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A Love Affair with Food

by Jane Shortall

At last. My age is irrelevant. I am beginning to get used to and thoroughly enjoy being in a permanent good mood; I feel I have found Nirvana. After over thirty years on the treadmill of the nine to five, six, seven or sometimes even later working life, I seem to have fallen into a little Paradise. If you would like some of the same, come and live in this little known area of France. But there is one condition. And it’s a big one. You must be prepared to eat!

After nearly ten months here I can safely say that food; the buying, preparing and the eating of it at home, the menu discussion, the querying of the waiters and the absolute enjoyment of eating food in restaurants, all play a massive part in daily life here. You can, of course, incorporate these ideas into your life wherever you are, once you don’t mind putting on those few extra pounds....

After 30 years of visiting France I knew that the French are obsessed about food, but I truly did not realise that it would be so important every single day. By this I mean that each day, and not just on occasion, the pleasure of good food and wine is taken very seriously indeed. Here, there is no question of eating simply to live, of getting a meal over with quickly and then buzzing on with the important issues of the day. No. Food is the issue.

At Christmastime this was especially evident. There was no fuss about preparing a massive feast on December 25; a blow out of ridiculous proportions. It was another day of good food. That is all. There is however, a wonderful tradition of Oysters and Foie Gras late on Christmas Eve, an ‘extended family’ meal on Christmas day, when young couples take their children to the grandparents. As December 26th is not celebrated in France this Christmas Day meal is usually a very long lunch, as people are working the next day.

The Boulangerie was open as usual at six thirty; Mr. Soum had been baking since 3.30 am. This Monsieur Soum is now my hero ever since the evening I flew into his shop having left the task of buying bread til much too late and there were only some small cakes left. He went into his own private kitchen and came back holding a full loaf and a bread knife. He cut the loaf in two and handed me half of it, not charging me. He could not imagine being without bread for the evening meal.

For the French, a croissant and a coffee is the norm for breakfast. But then there is lunch. And for the French, lunch is where it’s at. At 12 noon most things stop, shops close — even food shops — workmen disappear, and lunch begins. The restaurants in the little town are packed. Unhurried — most people have until 2pm for lunch — the lunch starts with an aperitif. There is something about that glass of Kir, that lovely delicate mix of white wine and cassis, offered in every single establishment, no matter how modest. Then the ordering, will it be the plat du jour — the dish of the day — or will we choose from the Carte? The waiters explain what is especially good today.

Being a waiter in France, as I observed in 1970's Paris, is a most worthy ambition, and whereas I, too, have heard the stories of rudeness and snubs from French waiters, I have never personally experienced it. (I have a sneaking suspicion that if a person hasn’t a grasp of the language, there can often be misunderstandings, which are then relayed as stories of rudeness. However, on with the lunch.)

A typical lunch would be a starter, say a plate of charcuterie, those wonderful spiced meats, served with tiny cornichons — quite different form the jars of hideous green monsters I was used to. Or a little delicate pastry tart — perhaps filled with gently softened tomatoes with herbs and cheese, or chicken and leeks in a wine sauce in filo pastry. Duck gizzards, pigeons innards, every sort of pate, including Wild Boar, is on offer. Of course the meat eaters are seriously well catered for here. Every part of the Pig appears to be eaten. The same applies to the Duck and Goose. Hearts, livers, wings, even the fat is cut into tiny pieces, fried up and served with aperitifs along with the olives.

Because of putting on a few pounds, I had decided to try to reduce my intake slightly and tone up a bit. Beginning by just eating a few slices less of the delicious bread each day, and sticking to salads with the minimum of dressing, and trying, trying, seriously trying to cut back a bit on the wine intake. Nothing too adventurous. Let’s not shock the system too much, I thought.

Two days into my week of brave intentions, Madame Menvielle, who at over 80 walks briskly up and around our little mediaeval village twice or three times a day, dropped a note in my door. It informed me that she had made one of her Salads, (capital letter deliberate) and I was to come and get it. At over age 80 she can afford to give me orders. I am admitting straight away that diet or no diet, when I found the note, I pulled on an old pair of rubber riding boots, as the snow was coming down thick and fast, and hot-footed it around to her house. This is a special vegetable only salad which has to be one of the finest I have ever eaten.

