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.
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?