Moving to another country is accompanied by its customary culture shocks. Making sure you drive on the right-hand side of the road for one, and looking left then right when crossing said road. It’s surprisingly easy to forget. I’ve been introduced the famous Tabac carotte which dates back to the 19th century, Flunch which is as exciting as it sounds, and robotically winding the window shutters, essentially external, metal blackout blinds, open and closed every day. Lockdown offers varieties of excitement.
That said, above anything else, the weekly food shop has been an education into French living. Aside from the aisles bustling with people, the trolleys idling in the middle of the walkway ready to walked into, and the genuine indifference of other customers clambering past you to reach the cabinet first – of course, I am there for the food and to discover what the French eat.
Naturally, there are chiller cabinets of ‘Lapin’, ‘Cheval’, ‘Foie Gras’ and other questionable meats, but there are also piles of fresh fruit and vegetables; I’ve been hypnotised by the shiny, striped aubergines, the bulbous artichokes, and the leafy green lettuces, neatly lined like flower beds. There are sections dedicated to cheese where wheels are proudly stacked on the counter, while huge wedges of Emmental, which look like cartoon drawings, decorate the back shelves.
I would like to share with you the food with which I am now well acquainted in France. Gaylord and I spend our days planning the next meal, so our supermarket purchases are dear to us. Food is such a crucial part of living, it is easy to find familiarity and comfort in those acts of choosing, chopping and cooking it. And it doesn’t hurt that French food is delicious.
Under a layer of fat lies finely shredded pork rillettes. What are rillettes, I hear you ask? Pork is cooked slowly in its own fat and shredded, ready to be spread like pâté on your toast or baguette, served with crisp cornichons. And I’m already salivating as I write this. This little red pot is my favourite for our charcuterie sessions – and, yes, it’s lockdown, of course we have charcuterie sessions.
These jars of pâté are so smart compared to our plastic sachets in the UK. The satisfying crack of the lid when you open the jar. The knife sticking up like a planted tree. According to my French teacher – Gaylord – the meaning of ‘medaillon’ is the same in English. In the core of this pate lies a circle of rich foie gras de canard – fattened duck liver. French food isn’t for the faint hearted.
Goats cheese comes in spreadable cones and rolls, and in hard, crumbly blocks. Meanwhile, this little parcel holds a treat of creamy, almost runny soft goats cheese with a fragile skin. It can be scooped up on your knife, spread onto baguette, or, for our dinner last night served with roasted vegetables and rosemary scented potatoes. Who knew such an addictive, devilish little cheese could look so innocent?
Everyone knows raclette. The Christmas markets are full of people searching for Swiss raclette, usually myself included. A novelty in the UK, this cheese is popular in France and sold ready-sliced because, unfortunately, most French people don’t own a specific raclette grill, which apparently (don’t ask me why) is essential to traditional raclette consumption. This raclette, plain and seasoned with black pepper, is delicious melted on potatoes with charcuterie.
My meat consumption has gone WAY up in the last few weeks. Not just because I live with a boy but also because meat is a vital part of French culture. Only 3% of the population have meatless diets. Every day – every meal – involves meat in some shape or form. My mid-writing snack just now was saucisson. Finely sliced and eaten straight from the chopping board, it is speckled with fat and meltingly tender. Each variety is different, some with more salt from the brine, some smokey, some lightly spiced. This one from Ardèche is blush pink and almost creamy in texture, perfect with a hunk of bread.
I’m not a big crisp-eater but I can’t get enough of these bad boys. They’re basically pockets of air that melt in your mouth, and before you know it the packet’s empty.
Condiments in France include jars of mustard, béarnaise and aïoli, and naturally, mayonnaise is enjoyed in it’s alleged country of origin. In France, they love mustardy mayo, sharp and spicy. Anything similar in the UK is called ‘French Inspired Mayonnaise’ (our imaginative naming never fails to amaze me). Delicious if you want a punch of flavour in your burger or club sandwich.
So, when Gaylord took this from our cupboard and explained it was ‘sweet’ soy sauce, I wondered if I’d had a black out every time I’ve walked down the soy sauce aisle in my local Sainsburys. Turns out, no! We just don’t sell it. Why, I don’t know because it is the answer to honey-soy glazed salmon and caramel-soy pork. Sweet and salty in one bottle.
I mean, but of course there’s jam on this list. Bonne Maman is a familiar brand name in the UK; the artisanal jam-makers with their checked lids and ridged jars. Here, their jams are so much cheaper – the Brits take the EuroTunnel to buy cheap wine in Calais, except I’d buy jam. The supermarket aisle is full of it, jar after jar of confiture, all with their beguiling French names – cassis, mrytille, mirabelle. These new jars with the magenta lids just winked at me so flirtily I couldn’t help myself. Intense peach, with big chunks of fruit, tastes of summer.
Some of these kitchen essentials will no doubt go back to the UK with me for Christmas as stocking fillers, although probably not the mayonnaise, and I can’t wait to share these treats and tastes of France with my family and friends. At least my mum will know I’m eating well! When in France, the only way is to eat like a king.