HOW TO BE FRENCH
We lift the lid on aspects of life in France you just can’t prepare for – until now!
Cover story Alex Quick takes a humorous look at French food and drink etiquette in an extract of his new book
“TALK ABOUT FOOD”
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
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.
EAT THINGS THAT LOOK LIKE THINGS
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.
GO TO A MARKET
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.
IGNORE THE FRENCH PARADOX
‘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.
ENJOY L’HEURE DE L’APÉRO
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.
CLINK GLASSES AND MAKE EYE CONTACT
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)