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A land of variety

BAPTISTE.jpgAh, France, the land of bread, cheese and wine! Right? Oh but much more than that too.

France is composed of 24 “régions” (states if you want, except that it’s not the same system, so they don’t have as much autonomy) and as many regional culinary traditions. Of course, as of today, most of the traditions are all co-mingled and you can find most regional products in most places in France. Our grocery stores are full of a variety of foods of all sorts, with many kinds of fruits and vegetables, a multitude of different types of meat, and also —don’t get a wrong idea— the by-now-globalized brands too, such as Nestlé or Coca Cola, to name a few. Still, one thing that I’ve always missed from France when I’m in the US is the easy access to a large variety of foods. None of the beef-pork-chicken holy trio in France. We eat ducks too, and quails, and rabbit, and horse meat, and turkey, and guinea fowl, and other meats for fancier occasions (goose, capon, pigeon, etc.). And French people have also come up with plenty of ways to prepare each of these meats to make sure to varier les plaisirs (to change on a regular basis). Most French people are also used to a variety of fish (no, not only the almighty salmon, also halibut, cod, and plenty of others) and seafood (from fresh oysters to mussels, not forgetting crabs and langoustine for celebrations).

In fact, France is so used to having a variety of foods that it is very common for a town to have specialty stores: a boucherie-charcuterie (meat store), a poissonnerie (fish store), sometimes a fromagerie (cheese store). Farmer’s markets are still very common too, traditionally on Sundays.

All this made you hungry? Well, good news, Goudy is having a French food night on March 9th. It’s a Friday. Make sure to go! And if you prefer to cook, which is more fun, and you’ll probably have a better result if you buy better-quality products from the start, you can look up my cooking and baking blog. There are not only French recipes on it, but there’s a fair number of them. Here’s a link: http://www.cuisine-de-reve.com/

Some friends and I (which incidentally include Fabien, also a blogger for Willamette World News) do alphabet-themed dinners every week. Each time, we do food starting with the letter of the week. For the F dinner, we decided to do a fancy French dinner: we had foie gras, flammekueche, and fondue au chocolat (chocolate fondue).

Foie gras is a delicacy that most French people eat for Christmas, and for other celebrations. It is the liver of a fattened goose or duck. It’s eaten on bread, kind of like pâté, which is a type of meat spread.

Flammekueche, or flamkuch, with a variety of pronunciations, is a savory tart. Kind of like a pizza, with crème fraîche (sour cream) instead of tomato sauce, and topped with chopped bacon and onions.

Fondue au chocolat, well you know that one.

So, as you see, in France, we structure our meals: starter first, then main dish and side dish, and finally a dessert. It’s not only for celebration dinners, it’s an everyday thing, even at lunch. The dessert is not necessarily a cake or cookie or pastry, it can be as simple as a yogurt, or a fruit. If cheese is eaten, which is the case at least one meal per day in most families, it’s eaten between the main dish/side dish and the dessert. We eat cheese with bread, or straight for the gourmands like my dad, and in some regions they eat some cheeses with jelly (for example in the Basque country, fromage de brebis (ewe milk cheese) is eaten with black cherry jelly).

A less fancy, more common French meal you could make is:

- starter: shredded carrots, dressed with a vinaigrette (which by the way just means olive oil and vinegar —usually balsamic vinegar— and sometimes Dijon mustard)

- main dish: tuna “brandade” (or more commonly, the same thing with cod)

- side dish: green beans for example

- cheese: some French cheese you could find here are brie, comté, camembert, gruyère (that one is Swiss, but it’s very common in France —the French equivalent is emmental, not found in the States)

- dessert: a yogurt, or a fruit, or if you want something more fun, an apple tart, for instance.

- most French people also always have bread at the table to eat throughout the meal. We eat it when we’re waiting for the food to come, or to dip in the sauce of the different dishes, to dry our plate with it.

So, my grandmother belonged to an old family of independently wealthy people who just busied themselves with hunting and drinking coffee in the garden while the maid cleaned the house (understand: remnants of the aristocracy). So it’s really fun, because she knows absolutely all the rules of the French etiquette and table manners. For example, you’re not suppose to cut the tip of a brie. And never cut the lettuce on your plate! If it’s too big, fold it with you fork and knife. Never help yourself to cheese for seconds, even if you’re offered to do so (it would suggest the main dish wasn’t filling enough). For the main dish, you can have seconds, if you’re offered. The starter, you can’t, but you will probably not be offered seconds anyway.

The way to set the table is also a subject for arguments whenever I dine with them. Forks must face down and knives must have the sharp side toward the plate, so that they don’t look aggressive. And then the table manners are complicated too: no elbows on the table but hands must be on it though (a nightmare for kids), take your glass with your right hand, wait for everybody to be served before starting to eat, it is the maîtresse de maison (the lady of the house, the hostess) who begins eating first, but she serves the maître de maison (man of the house, her husband) first. And many other confusing things.

Of course, don’t you fancy that we still live according to these backward principles. Like I said, we still have our meals structured starter/main dish/dessert, and some rules like waiting for all to be served or no elbows on the table are still taught to children and practiced by many, but most of the etiquette rules and manners are now outdated. Even my family makes fun of my grandma when she scolds me for setting the forks with the tines upward :-)

To finish off, here are some tips on finding French food in the United States:

- cheese: the best place to find them is Whole Foods, which has a great selection of European cheeses. It’s going to be pricy though. Trader Joe’s has a smaller selection, but some very typical French brands, and for usually half the price of Whole Foods.

- wines: again Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods (same comment about the price). And obviously, wine and liqueur stores.

- restaurants: a good French restaurant I’ve been invited to in Portland is Le Pigeon. It’s rather pricy (count 25 to 50 dollars for a dinner) but pretty good. In Minneapolis, Vincent’s is really good, but even pricier than Le Pigeon. In Salem, Napoleon’s serves crepes, typically French as most people know. La Capitale is another French restaurant, barely two blocks away from campus. I’ve never eaten there, but the menu looked pretty authentic to me.

- Goudy! and not only on March 9th. Every Thursday at lunch, Goudy serves “Small Plates”. They are fancier, tastier, higher quality lunch options. I am always surprised to see that while there is a enormous line for sandwiches, there are usually not more than one to three people waiting for small plates. Sometimes, small plates will include French specialties. For instance, before Christmas, they served poached snails. Most Thursdays don’t have French things, but small plates offer a wider variety of meats, fishes, seafoods, vegetables, etc. which is definitely part of the French culinary concepts.

Bon appétit !

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