VIVE LE FRENCH FOOD

You never know how many friends you have until you buy a chateau in France.

With summer almost upon us, we are girding our loins for the usual influx of visitors. France is a favourite destination for millions of holiday makers from around the world, whether it’s the Dutch in their caravans, the Germans covering themselves only with oil and then covering all the beaches, the English heading for their second homes in the Dordogne or the Antipodeans trying to escape their winters and looking for free accommodation with their “mates”, often “incredibly close friends” that they haven’t spoken to in over 20 years.

“Time just passes so quickly … is it really 20 years ?”

But they are all, apart from the Dutch, mainly here for the French food. The Dutch are different from the other visitors to France as they are here to clog up the roads, and tend to bring all their food with them so that they don’t actually have to spend any money while they are in the country.

French cuisine is amongst the best in the world, though one does have to be very selective, as the days when the majority of restaurants in France actually had a well trained chef are fast declining (see “Vive le French cuisine” posted May 23, 2011).

Great French cooking is all about wonderful sauces, spectacular desserts and artistic presentation, but it is also about not wasting any part of the pig, or whatever animal has been sacrificed for the plate. Most visitors have by now heard of the French love for frog’s legs, snails and foiegras, though often with the mistaken belief that these make up a large part of our diet, rather than being an occasional delicacy.

Many visitors to France are surprised to learn that the most common and most popular meal in France (other than a Grand Mac et Coca) is steak and chips, though because the French do not believe in ageing their beef, this can be an interesting exercise in testing tooth strength. Despite this penchant for what would generally be considered an American meal choice, there are some unusual dishes that are more typically French and that first time visitors to France may need to be aware of before they decide to choose their meal in a restaurant using the “blindfold and pin” method of selection when faced with a menu that they do not understand.

Here are a few to test your culinary courage:

Andouilette is a sausage made of pig’s intestine with a distinctive taste and smell of faeces, making it the French equivalent of the Malaysian Durian. Andouilette is graded from A to AAAAA, being how much time has been allowed for a hose to wash the intestine out before cooking it. At just a single A rating, the intestine has been shown the hose but it has not actually been turned on, and every subsequent A in the rating seems to be equivalent to about 1 second of cleansing, but this will vary greatly based on available regional water pressures. The only way to eat this is in response to a dare involving a large amount of money andwhen you have a bad head cold. You should also never order Andouilette that has a lower A rating than France’s economy at the time, which according to Standard and Poor’s, is declining annually.

Tete de Veau is the face of a baby calf with the skin, hair and fat removed, as the taste is said to be revolting if this is not done properly (go figure), so if you are really desperate to pass as a local, you should only try this dish in a 3 star Michelin restaurant where the chef will have the skill to rip the face off the bone, wrap it around a tongue, prepare it in bouillon and then serve it garnished with the brains (and often with the ears) with a caper and vinegar sauce. As it is actually hard to find free available calves’ heads you should generally order this well ahead of time, allowing about 2 years, which will also give you enough time to rethink.

By Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0; via Wikimedia Commons


Tripe is not just a French dish as one can also find tripe and onions in the UK, which is not necessarily a recommendation. Tripe Lyonnais however is very French and is quite unusual in that Lyon is considered a wonderful culinary centre, so I have no understanding why they would lay claim to a dish that tastes like wallpaper paste, and if boiled long enough could actually be used as such. Tripe is the stomach lining of animals, generally beef, sheep or even goats at a push, which has been bleached and partially cooked by the time it gets to the consumer. If you wish to cook it in your holiday cottage, it should be well washed again, and then boiled for at least 4 hours or until tender, which will give you an immediate idea as to how good a meat it is to start with. You will need to sauté some onions the entire time that the tripe is boiling just to hide the smell, and then combine the onions with the boiled tripe after it has been sautéed in butter for 20 minutes, andadd some vinegar. Remember to garnish with parsley to make it even more delectable.

By Lissen; via Wikimedia Commons


Coeurs de canard en brochette are duck hearts on a stick. I have always believed that “meat on a stick” is an area that has been largely overlooked as a true culinary fast-food takeaway, which could compete directly with “Le Colonel” and “Macdo’s”, as many French foods are well suited to potential stick-dom. I see a huge potential market for finger-licking delicacies such as “Rocky Montagne Huitres en brochette” and “Yeaux de Cochons en brochette”.

Author: Roman Bonnefoy (own work); via Wikimedia Commons


As Lucretius, Roman poet and philosopher (95-55 BC) said “What is food to one man may be fierce poison to others”, and he had never even been to Australia and tasted witchetty grubs.

By User:Sputnikcccp; via Wikimedia Commons


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YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT

Earlier this year we spent a couple of weeks in Canada for some family skiing. We had one of our daughters, her husband and 2 grand-daughters from Australia with us at Sun Peaks Ski resort. The mountain is great and skiing conditions were near perfect. The only problem with Sun Peaks is that there is absolutely no night life and the restaurants are terrible. As a result you tend to spend most evenings in your rented accommodation self catering and watching TV. The TV shows are a mix of Canadian and US programmes and are the general fare of re-runs or reality shows where people bleed emotionally in front of millions of viewers.

What I found most interesting however is the blend of TV advertising.

There is no question in my mind that TV advertising is a window to the National soul.
In France, where we live, a vast majority of the TV ads are about food. Not a surprise based on this being a national obsession.

Fish Terrine with Shrimps

In Australia it should be no real surprise that a lot of the TV ads are for beer. The ads for “XXXX” beer are considered national treasures and art forms.
I have always believed that one of the major differences between the US and Australia was that the Americans invented drive-in banks, and the Australians invented drive-in liquor stores.

