We lift the lid on as­pects of life in France you just can’t pre­pare for – un­til now!

Living France - - Contents -

Cover story Alex Quick takes a hu­mor­ous look at French food and drink eti­quette in an ex­tract of his new book


While many have pon­dered what makes the French cul­ture so unique, au­thor Alex Quick has given form to his thoughts with his hu­mor­ous new book How to be French. In the first of a three-part se­ries fea­tur­ing ex­tracts from the book, Alex re­veals the French food and drink eti­quette. Why not start where the French them­selves would start? That is, with food?

There is a very telling mo­ment in As­terix and the Olympic Games – writ­ten, of course, by that great French ge­nius René Goscinny – when As­terix and Obe­lix are din­ing with the Gaul­ish Olympic team at a res­tau­rant in Greece. As they tuck into their stuffed vine leaves, Obe­lix says to As­terix: ‘Do you re­mem­ber the lit­tle res­tau­rant in Lug­dunum where we had that de­li­cious veal?’

For the French, food is the great­est of all top­ics of con­ver­sa­tion, and there is no bet­ter time to talk about food than when one is en­gaged in eat­ing it. Re­gional spe­cial­i­ties, the best way to pre­pare a cer­tain dish, leg­endary meals of yore, im­pos­si­ble-to-ob­tain in­gre­di­ents, the best mar­kets, chefs, wines, veg­e­tar­i­an­ism and its per­verse­ness: the range of top­ics is ef­fec­tively un­bounded. It’s sur­pris­ing the French talk about any­thing else, and some­times they don’t.

A fa­mous experiment was car­ried out in which a group of Amer­i­cans and a group of French were shown a pic­ture of a cho­co­late cake and asked what emo­tion it elicited. The Amer­i­cans, pre­dom­i­nantly, said ‘guilt’, and the French, pre­dom­i­nantly, said ‘cel­e­bra­tion’. That re­ally says it all. Amer­i­can pu­ri­tanism seeks to mor­tify and tame the body; French sen­su­al­ity seeks to in­dulge and celebrate it. And the French still wind up thin­ner than the Amer­i­cans. How do they pull that off?

Per­haps it’s be­cause the French sit down to eat, en­joy it, take it se­ri­ously

“For the French, food is the great­est of all top­ics

of con­ver­sa­tion”

and re­gard it as a way to spend time with friends and fam­ily. They savour it, they know about it, they ap­pre­ci­ate it. They don’t snack all day, alone, on foods that have lit­tle in­trin­sic in­ter­est or per­son­al­ity.

Not to have an opin­ion about food, or to re­gard it as mere fuel, is the purest form of French ni­hilism.


In An­glo­phone lands, we pre­fer to eat things that look noth­ing like things. In France, they are not so squea­mish. Wit­ness tête de veau. This is a real calf’s head, re­clin­ing in a dish and look­ing de­jected.

Then there are snails. These look like snails, and to add in­sult to in­jury are usu­ally served in their own homes. The snail goes through a purg­ing process, be­ing fed var­i­ous cleans­ing in­gre­di­ents for a few days (which seems a lit­tle strange, since any in­gre­di­ents fed to a snail still turn to snail ex­cre­ment), be­fore be­ing re­moved from their shells, killed, cooked, and re­placed cour­te­ously in their shells with gar­lic and but­ter. Snails are nat­u­rally low in fat and high in pro­tein, though if served in but­ter, the ra­tio is re­versed.

Frogs’ legs look like the legs of frogs, and taste of chicken. To kill and re­move the legs from any an­i­mal – the killing is of­ten si­mul­ta­ne­ous with, and caused by, the leg re­moval – and then blithely claim it tastes like another an­i­mal, is surely a ter­ri­ble in­sult: a frog, if it could de­fend it­self, would surely claim that it tastes like a frog. In re­cent years, at an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal dig at Ames­bury in Wilt­shire, a mid­den was un­cov­ered con­tain­ing hun­dreds of frog leg bones dat­ing back to the sev­enth mil­len­nium BC: the Bri­tish are thus the orig­i­nal ‘frogs’.

