‘Getting’ French Food France changed this boy’s attitude to food – and life
By Thomas Anthony
This is the story of the beginning of a love affair - the kind that lasts, that is. I'm talking about food. French food, to be exact. Most people who love French food can trace the exact moment when their love affair with it began. For American cookery writer and author of 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking' Julia Child, it was her first meal on French soil, at a renowned restaurant in a provincial town in Normandy, and it was a fish dish that stole her heart and led her ultimately to change her life - Sole Meunière.
A simple dish, perfectly prepared and expertly served, was her Road to Damascus: 'Sole, sole, why delightest thou me?' She had never tasted anything so delicious. One of the tricks, she later discovered, was the lavish way the French use butter. This scene is recreated by Meryl Streep in the movie 'Julie and Julia'.
Well, that's how it happened to her. The experience is similar to a sexual awakening. Parts of one's body and yes, soul, are touched for the first time, making one suddenly aware that they exist, and that life is henceforth not worth living without them.
There is no going back. One embarks on a culinary adolescence dotted with passions, each surely the pinnacle of ecstasy, yet quickly succeeded by another, even more sublime. The years pass and adolescent passions mature into a contented and dependable, lifelong relationship, yet not without its own surprises and moments of bliss.
This did not happen to me in the same way – certainly not the moment I arrived in France on my first trip abroad. It was like this: I was thirteen years old and had been looking forward to discovering France for years. My introduction to it was a baptism of fire. Taking off from Dublin on my first flight alone, everything seemed wonderful, and I tucked happily into my exciting first airline meal soon after. Just over Wales, things began to change; the tray started sliding around and then jumping up and down.
Eating became impossible due to weather conditions, and we strapped ourselves in for a bumpy ride. Soon we were flying through a thunderstorm during which I felt sure every minute would be my last, staring out the window at the wings as they shuddered and flapped in gale force winds, lightning adding its peculiar drama to the scene. Apparently if it strikes a plane, it does no damage, but I didn't know that at the time. The journey seemed endless, and the passengers' relief on finally landing was clear on their faces. Probably still in shock, I left my passport on the plane, or so I thought, and a man was dispatched, braving the rain on a bicycle, to search for it. When he returned empty-handed, I was mortified to find I had had my passport with me all along. This was not an auspicious start. When I had finally been waved through immigration and met my host family, we sped across night time Paris in their very French Citroen DS. They were amused at my open-mouthed astonishment at the sight of advertisements and hoardings showing scantily-clad and bare-breasted women, something that was never seen in Catholic, conservative Ireland at that time. Playboy magazine was an under-the-table affair, and all films were heavily censored for sexual content. Not even condoms were for sale. Officially, sex was not welcome in Ireland. My host family were amused at my naïveté and doubtless mystified at how a country could be so narrow-minded. The first night passed uneventfully. Knowing nothing of mosquitoes, which, just like sexy advertisements, were strangers to my native land, I left the bedside lamp on and the windows open for some cool air, and was rewarded in the morning by the sight of over fifty mosquito bites on my, no doubt delicious, Irish skin.
France was turning out to be less of a paradise than I had imagined. Then there was the matter of cuisine. The food was very different from what I was used to at home. At breakfast, coffee or hot chocolate was served in bowls that had no handles, and the family thought nothing of dunking their bread in it, sometimes when it had already been spread with butter and jam - not a sight to gladden the heart or gastric juices first thing in the morning. I was also unimpressed with my host family's dining choices, which featured a rice dish with capsicum, tasting – and certainly smelling - of garlic, that they seemed to serve every evening without fail. Around 7 p.m., my nostrils would be invaded by that distinctive odour, unknown to me before, but fast becoming like an all-too-familiar houseguest who always showed up just before dinner – garlic, by name. It announced to us all that yes, we would be having that rice dish yet again.
