How to be French: A guide to eating

Bonjour mes cheries, bienvenue!

Mon français est mauvaise. Désolée. I will continue in English, it’s better for us all.

An excursion to France these days is no longer as relaxed and romantic as one might imagine. Social-distancing and masks tend to take the amour out of the air. That said, Gaylord and I reunited (with masks) and we spent nine sultry summer days swimming in the sea, buying Ikea furniture, and tending to our new basil plant. It was peaceful and humid, and we sipped bottled beer as the hot, thick air thrummed and the overgrown garden waved its lazy tendrils at us.

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Joie de vivre

The French attitude to food and living is different to the pressurised Anglo-American idea. To put it simply, they do what they want. All with a languorous shrug. They drink what they want, they eat what they want. [Sounds simple? I beg to differ. For instance, if I’m in a restaurant I would never order the same meal as my dining companion. I like there to be variety on the table, something besides my meal to try (assuming my companion allows me a forkful). This is to my own detriment when, actually, I wanted their food all along. I then resent my own dinner and the whole evening is wasted.] In France the ethos is not to overthink. Just enjoy. Incorporate a little more joie de vivre into your day and appreciate those moments, that second glass of wine and or simply ‘burritoing’ (a term my sister coined – ‘to burrito’ is to wrap yourself tightly in your duvet, hence you are the burrito).

So, to begin I insist that this aspect of ‘How to be French’ must be adhered to, as without it you fall at the first hurdle.

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Did the je ne sais quoi of France – the sun, the sea, the food – make me feel more French, more alive, more sexy?

Yes. Yes it did.

Splashing into the ocean, occasionally flashing bystanders thanks to my untrustworthy bikini top, floating on the rolling waves, and strutting across the sand, I felt like Pamela Anderson in Baywatch. Although that fancy quickly stopped as I struggled with the sun cream, in the process covering myself in sand, then wrestled with my beach towel which just wouldn’t lie still. In the end, sexiness is a matter of confidence and who’s to say you can’t be confident when your skin is fractionally darker than a vampire’s and you need to wear all your clothes on the beach? And you sit at an uncomfortable angle to ensure all your exposed flesh is in your own shadow? It’s sexy, I tell you.

So, to my second point on ‘How to be French’. Meal times. In the UK, without even realising it we can comfortably eat dinner at quarter to six. Late dining can cause all sorts of problems; indigestion, a bad night’s sleep, weight gain… I could go on. Gaylord, meanwhile, eats dinner at 9pm. The French meal structure is essentially structure-less. Coffee in the morning, an early lunch (because you’re ravenous by then), snacks at 6pm, then, finally dinner. As lunch was half-a-blooming-day before you stuff everything into your mouth then cradle that food baby to bed. Somehow the French are accustomed to it. It must be that joie de vivre.

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‘I want to eat French food’

I don’t want to blow my own trumpet but there’s not a lot I won’t try. Sure, I’m sceptical of tripe (traditionally boiled in milk) but who isn’t? When you’re introducing yourself to a new culture it’s an adventure for the tastebuds. So, to continue our lesson, we will eat French. Starting with veal.

Veal is not accessible here in the UK. I discussed it with my parents when I returned. Nowadays there is next to no demand for veal because of calf slaughter and welfare, particularly as male dairy-calves are only fed milk to keep their meat creamy-white. No one said the food industry is a pretty place. Calf welfare is a topic for another time, but I will return to it as it’s conflicted me for years… But back to French cuisine.

Veal is the meat of Europe. It is the meltingly tender centerpiece to Italy’s osso bucco, it’s minced and breaded in the Netherland’s croquettes, and in France it is known as veau. There is a veau chiller cabinet in the meat aisle (along with separate cabinets for lapin and foie gras. All, coincidentally, morally questionable meat products).

Veal doesn’t look like beef. Like distant cousins they have similarities, such as the grain of meat, however veal is milky pale with a delicate flavour unlike the rich, gamey taste of mature cow. One night, Gaylord and I wandered the cobbled streets of a provincial town looking for a restaurant. In the age of Covid, bookings are required and we hit upon numerous full-houses until one took pity on us and offered us their last corner table. It was an ideal restaurant for such a hot summer’s evening. The central courtyard was airy, and when you gazed up a square of darkening blue sky winked back. For my starter, I chose veal.

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Like most French meat, it was cooked rare, glisteningly pink. The meat had been crumbed in peppercorns and seared all over, before carving into thin morsels. Served with shards of crisp toast, and green and red tomatoes, it sat on a bed of creamy anchovy dressing, light with tarragon and lemon. The meat’s richness was boosted by the umami punch of anchovy, and the fresh tomatoes and herbs kept it light.

It doesn’t stop there, this is a meaty subject. To be French, meat is required. 

I stripped confit duck leg off the bone, spread chunks of baguette with thick layers of foie gras, and slipped slices of saucisson into my mouth one after the other like pieces of popcorn. Our aforementioned ‘snack time’ between lunch and dinner saw Gaylord walk into the living room, chopping board under his arm, sharp knife in hand along with the precious packet of saucisson. With the reckless abandon of a male he would then slice it into paper-thin strips balancing the board on his lap. (He is also left-handed so I watched with my own weak left hand twitching, prepared for any inevitable accidents.)

One night, he wanted to introduce this greedy English girl to his favourite French food – charcuterie. Saucisson resembles a long thick sausage (calm down) but that’s where the similarity with traditional sausages end. Rows upon rows of these sticks with a snowy white coating (of mould, incidentally, charming) can be found in the supermarket. Pork and fat are coarsely chopped, flavoured with garlic, nuts, herbs, and salted, then forced into casings and hung. Here it ferments and dries, and the flavour deepens, becoming lusciously rich and bold.

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Gaylord piled the chopping board high with rillette, smoked saucisson, hazelnut saucisson, his favoured and unusual andouille de guémené, parma ham (admittedly Italian) and two types of goats cheese. We ripped off chunks of baguette, showering ourselves with crumbs, and smeared the bread with cold French butter. The problem with dinners like this is you can never gauge how much you eat. Judging by the amount left, which was nothing except for a corner of cheese, I ate a lot. For dessert we ate wedges of cantaloupe, the juice dripping down our fingers.

Of course, there is more. There is always more! There were scoffed pain au chocolat (or, to Gaylord’s disgust, ‘chocolatines’ in the South, he’s so Parisian), impulsively bought sticky chocolate eclairs, their icing melted after sitting in the car at 34°C, and bowl after bowl of salad full of tomato, basil, feta, garlic, anything fresh. By the end of the week I felt floppy from all the food and heat, and surprisingly accustomed to the 9 o’clock dinners. Yes, there are weird meal times, and enough meat to dangerously raise your cholesterol, but don’t forget the joie de vivre. To be French, you are free to not care! So if you are in fact vegetarian and you like your early dinners thank you very much, then that is fine. The French really don’t give a damn.

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