Or bone mar­row. This is the ‘meat but­ter’ of beef or veal: it is cooked in the an­i­mal bone, which is lon­gi­tu­di­nally halved and gar­nished with mus­tard seeds, gar­lic and herbs, then served with gar­lic bread and salad. It’s com­pletely de­li­cious – as long as you don’t mind be­ing re­minded that you are eat­ing an an­i­mal.


The French mar­ket is not the pale phe­nom­e­non we are used to in the UK, with its wor­thy at­tempt to cre­ate a cul­ture of ‘lo­cal’ pro­duc­ers in op­po­si­tion to the dom­i­nance of the su­per­mar­ket, which in re­al­ity has ev­ery­thing very nicely sewn up, thank you – it’s a real tra­di­tion, alive in ev­ery French town and ev­ery French soul. Le marché is where one tastes, smells, hears, feels and sees France. In this, it beats the most French of all other French things.

Mar­kets are gen­er­ally held once a week in most towns, though in some cases twice a week or more. The largest mar­kets are spe­cial con­cerns known as foires (fairs) and take place on for­mer re­li­gious oc­ca­sions a few times a year. Cov­ered mar­kets ( marchés cou­verts) also ex­ist on a per­ma­nent

ba­sis, with stall hold­ers spe­cial­is­ing in ev­ery con­ceiv­able com­mod­ity (clothes, pic­tures, cheeses, olives, eggs, pota­toes, honey, hats, pot­tery, tools, wine, flow­ers, books, chicks).

Some mar­kets have a na­tional fame: among them are the book mar­ket at Parc Ge­orge Brassens in Paris, the flower mar­ket in Nice, the con­tem­po­rary art mar­ket at Place de la Bastille in Paris, the fish mar­ket at Mar­seilles, the flea mar­ket at Place Saint Sulpice in Paris, and the stamp mar­ket at Av­enue de Marigny in Paris.

The French love to browse, to prod, to fin­ger, to dis­par­age and fi­nally to buy. And at noon ev­ery­one packs up for a long lunch, hyp­no­tiz­ing them­selves with food and wine into a deep and end­less af­ter­noon.


‘The French para­dox’ is the ob­ser­va­tion that French peo­ple typ­i­cally con­sume higher than av­er­age amounts of sat­u­rated fats, which are strongly as­so­ci­ated with coro­nary heart dis­ease, yet suf­fer from sub­stan­tially lower rates of said coro­nary heart dis­ease. In very rough terms, the French con­sume about 25% more sat­u­rated fats (in the form of soft cheeses, but­ter and fatty meat) than the Amer­i­cans or Bri­tish, but suf­fer from about 25% less heart dis­ease.

When this was first no­ticed in the 1980s, there was a frenzy of in­ter­est through­out the world in ex­actly how the French were get­ting away with it. In Amer­ica, it was claimed that the pro­phy­lac­tic fac­tor was red wine. The US con­sump­tion of red wine quadru­pled overnight, as Amer­i­cans forced them­selves to drink the filthy stuff as a health food. Vi­ta­min K2 was also im­pli­cated (the only vi­ta­min named af­ter a moun­tain), since K2 can be found in Brie de Meaux and foie gras. Other ex­pla­na­tions in­volved smaller por­tion sizes, sta­tis­ti­cal in­com­pe­tence, low sugar in­take, herbal tea, not eat­ing while watch­ing TV, smok­ing plenty of cig­a­rettes and say­ing ‘ooh la la’ oc­ca­sion­ally. In fact, it was open sea­son for any­one who wanted to write a book giv­ing the rea­sons why French women don’t get fat, old, ugly or de­velop vari­cose veins, and later, why French chil­dren don’t have tantrums and why ev­ery­one in France is hav­ing so many or­gasms that it is sur­pris­ing their fea­tures are not twisted into a per­ma­nent ric­tus of ec­stasy.

