I feel like I need to tell you a bit about eating in Southern France. Not at restaurants, which we are unable/ unwilling to do with our whirling dervish of a child, but the good old process of buying and preparing food for our daily existence.
As most of you know, Matthew is an amazing cook. He can take a fridge full of random items and prepare a gourmet meal, usually in an hour or less. I am extremely grateful for this. I am an enthusiastic, but not particularly fabulous cook. I can take a fridge full of random items and prepare a simple, fresh meal that is tasty, but not special, usually in 20 minutes or less, which is a good talent to have with a toddler in the house. We did expect to have a different experience with eating here. It’s clearthat the French have a different relationship with food than most cultures. But how pervasive that relationship is within the culture and exactly how it manifests were unknown to us. It’s going to be hard to go home.
The grocery stores here, the Albertsons and Safeways of France are ginormous. They are called Hypermarchés and are a little like grocery stores and maybe Target thrown together. At first, I found this utterly exhausting. Since things are organized a bit differently here, when I was looking for something specific, say baking soda, I’d have to scour aisle after aisle, looking carefully at almost every object on the shelf to see what it was called and try to figure out if it was what I was looking for. I’d get halfway through the store and be ready to go home. Usually Lark would be too, which means we’d just get the hell out of there. I eventually found sodium bicarbonate in the special cleaning supplies section in the automotive aisle. In the baking aisle, there is “poudre lever”, but it is a mix of different leveners, so not useful if you just want baking soda. Cocoa was in the chocolate aisle. Yep, there’s a chocolate aisle at LeClercs.
Much of what you see here is similar to home. There’s an aisle full of soda for example. Not quite as big as a US grocery store, but still present. There are aisles of canned goods, although what’s in the cans varies markedly from home. Lots of duck confit. But here, hard liquor is sold in the grocery store. The wine is astonishingly cheap. I think it’s cheaper than petrol for 99% of the wine in the store, and it’s really good wine. Bottled water is taken to new heights in terms of variety here. The French like their water, almost as much as they like their bread, cheese and meats. But not quite!
I, personally, would never buy a loaf of French bread in a large grocery store in the US. It usually looks pretty good, but when you actually eat it, the crust is thin and flimsy and the interior is closer to marshmallow than bread. Yes, I’m officially a bread snob. Now that I live in France, I am a very happy bread snob. There is a whole other world of bread here than anything I’ve seen at home. The variety of shapes, sizes and ingredients is astonishing. And it’s ALL good! Like really, really good bread. And then there’s the pastry section!
Meat is also far beyond what we see at home. I shop at our local co-op in Boise with its pasture raised meats, chickens, eggs. The meat department, to my very sensitive nose, has only a slightly different smell than the rest of the store. Not so in France. When you are in the meat department here, you smell meat. What’s more is the mind boggling array of meats available. You have your beef, including a vast variety of veal cuts (young, but not abused), lamb, pork, rabbit, chicken, duck. There are 20 pound pieces of cow, a whole section of varieties of intestine cuts. Brains, livers and kidneys of most of the above. The charcutrie, or pressed meats, are like an art form and it’s utterly impossible to determine what might be in them. Best to just eat them.
The cheese department is equally vast and mostly indiscernible to our uneducated eyes. There are so many types of cheeses I have never heard of. The majority are unpasteurized and pretty damn stinky. We’ve had some divine chevres though and morbiers and a few others. Of course the price is a tenth what it costs in the US for such things. I have bought a couple of pieces that were basically inedible for us. And since they are not pasteurized, we’ve had to learn to buy small bits much more frequently than at home. Of course, there is no cheddar here or Jack or mozzarella. There are literally hundreds of French varieties. I actually had to have Matthew bring macaroni and cheese back from Chicago for Larken. I swear it’s for the kid!
The French also like their dairy. We get yogurt, but it isn’t sweetened or flavored. It’s really, really good though. The dairy section is loaded with something called creamy cheese. Looks like yogurt, but I haven’t stepped up for it yet. There are lots of puddings, but far better are the pots de crème. Yep, pots of cream. Delicious! We eat lots and lots of eggs, so I get those from the Bio Co-op, 3 dozen at a time. I love that the French don’t keep their eggs in the fridge. These often have little bits of chicken nest on them though, so I’ve taken to rinsing the ones that are sporting poop.
The fruit and vegetable aisle, in direct contrast to the variety available in meats, cheeses and breads, tends to carry far less than I’m accustomed to. It’s kind of nice to be eating what is grown here, in this season though. It’s not that you can’t get lemons and limes and bananas, but things like that are not in the same quantities or varieties. There are lots of fresh greens, although I’m going through kale withdrawal, endive, a large, flat leaf green that is quite tasty, but I’ve no clue what it is, spinach, broccoli etc. Lots of leeks, onions, shallots, carrots. These things lend themselves well to sauces and stews as well as really fresh preparations. I made braised endive last night, browned in bacon fat with salt and sugar and served with a wine reduction sauce. It was delicious.
A more satisfying shopping experience is to go into the village. We stop at the boulangerie for our bread and pain au chocolate. Across the street is a tiny boucherie with a tremendous variety of fresh meats and poultry. Up the way a little is a small market with whatever the local famers supply in terms of vegetables and fruits. Given how busy the hypermarches are, I can’t say that most people shop this way around here, but these businesses are flourishing, so obviously some people do.
I did discover one of my limits today though. We bought a gorgeous chicken at the market yesterday. The chicken here has a really yellow, flavorful fat on it and this one was bigger than most of the ones I’ve bought. It was in the butcher case, so we bought it and the butcher wrapped it in paper for us. Matthew took it out to bake it this evening and well, she still had her head, tucked lovingly under her wing. Now, my sister has issues with chicken bones. Bones have never bothered me. Heads bother me.Matthew was working when it was time to remove our girl from the oven. He’d left the head on saying it would be much easier to remove once the bird was cooked. Great, no problem, I’ll remove the head. I pulled her out of the oven, took one look at her little face and made some pasta. I’ve always known that if I had to kill my food, I’d be a vegetarian. Apparently if I have to participate in any form of butchering my food, I might become a vegetarian too. Coward? Yep. Know thyself.
We still have some pretty amazing weather here, so we get out to ride our bikes often. We did a family ride through some fabulous little villages the other day and ended up on a high ridge where we could see for miles in both directions. Just gorgeous! Then we stopped at a boulangerie a few miles from home and shared a glorious pastry. Life is good.
We have started bringing Larken to the Gaurderie in La Fouillade. She doesn’t like to go, but when she gets home, she wants to go back to the Gaurderie. She only stays for an hour or so right now, but hopefully she will be able to handle several hours pretty soon. It will give Matthew and I little more flexibility in our days and she will be much happier to play with children rather than just her parents.
Very recently, Larken has taken to her papa in a whole new way. When he was working last night, she wanted go “visit” him and got terribly upset that he was on a call and couldn’t play. She said I should go to work so papa could play with her. I must say it’s the first time I’ve heard that! It’s sort of a relief since I’ve been the needed parent for so long, but it’s also a bit sad. Tiny kids just don’t have much of a conscience, so when she says she doesn’t want me, I know that deep in her heart, she really doesn’t. She might miss me later, but for the moment, I could fall off the face of the earth and she’d be okay with it. Parenting is such a weird endeavor.
Happy Thanksgiving to you all! We will miss sharing this holiday with you, but remain grateful for all the fabulous people in our lives. Enjoy your holiday bird. We’ll be having cow.