Luncheon

Living in London, I would frequently embark upon the preparation of a meal, only to discover that I was missing some crucial ingredient. A marital envoy would be dispatched, post-haste, to the local corner shop, to acquire the missing item. On bad days he might be dispatched more than once, usually grumbling after the first instance, but with the cautionary tale of my father’s cheese pudding made without the cheese ringing in his ears.

This was one of the myriad ways in which we came a cropper once we had transplanted ourselves to France. Our weekend days would begin as usual, with plenty of aimless mooching about the house in the mornings. At about 12.15, one of us would stir ourselves to think about lunch and, having perused the fridge, would have some spark of inspiration. An inventory would be taken and some missing ingredient would be discovered. One of us would immediately tear down to the local shops in the car, only to discover that, it being 12.32, most of the shops had shut for lunch, and would remain shut for the next three hours. Glare as we might at the closed shutters, closed they remained, and so cheese pudding without the cheese it had to be until we had learned to do our shopping early in the morning like everyone else.

The French lunch break has quasi-mythical status abroad. In the UK, news outlets regularly puzzle over how the French economy can survive at all given the reported French insistence on taking two hours each day for a three-course lunch with red wine. On the one hand we admire this attitude and wonder aloud whether perhaps it increases productivity, and on the other we can’t help gloating whenever it seems that the French might be on the brink of succumbing to the British sandwich-at-desk culture after all.

2014-06-08 11.48.28

For all the reports that the French lunch break is on the wane, I have encountered little evidence of that trend here in Lyon. My husband, for example, works long hours at a reputable French company but, whatever the pressures of his work, he is nonetheless strongly encouraged to take a proper break at lunch time every day. It is a source of some irritation to me that, on a day when, at 2pm, I have gulped down a bowl of soup whilst simultaneously hanging out the washing and writing lesson plans, I find that he has sat down with his colleagues to a large lunch, and has then washed it all down with the obligatory post-prandial coffee before returning to his desk. He reports that the concept of a working lunch is still relatively novel at his office and that, consequently, when one occurs, it looks nothing like the faux-silver platter of sorry sandwiches so familiar to UK workers. Oh no, a working lunch in France comes in an elegant box, with a proper napkin and cutlery, and neat compartments for each of the four courses including, of course, the cheese.

My daughters, too, have quite magnificent lunches. Jamie Oliver would be in raptures at their school where the daily menu posted on the school gates enumerates such French classics as blanquette de veau and tarte tatin. There are three freshly-prepared courses, obviously, with optional fromage, and endives make a regular appearance. The younger children have table service, whilst the bigger ones take a tray to le self, but in both cases the children are unhurried (the lunch break lasts for nearly two hours) and eat with a napkin at the ready. Coming, as I do, from the land of turkey twizzlers, I can’t get enough of this facility, though many of the parents at the school worry about their children eating on such an industrial scale, and so take them home for lunch. I now do this once a week too, and have come round to the idea, though every time one of my daughters invites a friend to join us I go into paroxysms at the realisation that I will be expected to provide a minimum of three courses, and that any divergence from classic French fare will either be rejected or its très anglais qualities touted around the playground that afternoon to general amusement.

In both the office and the school, it is not just the quality of the food that counts, but the conviviality of the setting. Recently I participated in an all-day rehearsal for a concert, to which each participant was instructed to bring a dish for a picnic lunch. As soon as the morning’s rehearsal concluded, I was astonished by the hive of sudden activity, as people lovingly whisked together fresh salad dressings, arranged cold meats artistically on a plate, or sliced tartes they had made that morning. Plates, cutlery and paper napkins were provided, and we all served each other before sitting down to eat and chat, at length. Each time anyone took the slightest morsel of cheese, its provenance and its qualities were enthusiastically debated. Each slice of melon was eulogised for its freshness. After this there were desserts, and then coffee. The whole experience lasted for two happy hours. As I sat there I couldn’t help comparing the meal to various communal “working” picnics from the UK where, if anyone did anything other than bring along a sandwich for themselves, they went little further than a packet of joyless scotch eggs and a multi-pack of crisps.

I would write more but noon is fast approaching, and so I have to excuse myself in order to prepare my daily midday feast.