The only peo­ple who don’t care about the French para­dox are the French them­selves, who have noth­ing to gain from find­ing out why, or in­deed if, it ex­ists.


L’heure de l’apéro is ‘ apéro hour’ or ‘the hour of the aper­i­tif’. Apéri­tif be­comes apéro as in­tel­lectuel be­comes in­tello, vétéri­naire be­comes véto and hôpi­tal be­comes hôsto.

What does apéri­tif mean, at its root? Well, it comes from the Latin verb aperire, to open, which also gives us the name of the month of April (the month that ‘opens’ the way to spring). The apéri­tif is thus the open­ing move in the pro­tracted chess game that is the French din­ner.

How­ever, an apéro is not some­thing that you gulp back quickly be­fore tuck­ing in. The French, with their cus­tom­ary at­ten­tion to the plea­sures of the body, and their un­der­stand­ing of the way an­tic­i­pa­tion sharp­ens ap­petite in a va­ri­ety of con­texts, have elon­gated the act of hav­ing a snifter into 60 min­utes. L’heure de l’apéro is the time spent be­tween knock­ing off work (or, at week­ends, re­cov­er­ing from a long lunch) and start­ing the evening meal. It is a time taken with friends at a café, river­bank, bar, etc, quite sep­a­rate from the time taken at the res­tau­rant or home where you will later dine. It is a pre­quel, but in a dif­fer­ent cin­ema.

L’heure de l’apéro is an hour the French have cre­ated and de­mar­cated for them­selves, and is con­se­quently an hour in which they feel the most French; there isn’t re­ally any English equiv­a­lent to l’heure de l’apéro. ‘Hav­ing a pint with your mates af­ter work’ doesn’t cut it. The ac­tual apéro in ques­tion could be any­thing – a glass of rosé, a cock­tail, a pastis, etc – which you could, though it is not usual, re­fer to as a roso, cockto or pasto.


In France, when you clink glasses to toast one another, you are also sup­posed to look one another in the eye. Not to do so is to in­vite bad luck; it is also to demon­strate one’s spir­i­tual ab­sence dur­ing this most im­por­tant of en­coun­ters. Af­ter all, it is an en­counter in which one tra­di­tion­ally wishes one’s fel­low drinker bonne santé, or ‘good health’. Not to look them in the eye at this time is es­sen­tially to say: ‘I care lit­tle for you or your health, or for this mo­ment of fel­low­ship be­tween us; you don’t re­ally ex­ist for me, and in fact you are trash, and I wouldn’t visit you in hos­pi­tal or at­tend your fu­neral, the date and cir­cum­stances of which are of no in­ter­est to me.’

Clink­ing is an in­ter­est­ing cus­tom. Why do we clink? And why do the French clink more than the Bri­tish? A Bri­ton will of­ten just raise his glass, look at noth­ing in par­tic­u­lar, say ‘cheers’ and gulp it down. The French, on the other hand, love to clink. Ap­par­ently it de­rives from a me­dieval cus­tom. In for­mer times it was quite pos­si­ble that your host had poi­soned your wine. In or­der to demon­strate that this was not so, the host would tip a por­tion of his wine into your glass (or beaker), and you would tip a por­tion of yours into his. The con­tact be­tween the lips of the re­spec­tive glasses or beakers as this was per­formed gave rise to the cus­tom of clink­ing: rather than mix the wines to­gether, one could sym­bol­i­cally clink as a mark of trust.

It would be amus­ing to pour one’s wine into a French­man’s wine glass these days and watch the ex­pres­sion on his face.”

Le marché is where one tastes, smells, hears, feels and sees France

Taken from How to be French, Alex Quick with Cyn Bataille (Old Street Pub­lish­ing, £8.99)

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