When we moved to Nice for their annual summer vacation, there was a new addition to the menu. I had yet to experience anything of the much-lauded French cuisine, and thought perhaps things might improve when we got to the Riviera. Once there, a holiday mood prevailed, and it seemed chores such as cooking had to be simplified to the maximum. Now the rice dish featured less often - it was probably too much bother to prepare - and was more often than not replaced, to my astonishment, with 'Les spaghettis au beurre' which, surprising as it may seem, is exactly as named - spaghetti with butter. Yes, butter, period. No sauce of any description covered the nudity of these noodles' slender paleness. Well, sometimes ketchup was offered instead of butter.
Not much world-famous cuisine there.
On the beach at St. Jean-Cap Ferrat, I discovered a Nice speciality, Pain Bagnat, a kind of coarse sandwich with bitter-tasting olives, anchovies and other salad ingredients that did not particularly appeal to my childish palate. It was a bit like a salade Niçoise between two pieces of crusty bread. Now I would wolf it down with relish, but in those days, it was a bit adult for my taste. We had this on the beach for lunch every day without exception. This family either never got bored with the same food, or else was so bored with food they could not bother arranging for something different. Sea air and hunger made it palatable enough, but my food awakening was still some weeks away.
One day at a seafood restaurant at the port of Nice I ordered crevettes, which sounded delicious, though I had no idea what they were. The family tried to dissuade me, correctly guessing that I had been seduced by a word on a page and was getting in beyond my depth, but I held firm - Crevettes it would be. I was taken aback when I saw the large grilled prawns, served whole, with a glisten of olive oil, on a small salver. I can see them now. I was fascinated by their little black globes of eyes, literally out on stalks, that stared at me with wary distrust, fully justified indeed, as I attempted a sortie on them with my knife and fork. I was told to pull off their heads, shells and legs and eat the bodies using my hands. At this, I conceded defeat and just had some salad, vowing in future always to know exactly what I was ordering to avoid nasty surprises. On the one occasion, years later, when I broke this rule and ordered andouillettes, I fell victim once again to a monster hiding behind a pretty name. The crevettes' expression changed to one of triumph mingled with contempt. French cuisine was turning out to be rather a disappointment.
We took the overnight train to Paris at the end of our two weeks in Nice, and it was fun to sleep for the first time in a couchette as the train passed through many cities on its route through France. I remember seeing the station sign for Marseilles through a haze of sleep and then knew nothing until we pulled into the Gare de Lyon in Paris. An unexpected treat was breakfast at the station. The waiter, dressed as French waiters are, in a long white apron and an air of bored superiority, brought everyone their coffee and a basket of croissants for the table. Croissants were something I had never seen before. Now that they are widely available in plastic bags of a dozen at every supermarket and petrol station, some people might not be aware that those petrol station croissants bear as little relation to a true croissant as a frozen burger does to a rare fillet steak. They are an insult to the name of croissant. I was innocent of either kind and had no idea what awaited me as I helped myself to one from the basket.
French people will walk a distance of several streets to patronise the bakery, or boulangerie in French, that has a better croissant than the one nearest to them. It is a kind of religion. They willingly make this pilgrimage to the shrine of the perfect croissant, which is a miracle of puffy lightness, dense, but not too dense, chewiness and golden featherlight flakes of pastry that are crispy at the edges but like a cloud of patisserie heaven in the middle. It cannot adequately be described, it can only be experienced, to understand what a pinnacle of civilisation the croissant represents. Since the Turks were defeated by the Austrians at the gates of Vienna in 1683, Europe has been making this wonderful pastry, quite possibly in imitation of the Turks. I knew nothing of all this when I took my first bite of croissant. As soon as I tasted it, my culinary G-spot sent messages of ecstasy to my brain, and a whole new world of physical sensation opened up before me: the world of French dining.The family watched in amazement as I finished whatever remained in the basket, and the waiter was dispatched to bring another, which, much to their amusement, I also demolished with no help from anyone. Suddenly I was the prodigy croissant-eater, at only thirteen years old. I was probably capable of consuming my own weight in croissants. Slightly ashamed of my gluttony, I pondered this wonderful new discovery on the journey back to the house, the occasional burp punctuating my thoughts. Such deliciousness existed in the world, and only today had I discovered it! An unsuspecting victim to a masterly, French-style seduction, I had lost my culinary virginity. And I wanted more. Could France be hiding other delights, I wondered? Soon I was to have my answer.