 

 

If you are interested in seeing how French school lunches are perceived in the US, why not visit the fed up with lunch blog?

badge75x30

AllAboutFranceBadge

Eadred the Bald

I am ashamed to admit that today I referred to myself in casual conversation as being Anglo Saxon. This slip is probably attributable to my tendency to parrot whatever I hear around me (until it comes to compound vowel sounds requiring a deep pout for authentic reproduction, such as those to be found lurking within fauteuil, when my talents as a mimic desert me entirely) but I find it inexcusable nonetheless. I don’t identify particularly brashly as britannique or anglaise but, if cornered on the subject, this is how I would choose to describe my nationality. The Anglo Saxons, on the other hand, were historic peoples that I learnt about in school and as context to the Yorvik Viking Museum. They were, I believe, present in what we now call England between the fifth and eleventh centuries and hailed from what we would describe as Germany and Denmark. As far as I know they were comprehensively defeated by William the Conqueror in 1066. On this basis they are undoubtedly my ancestors but, particularly when you take into account my diminutive stature, I would imagine that some other peoples have had a role in my genetic composition since then.

To many French people that I meet, however, I am unquestionably an Anglo Saxon. At first I found this breathtakingly insulting (try calling someone from Lyon a Norman and you will get the picture) but, as I acclimatised, I began to shrug the label off with greater ease, and to listen with interest for what it signified.

The first thing I noticed is that I am definitely not alone in being Anglo Saxon. Nor am I simply being classed with other Brits. Oh no, I am being lumped in with half the world: the US, Australia, New Zealand, the anglophone parts of Canada, and sometimes Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and South Africa, are all being thrown into the mix with us Brits. These are all great nations with which I am often proud to be associated, whether or not they are proud of their association to me, but the point is that they are really quite different from England, which is in turn different from either the UK or Great Britain. To link them together in even the most sweeping of generalisations would offend the majority of this cacophonous bunch on each occasion, and is therefore, I humbly suggest, a task best left alone. I find it particularly obnoxious to be generalised in such a broad fashion by people from a country which distinguishes so pedantically between people from different villages, let alone régions or départements. How can a nation insist on the particularity of a blanquette de Limoux as opposed to a cremant de Bourgogne when it will so contemptuously equate cheddar with Monteray Jack?

There are so many examples of the casual lumping together of cultural identities that it is difficult to select which ones to single out here. Picking out the most recent, one person observed that my eldest daughter had a thoroughly typical Anglo Saxon complexion (blonde hair, blue eyes, yawn) though subsequently another person was more struck by how atypical of Anglo Saxons she was in stature (presumably this person was looking through my husband and I, stumps that we are, to the lofty great Anglo Saxon masses beyond, possibly as far away as in the US). Apparently my desire to strike up cheerful one-way conversations with people looking as if they have just swallowed a wasp is Anglo Saxon, as is every cake that I have ever baked here in France, even the yoghurt cake, baked faithfully to an authentic French recipe and without any giveaway Anglo Saxon icing. At a particularly low-point in my recent Anglo Saxon past I once took some Anglo Saxon scones to a sort of French pot-luck supper, and I still do not know what anyone made of them because they were loudly avoided.

You don’t need to take my word for it, either. A quick internet search will pull up entire lists describing bizarre Anglo Saxon behaviours, which shamelessly muddle various national predilections: flip-flop wearing, for example, which if forced, I would pin on the antipodeans, is included in the same lists as baseball cap-wearing (this belongs, if anywhere in particular, to the US) and leaving your towel on your sun-lounger first thing in the morning (Germany). I do not criticise any of these national habits, stereotyped as they are, but merely wish to point out that most of them would not be generally true of me, or of any of my fellow Brits, even if we hammed ourselves up for comic effect.

IMG_0783

With the exception of anglophiles, such as the delightful owner of Little Britain in Lyon, and my French friends, who are evidently all deeply enlightened people, when French people use the term Anglo Saxon, they are frequently being derogatory. Anglo Saxon schooling, for example, does not spend enough time on the basics, but instead wastes time on self-expression and teaching children to stare mindlessly at electronic screens. As for Anglo Saxon healthcare, well, we Anglo Saxons leave our elderly, infirm and impoverished to languish in our gutters. We don’t believe in free healthcare and that which we do provide is deeply substandard. When lectured on this subject at some length, I have been able to make an educated guess about the nations with which my own country is being confounded but, as a citizen of a country proud enough of its national healthcare system to feature it in its Olympic opening ceremony, that does little to assuage my fury…

Phew. After that rant, I will need to retire to my straw hut with my husband, Eadred the Bald, and, after he has burnt some cakes, I may take my latest manuscript-turner, the Nowell Codex, to bed with me.

