outcome of the game, and the magnificent singing, I am slightly regretting it…but I did enjoy my excursion, and I have seen England play France at the Stade de France before, 2 years ago, in a match which England won.

  21. Tim Newman says:

    @bloke in france

    French conversation:

    Heh! Thanks for that. :)

    The best national anthem is the Italian one.

    It is good, and I also like the French, Welsh, South African, and Sri Lankan one. You don’t hear the last one very often, but I caught it a couple of times when the Cricket World Cup was on.

  22. Tim Newman says:

    @dearieme

    Strictly, it belonged to the Frenchmen who also ruled England.

    Quite true, of course.

  23. Tim Newman says:

    @Pete C

    If you make it over to Toulouse then feel free to ping me an email and I’ll buy you a beer.

    Many thanks! Perhaps I’ll come down for a game of rugby?

  24. Bardon says:

    “The best national anthem is the Italian one.”

    Hey Bloke, I just listened to it and its certainly Italianate, I have made a note to listen to it when they next play rugby (as they don’t compete nationally at anything else), I kind of prefer the theme song to the Godfather though.

    dearieme, the day they invent tinned curried chips, you will know that they have cracked scottish cuisine once and for all. Also, I must say that you guys have a great national anthem as well, everyone sung along to it at Murrayfield, just before they were slain by the Australians.

  25. >but chose to stay another day and take a day-trip to Bayonne, Biarritz, and
    >Saint Jean-de-Luz.

    Funnily enough, I went on a fly-drive weekend to the same area on the same day seven or eight years ago. I was in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port – right at the very foot of the Pyrenees on the French side, and the traditional starting point for the most famous variant of the walking route of St James to Santiago de Compostella – mid Sunday afternoon. It’s a beautiful town, by the way. Worth another day trip. I needed to be at Biarritz airport at about 7pm or so to fly back to London in order to go to work the next morning.

    However, it was lunch time, so I went into a local tavern. This place had big long tables. There was one group of Basques at one table, and another two tables away. They had huge platters of meat in the middle of their tables and were eating with gusto and drinking lots of cider. I sat rather forlornly by myself at the big table between them. One group started singing a Basque drinking song, loudly. The other group responded by drinking another Basque drinking song even more loudly, This escalated for some time. I found this obviously entertaining, so they were doing it for me to some extent.

    When this ended, one of the guys from one of the groups came up to me and said (French/Basque accent needed here) “Do you like rugby?”. I said yes, I like rugby. “Would you like to come and watch rugby with us now?”. They were about to head of for a party to watch the England v France game, and they wanted me as a pet Englishman (so they thought) to come and join them. I had to decline, and I drove back to the airport and caught my plane. Somehow, though, I almost think that if I had gone to the party I would still be sitting there singing Basque drinking songs now.

  26. Tim Newman says:

    @Michael:

    That’s a great story! Yes, I think you probably would still be there had you elected to join them, or you’d have been sacked the next day at the very least.

  27. PeteC says:

    “Perhaps I’ll come down for a game of rugby?”

    Of course! The local ‘Stade Toulousain’ is quite a good team by all accounts too :)

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