In North America, a vast majority of the ads seem to be for either fast food or below the waist medications, presumably the first one being one of the major causes of the need for the second.

Young boy picking french-fries from a plate with a hamburger

I sat in front of the TV one morning waiting for my family to get ready so we could head out for another day’s skiing, and watched consecutive ads for different products to help with bladder leakage, which were squeezed between numerous ads alternating solutions for both constipation and diarrhea, as well as ads for hamburgers, Pizza and French Fries. It was a continuous procession of put it in one end and we will help you move it out the other. I wondered whether I was the only one who could see this connection.

I do understand that there is an ageing population here in the USA and Canada, as there are also numerous ads for Alzheimer’s medication and retirement homes, but I am getting the impression that the locals could be a lot better off if they understood that the French have given the world more than just fries.

At least in France, bowel habits seem to have attracted very little need for TV attention despite the equivalent ageing population.

Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote in 1826 “Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es”. (Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are), and he hadn’t even heard of fast foods.

close-up of a plate of hors d'oeuvre

VIVE LE FRENCH CHEAP AND CHEERFUL

Before I came to France my idea of lunch was to grab a sandwich on the run or at my desk on workdays, and a long barbeque or waterside lunch with friends on a nice summer’s day. The evening meal was always the main meal of the day.
In France lunch is a serious past-time and the four course plus wine lunch is more common than not. It didn’t take us very long to get into the habit, and whether we are eating out or lunching at home, it has become our major meal of the day. Our evening meal, except for when we are out to dinner with friends in mostly a non event.

We are surrounded by “cheap and cheerful” eateries, some better than others, and all with their own character and style. It’s not an expensive exercise, and the menu of the day will set you back about €12-15 per person, often including a carafe of local wine. “Local wine” can mean just about anything, from “chateau cardboard-box” to some reasonable rough red from a local winery. We once asked whether the wine we were drinking was local to be told that it was definitely not, as it came from another village about 5 kilometres away.

The St Martin in Langoiran just down the hill from us sits on the banks of the Garonne river, and in summer sets up a marquee on the waters edge. This location is made the more exciting in winter, as the Garonne regularly breaks its banks, giving a whole new meaning to waterside dining. It has changed hands many times over the years, but this reincarnation is probably the best. We happened to be their first customers on their opening day, and despite the fact that the menu hasn’t changed much over the years, it is still our regular haunt.

Podensac on the other bank and about 10 kms away has the Le Tonneau (the Shed to us) which is basic and quirky, and the building is so ramshackle and neglected that for a long time we thought it was derelict. The first time we went there was in winter and our eyes wouldn’t stop watering from the smoke coming from their pot bellied stove. As no one else in the restaurant seemed to be having the same problem, they must have thought that we were in deep grief.

The Bellevue (and there isn’t one) in Camblane has great food, but they don’t like to be too busy, so it pays to go early to avoid being turned away, despite being half full. The Nord-Sud in Verdelais, which is relatively new, has interesting and creative food, though the violent purple décor is slightly unsettling and Le Cap in Preignac is great in summer when you can eat outside under a large leafy arbour.

We think that the best in the area is Le Chanteclairet d’Anatole in Quinsac, which has fairly recently been taken over by our fishmonger from Latresne, and is named after his English bulldog who wanders around looking for attention. Quite a few English visitors assume that the restaurant is named after the owner, and call him Anatole in an attempt to be friendly. It happens so often that he may have to change his name by deed poll.

Being France you need to be aware that they all tend to take their lunch times very seriously and it will be hard to get accepted after about 1.30. Whenever we have overseas visitors we always advise them that if they want to make sure that they get lunch, they are best to arrive at restaurants sometime before 1.00pm. After that it will depend on the mood of the proprietor and/or the chef, either of whom may decide that they have better things to do in the afternoon.

Unlike Burgundy, Bordeaux is not really known for its cuisine, which has always amazed me, as one would think that as it produces arguably the best wines in the world, it would also be very particular about its food. It is therefore important that you be very selective about where you go, and you can’t always take the advice of the locals, who may often equate good eating with volume. A local cab driver once waxed lyrical about a restaurant on the edge of Portets (about 5 kms from us), and about how wonderful was the “all you can eat seafood buffet”. The place was crowded when we got there but came to a halt when we walked in, with some stopping their forkfuls in mid-trajectory to gape at the “etrangers” who had dared to enter their sanctum. The seafood buffet was mostly made up of some oysters and small prawns, mystery dishes like bright orange crab sticks and rather strange salads obviously thrown together from what hadn’t been eaten the previous day. On top of that the customers looked as though they had come out of an episode of the BBC series, The League of Gentlemen, and from the fictitious town of Royston Vasey. (something out of Deliverance for my US friends). I kept waiting for someone to come up and say “… this is a local shop for local people …”.

In the old days, if you saw an eatery in France that was full of families and workers the chances were that it would be OK. Today, the families are just as likely to be English or Dutch tourists on a budget holiday, and the workers to be Polish or Czech truckies looking for some high volume intake. We have had some of the most questionable (though large) meals when erroneously following the old maxim of “eat where the truck drivers do”.

Unless you are desperate for red meat, I would keep away from the steak in other than an upmarket establishment, or if eating at L’Entrecote in Bordeaux central, where steak is the only main course and is fantastic. The French generally tend not to age or tenderise their beef, and unless you have the sort of teeth that can rip open a tin can, I would stick to the poultry, particularly the duck when you are in the south-west, or an omelette anywhere in France, as they do treat eggs with the deserved respect.

Just remember, as Ronald Reagan said “I never drink coffee at lunch. I find it keeps me awake for the afternoon”.