The French are a curious lot when it comes to food. They proudly boast and insist that their cuisine is the best in the world, that nothing can beat their complex traditional methods and yet when being entertained by French friends, the food on offer is unfussy, uncomplicated and seemingly effortless. They cheat as much as we do (with ready-made pastry etc….) but use the freshest of seasonal produce combined with canned or preserved foods to create the tastiest meals.
Although it's a cause for frustration sometimes in the shops here when many ingredients available in the UK cannot be found (especially the ethnic spices for curries and chillies, for example), it is actually quite nice to forego the types of meals we have in the UK whilst we are here. The French do not embrace world cuisine as we do – in fact they seem to be highly suspicious of anything that isn't 'French'. It does disappoint me however, that they don't like chutney – although I'm working on it!!
I'm starting to 'get over it' though and am moving more and more towards the French ways, certainly whilst I am in France. In the rural areas (where we have our home) the availability of fresh food is limited. Supermarkets are few and far between, markets tend to be once a week. Village deliveries by the boulanger, the boucher and the epicier still happen once or twice a week and are a lifeline to the many elderly residents who cannot get to the towns to shop. It's a 20 minute drive to the nearest supermarket. Very different to where we live in the UK where everything is a short walk away. I ran out of salt yesterday and had to beg some from friends.
So they shop very differently – many have allotments or grow their own veg in their gardens and share amongst their communities. They stock up on sterilised milk, canned vegetables, preserved pate's, terrines and rillettes. They still preserve a lot of their own produce – there's an abundance of Kilner style bottling jars and preserving equipment in every supermarket or hardware shop. Many keep their own chickens (for meat and eggs) and rabbits.
So what has really inspired me this week? We visited some friends (English people who now live in France). They have also changed the way they shop and eat and we were presented with the most fabulous meal, French style. The starter was particularly impressive: a huge oval platter of colourful ingredients – a nicoise style salad, beautifully presented. There were layers and little piles of grated carrot, grated celeriac, green beans, white beans, asparagus, tuna, tomatoes, beetroot, mozzarella, olives, cornichons, hard boiled eggs, herbs, potato salad, cous cous and goodness knows what else – absolutely delicious! We all helped ourselves and it was a pure voyage of discovery working through all the ingredients.
Since then, I've made several similar style meals and they've all tasted different according to what I put in them. And the beauty of it is – a lot of the ingredients can be bought readymade if you wish meaning very little prep and hardly any washing up! What a difference to a traditional English salad – not a lettuce leaf in sight (or 'weeds' as my OH calls it!) Last night we entertained friends for supper and the main course was such a salad with home-made fish cakes (made with tinned tuna and pepped up with chopped cornichons, capers, lemon juice, parsley and cayenne). Simple, effortless and got loads of compliments! Finished off with a rich dark chocolate rum flavoured mousse (home-made but easy to cheat and buy ready made ones here) and chocolate-dipped strawberries. It does not have to be complicated. Leave all that to the professional chefs in the restaurants!