The first time she presented me with a bowl of it, I rather timidly asked her if I could have the recipe. She began to laugh, said ’recipe?’ and named all the ingredients and said that was it. But what about the dressing? What about it? Well how much do I use, and what’s in it? Oil and vinegar of course. Yes, but how much, I ventured, thinking I was now asking too many crazy questions. She put her two hands in the air and mimed the shaking of two bottles into a dish. I tired again in pigeon French, with my notebook and pen ready. Then she realised what I meant. Whereupon she simply said “but you know when it tastes right that it’s ready“.

Too good to miss, and for anyone who is interested in a feast for the taste buds, not to mention good for the health, here it is. So simple. So good. And bursting with vitamins:

Into a dish goes a big bunch of cooked and drained long green and yellow beans. Here they are called Haricot Vert and Haricot Jeune. Also into the dish, a chopped up cold boiled potato, or two. Then a good cup of tiny green peas — petit pois. Then you can add a few lentils, or a tomato, as you wish. The last thing to go in is a mashed up hard-boiled egg. Madame says no onions, ever, ever, in this dish. They will not take the final dressing. That is her only law. And then comes the best bit. You just add as much garlic as you personally like. One clove or the whole bulb, pounded in a pestle and mortar with salt. I had mentioned to Madame that garlic was my drug of choice, and she certainly took me at my word!

Now for the dressing. This was a surprise. For this particular salad, Madame uses not the Olive oil as I am used to, but a very light vegetable oil, and for the vinegar she uses a cider vinegar, instead of the usual wine. A few twists of black pepper and into the fridge for an hour. I am really enjoying learning about this wonderful combining of different foods, which the Mesdames know so much about, and are kind enough to tell me.

So I wolfed the entire bowl to myself, and was just thinking that I had eaten my food allowance for about two days when the door buzzer went and there was Madame Morrere. Asking me to dinner on Friday night with her family who are here from Paris for the skiing. Yes, say I, and thank you, thinking that I will just eat a little of everything and keep to my new ‘regime’. But oh, dear. Madame Morrere is one of the great classic cooks in the village. For a solid hour we sat at the table — all Madame's furniture looks like it used to be in the palace of Versailles — and talked over the aperitifs and various appetisers, all of which would have made a good sized snack in themselves. Then the dinner began.

Out came a massive plate of home made Foie Gras each. The word rich does not describe it adequately. Madame poured a tall elegant glass of dry white wine to accompany this. (I was pleased that I had not worn anything too tight.) Next a massive dish based on ham with cognac was placed in the centre of the table. We were all served enormous portions and to go along with this a delicious red wine. All thoughts of diet now thrown out the window. At around ten o’clock we had had the cheeses, with bread and more wine, and were settling in to that happy, full of food and wine mood, when Madame appeared with a simply gigantic glass dish of fresh fruits in their juices, and a home made unadorned yellow coloured cake to accompany it, lest anyone should still be hungry. Then the brandies were produced; a twenty year old Calvados from Normandy, a special tiny bottle of aged strawberry liqueur, and an ancient bottle of the head-numbing Eau de Vie. In Ireland this is known as Uische Beatha — Water of life — dangerous stuff, and at that point I took to plain water. I wanted to wake up in the morning!

They say here that the average Madame knows as much about food as most chefs, which is why chefs are revered. People know about food, and when a chef produces something spectacular, they know how good it is, and how much work went into the preparation. The French people that I have met since coming here have been perfectly astonished when I repeat some stories of the celebrity chef boom in Dublin.

Lastly this week I received an invitation to a Michelin star restaurant lunch, as part of a party of six. We began with aperitifs at 12.30 and I returned home at about 5pm. (I think I am now heavier than when I started thinking of this reducing and slenderising business.) The gentleman hosting the lunch was a sprightly 8o year old. At one point I said something about wishing I had come to live in this wild part of France years ago, and he delighted me by saying ‘but you are so young still — and here such a short time, just think, you have years and years of discovery ahead‘.

Hurrah for that thought.

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