A few days later, Madame Guibert - my host mother – surprised me by introducing me to a Nice speciality called pissaladière.
This is a tart of shortcrust pastry filled with chopped onions and a little olive oil, dotted with black olives and baked in the oven until the onions partly caramelise and enter the realms of culinary heaven. Anchovies are optional. Their salty bitterness might not have pleased my youthful tastebuds, so it's just as well that they were left out when I first tasted this delicacy from the South of France. It was so simple, and yet the flavours and textures combined so perfectly that the result was much greater than the sum of its parts - a particular trick of French cookery, as I was beginning to discover.
Yet this magic kingdom seemed somehow beyond my anglophone reach, independent of a French intermediary who could wave a Gallic wand and somehow make the gates swing open for me. One day I was entrusted with the task of buying the daily bread for the family, despite my French being almost non-existent. I could say 'Please' and 'Thank you', and 'The cat has fallen into the milk - poor little cat!' and that was pretty much the sum of my French after six months of weekly lessons from a very charming Englishwoman called Mrs. Bennet. This was no help when it came to navigating the mysteries of French food.
On the way to the boulangerie, I kept repeating the name of the loaf I was supposed to buy - and which Madame would use in specific and cleverly-planned ways for the family over the next twenty-four hours - in my own solitary version of Chinese, or in this case French, Whispers. I entered the boulangerie and stared at the dozens of loaves of every shape and size that were arrayed before me. I was rather like the child who said to the grocer when asked for the list of things his mother had told him to memorise: "I can remember the tune, but I can't remember the words!" I mumbled what I thought might be the name of the loaf to the baker, who looked puzzled. But he was eager to help me out. Did I mean such and such a loaf, he asked, or did I perhaps want this one here? Was it a Napoléon I required, or maybe a pain de campagne? Or a simple baguette? This was now pure guesswork, as the name I had given him bore little relation to any loaf known to a French baker. Finally, desperate to end this embarrassing ordeal, I nodded helplessly as he pointed at one of them, and the purchase was made. The disappointment on Madame's face when I returned with completely the wrong loaf made me burn with embarrassment. Clearly the kind of bread one bought was a matter of much greater importance in France than it was back home. It appeared that some of the family were going to be on short rations, and there would be no gratin on the soupe à l'oignon that evening. Oh well, what could you expect from a raw kid who hardly spoke a word of French?
Another attempt to master a French secret ended in frustration when I asked Madame how one could make the wonderful pissaladiere. 'Oh, it's very easy!' she said encouragingly, pleased that I liked it so much. She led me into her large and plainly-appointed, but supremely practical French kitchen to show me how to do it. She then wrote out the recipe for me, so my mother could have a go at it when I got back home. I looked at it expectantly - and sighed in frustration. The measurements were all metric. This was 1969 - we still used Imperial measurements in Ireland, and grams and kilos meant nothing to us. The secrets of French cuisine were not to be had that easily, it seemed. But of one thing I was sure - I would be back for more of this amazing thing that had changed my life, and one day, I vowed, I would make those secrets mine.
I was as good as my word. Shortly after my return I got hold of a Penguin paperback called 'Cooking with Wine' and soon I was turning out relatively simple dishes such as Sole Véronique. The gates had been breached. I come across excellent French food all over the world when I look in the right places, and sometimes it can be found in unexpected places. In Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, at a French-owned hotel, I tasted excellent croissants. When I asked who had made them, I was told they were the work of a Sri Lankan pastry chef. I take off my hat to him; he had clearly, like me, 'gotten' French food.
Thomas Anthony, painter and journalist, graduated from Trinity College with an MA in Modern Languages and also holds a TESOL Diploma. Offered a place at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, he opted instead to pursue his artistic endeavours in his own way and has had several successful art exhibitions in the Middle East, where he lived for some years. He now lives in Sri Lanka and finds inspiration for his art here. He plans to have an exhibition in Colombo this year.
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