 

 

badge75x30

Supermarket sweep

Before moving there, one of the highlights of all of my trips to France was the ritual visit to a French supermarket. Over the years my focus modulated from the stationery department (for agendas and notepads ruled exotically with multiple lines a millimetre apart) through the chocolate biscuit aisle (for petit écolier biscuits and Mikado chocolate sticks), and the summer fruit section (fresh apricots) before coming to rest in the wine department. If only I lived in France, I was heard to sigh, I could buy this stuff every week.

It came as something of a shock, therefore, when, after a mere six months of French residency, my enthusiasm started to wane and I experienced pangs for English supermarkets. I wasn’t quite sure what it was that I was missing: could it be that I was more attached to Bisto gravy, Heinz baked beans and butterscotch angel delight than I had anticipated? I began to prowl the aisles of Auchan, restlessly seeking whatever it was that was absent from my French culinary life.

Whatever it was did not immediately reveal itself. Our local Auchan is what is known as a grande surface, which means that, unless you are ruthlessly efficient, you might find that you have only got halfway round the store two days after beginning the weekly shop. In such a place it is difficult to imagine that there could possibly be anything missing amidst the Aladdin’s cave of available treats. There is, for example, half an aisle dedicated entirely to cornichons (the selection available is bewildering to anyone of British extraction used to finding lone jars of unappetising piccalilli in amongst the other conserved goods). Cheese has, as you would expect, two whole aisles; and in the meat department you will find an astonishing array of cuts and preparations, including several varieties of smoked duck; various parts of rabbits; an entire fridge for the beef selection; and, if you don’t avert your gaze quickly enough, even a modest horse meat department. At Christmas I was astonished to discover that the entire fish aisle had been hijacked by oysters of every conceivable size and shape, and that there were no fewer than four helpers on hand to advise you on your oyster selection.

So, what was it that I was missing? The answer came to me one day in amongst the bottles of sauvignon blanc. The wine department in all French supermarkets is vast, containing bottles upon bottles of wine of excellent quality, catalogued with minute attention to precise geographical origin and grape variety. The bottles are bewilderingly inexpensive, too: you can drink a bottle of really quite good wine for less than 5 Euros, and if you are willing to pay 15 Euros, you could end up drinking something that would set you back more than double that on UK soil if you could even find it anywhere as ordinary as a supermarket. And yet, and yet…

Finally I worked it out. The bottles were all French. Don’t misunderstand me: I love French wine, and would defend it to the hilt against the glorified Ribena from elsewhere available in all good English corner shops. It is possible, though, to adore French wine, but also to appreciate a good bottle of wine from New Zealand, say, or Lebanon, or even Sussex. Yet, on the odd occasion when a French supermarket will stock foreign wines at all, they are invariably of poor quality, and jammed into a tiny segment of a dusty forgotten corner, given less prominence than the cans of Coca Cola in the neighbouring aisle. Was this, I asked myself, simply because the French were dismissive about the vinicultural achievements of others, or was it because they feared that their own wines would lose some of their appeal if the French public were allowed to compare and contrast them with wines from elsewhere?

In the light of this revelation I revisited other sections of the supermarket, looking for exotic influences. I discovered that the cheese aisle, for example, was positively jingoistic and was unable to muster a single block of actual mature cheddar in amongst its hundreds of French hard cheese varieties. Some space had grudgingly been given over to mozzarella and its Italian sibling, parmeggiano, and there was plenty of uninspiring Dutch Gouda, but English cheeses, even excellent ones such as Cropwell Bishop or Cornish Yarg, were firmly barred. Disappointed, I moved on to the jar aisle, where a familiar story unrolled itself: I found endless riffs on the theme of tomato sauce but not a single jar of jalfrezi, or even korma, in sight. I could buy some soy sauce, but only in one very pedestrian variety, and it was hopeless to even begin to seek out a tin of water chestnuts for a stir fry. If I wanted to bake I could buy several different brands of white caster sugar but there were none of the varietals of brown sugar that I was used to (demerara, muscovado, soft, light, dark), and instead I would have to make do with something of completely the wrong texture called cassonade. As for icing and decorative goods: well, how often had I seen a French cake with icing on it? In the tea aisle there was thé minceur, tea to make you sleep and tea to aid your digestion, but I was looking for a good cup of builders’ and was stuck with dismal Lipton. Finally I searched for a good few hours without ever coming across a single sunflower seed, let alone a goji berry.

