I have been visiting La Belle France for a long time now and in all these years, while my experience of it has changed by subtle degrees, it has never ceased to hold a slightly romantic attraction of ‘otherness’. The language for starters sets it apart but there is so much more. The architecture, the quirks of engineering and design, the multi layered levels of formalised politesse - charming when 'bonjouring’ an entire boulangerie full of folk first thing in the morning, a little scarier when working out the niceties of intimacy that dictate a tu instead of a vous or when a ’re-bonjour’ is necessary following the embarassment of meeting the same person twice in one day.
The French, by and large, are a tad more stylish than the basic English person - you need only look to their opticians and eyewear to see that there is no level of detail that is too small to be important in the question of how one presents oneself to the outside world.
Les Parasites, available at (and worn by the staff and clientele of) Optique Martin, Ste Foy la Grande
But in the midst of all these differences it is, unsurprisingly, the differences in food that I am focused on the most. As a youngster my sights were set on treats that have long since fallen from my radar: Hollywood chewing gum;
shell shaped sea-side sweeties; dazzling platters of fruits de mer and coquilles st jacques, unheard of in my corner of Blighty and incredibly exotic for a family whose mother didn’t like fish (but whose father really really did); french frites served from a van on a camping site significantly outclassing anything we were used to at home, and bottled mineral water - a revelation of luxury and taste.
As an adult I am no longer restricted to restaurants or my mother’s Scots home cooking (mince and tatties can be cooked in France too), the choice is more often than not mine what the family will eat and shopping for food is different in France.
The markets sell summer produce that I am familiar with - tomatoes, onions, courgettes, aubergines, corn, strawberries, apricots, peaches, and plums, but the varieties, ripeness and flavours surpass those that are available to me back home - this produce has been grown in local soil, ripened under local sun and some of it won’t last the day without deterioration (notably the strawberries) and so must be transacted between producer and individual customer before lunch time in order to be enjoyed at its prime.
But market shopping is a relatively straightforward affair. What is good and fresh and current is staring you in the face - you can reach out and touch it, choose it, ask questions about it, afford to give it a go and make mistakes with it; it is the specialist magasins that provide more of a challenge. From knowing your pain from your baguette first thing in the morning and understanding when a pain au chocolat becomes a chocolatine or just a plain choco there is much to be learned about shopping for food in France.
brioche aux pralines roses de Lyon - M Chevalier has been travelling
The Patisserie ups the ante a little but here you have the advantage that you are rarely pressed for time. The queues are often long and slow, but levels of patience (at least amongst the natives) will keep similar pace and so the pressure is off. Nothing pleases Mme Chevalier (of M Chevalier’s chocolaterie/patisserie in Ste Foy) more than to be asked a little about the artistry at her fingertips - a local French friend compares it to a the hushed reverence of a high-class jeweller for his wares and thinks that Mme may even be guilty of taking it all a little too seriously - I, of course, couldn’t possibly comment but will admit to quite enjoying the poetry of her descriptive prowess (although the quality of the tarts and ices and pastries and Bordelaise specialities ultimately speak for themselves).
But where the jeu begins to get really serious is at the boucherie. It doesn’t matter here whether you have an extended counter full of meat on display or a bijou shop where all is concealed in an ancient meat safe and needs to be asked for, the bare fact remains that by and large, a French cut of meat is significantly different from that with which I am familiar.
I will confess to being a slightly faithless shopper in the area of the butcher. François Voulgre of the boutique boucherie in the main square at Ste Foy is where I buy my Christmas bird and something for New Year - he has a magnificent Heath Robinson contraption for dispensing string suspended from his ceiling all the better to truss and turn a bird or a gigot d'agneau whose thigh bone has been removed for ease of carving but temporarily and oh so skillfully replaced for better roasting, but his shop is my port of call on high days and holidays only or on market days if I happen to be visiting when he is rushed of his feet. The shop is small and beautifully formed and M Voulgre and I are on nodding and banterous terms these days; we talk mostly about London and his desire to travel there one day and how amusing we English are in needing a little protecting from the face of a bird, for example.
But this year, my heart belongs to the man we affectionately know as Evrard (although his name is in fact Alain). Tall and striking in his one shouldered butcher’s apron, Evrard is our local butcher and has only a slight hint of menace about him. At this point in the post I am in danger of descending into seaside postcard humour if I talk at all about the impressive nature of his knife collection so I shall move swiftly on, but Evrard has turned out to be a bit of a find. Ask him for steaks that you can cook in a moment and that will remain ever so tendre and Evrard will not suggest filet, or chateubriand or other expensive prime cuts that will guarantee tenderness but may fall short on all important flavour, instead his skill and dexterity is turned to something I still cannot name but an unexceptional looking piece of beef is carved lightly and finely into individual portions at a very bon marché price and, back home, hitting the coals it performs beyond all expectations and baffles our English friends who have long since decided that all beef is to be avoided in France outside of Michelin macaronned restaurants or slow cooked stews - they are properly impressed.
Whether it is François or Alain or any of my other bits on the side (incredibly elegant butchers with devoted clienteles in any number of the big towns that surround us that I might happen to be visiting) I have finally hit upon the secret; instead of looking to find or describe my old English faithfuls or attempting to identify a French equivalent, of which there may not even be one, better by far to describe how you are planning to cook a particular type of meat, how you would like it to be once it is done, how many people you are aiming to feed, and then allow the butcher to do his job - offer you the benefit of his knowledge and skill and find what you didn’t even know you were looking for - foolproof!
This trick is not so easily replicated in the grandes surfaces (supermarkets) where you may be faced with polystyrened cling-filmed packages of hard to identify and often deeply unattractive meat (and beware of those marked cheval if you are not inclined to give horse-meat a go) although that is to do a disservice to those where a butcher’s counter exists and there are experts to whom you can turn for advice - be warned, however, levels of patience amongst customers in the ill-formed queues holding paper numbers to indicate their turn at these counters may not equal those on the high street.
“Ah ! qu’il est bon au retour, le foyer,
Et qu’il est doux, le vieux lit de noyer,
Quand on s’y couche, après un long voyage.”
~Poèmes saturniens (1866), Premiers vers, Imité de Catulle