When in France . . .
BRIGHTON, SA DESERVED or not, the French have a reputation for being logical and rational and, naturally, they have applied this to the layout of their supermarkets.
Where do you look for fresh fruit juice in a French supermarket? Not with milk, as it’s not a dairy product; logically, fresh fruit juice belongs with fresh fruit and vegetables, and that’s where you’ll find it. Jam? That’s breakfast fare, and therefore with tea and coffee and sugar. Savoury biscuits? Opposite pastis and Dubonnet and other aperitifs, since they accompany pre-dinner drinks. After many trips to France, I’m used to these twists of logic. I thought I had entree to the workings of the French mind. But the search for charcoal stumped me.
We had rented a spacious house in a quiet village in southern Burgundy, and invited English friends to join us. (I suspect the reason for this tranquillity was that many of the residents had transferred to the retirement home, formerly the hospital, up on the hill.) With the promise of fine weather for the last few days of our stay, we wanted to make the most of the barbecue — ostensibly for the benefit of our guests, but in reality for a display of cultural supremacy.
Having used the last of the charcoal Madame had thoughtfully provided, we set off for the vast labyrinth of the Intermarche in Cluny, 10 minutes away. List in hand, we ticked off fresh milk, coffee filters and butter — the demi-sel variety speckled with fine crystals of fleur de sel. Plus some extra wine, in case we run out.
Charcoal, I assumed, would be with things for the backyard and garden, as that’s where you barbecue. The garden aisle had small pots and digging implements and watering cans and hoses, but no charcoal. Then it must be in the holidays section, I reasoned; barbecues belong to summer, and from June to August all French supermarkets have a special department with picnic sets, beach umbrellas and outdoor games. Wrong again.
I had to resort to asking the girl at the checkout. ‘‘ Est-ce que vous avez du charbon?’’
‘‘ Mais oui,’’ she replied, and gave me directions to the butchery section. Of course. You buy your charcoal where you buy your meat. It’s logical. Barbara Santich is the author of Bold Palates: Australia’s Gastronomic