So it was that I started daydreaming about Waitrose. In some respects this is unsurprising: after all I was born into the British middle classes, for whom daydreams about Waitrose are but a natural state. However, before moving house, I was fervid in my belief that the vast array of culinary delights available in French supermarkets would provide the only known cure to my acute case of John-Lewis-itis. When I first became aware that the remedy might not have worked I took the precaution of avoiding all Waitrose outlets in a desperate last attempt to stop the re-infection setting in for good. On my current visit to the UK, though, my resolve finally gave way, and I decided to go on a special mission to acquire indispensable culinary supplies. If you are going to give in at all to temptation, you might as well do it thoroughly, and so it was that I ended up in the Cirencester branch of Waitrose, along with various early retirees in their Cotswold uniform of mustard cord and sailing shoes (in the Cotswolds, gender equality has reached such a pitch that supermarket shopping is as much of a male activity as a female one).

Once inside Waitrose, I wandered the aisles trying not to drool whilst gaping in awe at the sheer variety and quality of middle-class foodstuffs available in such a tiny amount of space. Gone were the forty six types of fois gras, but in their place was a veritable United Nations of ingredients. Within minutes my trolley was stuffed to the brim with tamarind paste, miso paste, tamari sauce, jerk seasoning and mango chutney. I went quietly berzerk in the health food section, loading up as if for Armageddon with chia seeds, ghee, coconut oil, red quinoa and other “store cupboard essentials” listed by my enticing new healthy recipe book that had hitherto been entirely redundant, none of the basic ingredients having ever been countenanced by a French supermarket. The baking section was raided too, and I came away with silver cake shimmer, chocolate beans and bicarbonate of soda, the ready availability of which I had entirely taken for granted in pre-Auchan days. I noted with some smugness that, had I wanted to, I could also have purchased most of my French favourites, including sirop de grendadine, right there in Cirencester.

Then came my final act of treason. Not only did I buy a bottle of gin and some cans of tonic, but I also loaded into my trolley four bottles of English sparkling wine. I am sick of having the very existence of this drink doubted by French acquaintances. My plan is to serve it up as champagne and watch their jaws drop when I reveal what they have been drinking after it has all gone. And it will provide me with no small degree of amusement to return to Lyon with vital supplies of… wine.

 

If you would like to know what French people living in England miss about their French supermarkets, you could look at the France in London blog.

Bienvenue en France

It always feels a little peculiar returning from foreign travel to France, which has become for me at once comfortingly familiar and disconcertingly other. Sometimes this strange contradictory blend of sensations induces in me a sort of euphoria: we actually now live in this land of holidays! Unfortunately, today was not one of those days. Perhaps it did not help that I had just landed after a 13-hour flight from a hot country and that it was grey, rainy and cold in Paris. But I am British after all, and rarely deterred by a bit of drizzle. No, at the root of my sense of gloom was not the weather, but the fact that, in my absence, it seemed that France had mobilised with the specific aim of making sure that all my pet gripes about this country manifested themselves in Charles de Gaulle airport at the precise moment of my arrival there.

It was on the bus from the plane to the airport that my tale of woe began. About five minutes after leaving the tarmac, the bus that I was travelling in suddenly came to a grinding halt about 20 metres away from the door through which we were clearly intended to enter the terminal building. The bus doors remained resolutely closed. At first we all just looked around in bemusement. After six or seven minutes, people began craning for a better view. A small child who had wailed throughout the majority of the flight resumed his lamentations.

Of course, this might just as well have occurred in the UK, but it was the reaction of the airport staff that marked this instance out as being French. In Britain, any sort of transport delay is announced to the passengers within moments of it occurring. There is always an apology and a reason given (the weather, if all else fails). When the reason for the delay is unknown, the apology will usually be followed by a frank admission that the driver hasn’t the foggiest idea what is going on, but that he’s giving his superiors grief about it, because, after all, everyone is in it together (the famous Blitz spirit). On occasion the driver finds the official reason for the delay absurd, and it is normal for this too to be mentioned over the PA system. I can recall one announcement on the tube, for example, when the driver took about 30 seconds to spit out his message because he was giggling so much at having to tell us all that we were stuck in a tunnel because there was chocolate on the line ahead. Of course no announcement in the world can alter the fact of the exasperating delay but this informative approach does make us feel that someone cares about it on our behalf, or at least enables us to have a chuckle amidst the general despair. This is a phenomenon commonly called customer service.

Meanwhile, back on the French bus, which remained at a standstill, the driver got off and spoke to his colleagues. They were all observed to wield their talkie-walkies with an air of self-importance. The driver got back on the bus. He kept his back to us. The PA system remained silent. We waited some more. The small child continued to scream. The buses stacked up behind us, and still we waited. Indeed, we waited a full 23 minutes and not a single word was uttered in explanation, even when we finally completed the last 20 metres of our journey and walked into the building past eight scowling members of staff, who, being the owners of the aforementioned talkie-walkies, presumably had some idea about what had occurred. What struck me apart from the lack of information or apology provided was the attitude of the French passengers, who were heard to utter to one another that all this was most probably the result of yet another grève. This was said without particular chagrin: another day, another strike, what else can we say?

Once in any terminal building I usually plough directly on, determined to get through the airport formalities as speedily as possible. In this case, the interminable wait on the bus had taken its toll on my bladder, so I was forced to take a pit stop. When I arrived in the ladies’ toilet, all the stalls were already occupied and there was a queue of two. These two people disappeared off when their turns came and, just as I was about to take my own step towards the sound of a toilet flushing behind a closed door, a smart-looking woman appeared as if from nowhere, walked straight past me, announcing in French that she was in a rush (presumably I was not), and barged directly into the spare cubicle as soon as the previous occupant emerged. I stood there, a bit shell-shocked: this really was not cricket. Then I remembered that I was no longer in Vietnam, the land of good manners and smiling, helpful faces, but in France, where queueing is optional, and almost never applied in the case of determined old, or even middle-aged, women.

Having finally relieved myself, I then joined the queue for passport control, which I had to endure for a total of 51 minutes. Despite the length of the queue, there were only two windows for people travelling on a European passport. One of these was processing people with admirable efficiency under the circumstances, but even from a long way away, I could see that the official at the second desk was enjoying scrutinising the documents provided to him in the officious and suspicious manner peculiar to many uniform-wearing public servants in France. He kept one hapless individual waiting for a total of four minutes and 37 seconds as he looked menacingly from the passport up to the face and back again. I wondered whether it was because the man in question had very un-Gallic ginger hair and freckles.

Of course, long queues at passport control are a global phenomenon, but once again there were several factors that set this particular example apart. Firstly, there was no falsely jovial public information to keep your spirits from flagging, such as you would find at stringent US border controls. Secondly, the lady from the toilets had clearly travelled with several of her friends because queue etiquette was distinctly lacking at several junctures, leading to bottle necks and unseemly elbow clashes (without eye contact). And thirdly, whereas in a British queue you could cheer yourself up with a good grumble with your neighbour, in the French queue I cast round for quite some time but found nobody who was willing even to look at me, let alone engage in some therapeutic muttering. There is absolutely no fun in a long queue if you can’t share a jolly good complaint about it with your fellow travellers.

Finally through passport control, I streaked through baggage reclaim, where my suitcase had presumably done about 600 tours of the carousel in my absence, and marched past all the dawdlers to the airport station because by now I had quite comprehensively missed my train and needed a new ticket. I arrived there to find the same long, ill-disciplined, non-grumbling, ill-informed queue for the ticket office. But what really made me lose my rag was that, as I was helplessly joining this queue, the SNCF jingle came over the loudspeaker. After my lengthy ordeal its cheery breathlessness, so similar to that of French yoghurt jingles, quite frankly enraged me enough to make me want to tear down the sign which had just caught my eye and which bore the deceitful inscription: Bienvenue en France.

 

If you are interested in reading about what French people think about the British attitude to the queue, you could visit lost and found in London to find out.