Saturday, 15 November 2008

Food, glorious French food

A word of warning before launching into this post. It should perhaps be read on a full tummy, because parts of it could quite literally whet your appetite and have you headed for the fridge to unhinge your jaw and tip back the contents.

So with that in mind and to use the opening phrase of childhood radio listening - and thereby run the risk of revealing my age.

"Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin"

There's been a fair amount of talk on the radio here recently about the standard of French cooking and whether it really lives up to its reputation.

Added to that there are moves afoot to slap in an official application next year to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) to honour this country’s cuisine.

Whether the application is accepted is pretty doubtful, but it has given commentators quite literally "food for thought".

The whole debate coincided with my attempts to wow those around me with my culinary skills - or lack thereof.

In other words I had resolved to throw a dinner party.

The decision was two-fold.

Firstly it was based on my almost slavish devotion and deepest desire to emulate one of my favourite television programmes, which gives viewers step by step instructions on how to concoct and serve a full blown "perfect dinner" (if only).

And secondly I had promised to thank some friends for treating me to a slap up meal in Brussels for my birthday treat last month.

A promise made is a promise kept, and as last weekend stretched for many of us here in France from Friday to Wednesday (every time a national holiday falls towards the middle of the week, as it did this year with November 11 Armistice day, the French take full advantage and "faire le point") the timing seemed impeccable.

Now to be quite honest, if there's one thing guaranteed to scare me witless, it's the thought of having to cook.

I mean it's not as though I'm not reasonably handy at rattling the pots and pans, and making the kitchen resemble a modern-day Armageddon once I've finished.

But more than enough years living in France and being told how wonderful this country's cuisine is, has more than bashed my ego into shape.

Plus I'm British - worse English - and we've not exactly got the best of reputatations when it comes to what we've offered the world - gastronomically speaking.

Speaking of speaking - the French talk about little else - food that is - especially when they're chowing down on one dish or another.

Mealtimes are the occasion during which to talk about other meals, past and in the pipeline. The present just seeming to be an excuse to reminisce or plan.

And of course everything served up is "genial" - which although supposed to be polite encouragement, you know in your heart of hearts really means the same as "interesting."

Hence I wasn't really surprised that even during the starter - a Mousseline d'asperges à la pistache (asparagus mousse with pistachio) , which took hours of preparation - the conversation soon moved away from what was on the plate to gastronomical pastures new and old.

Guest one. "Hmmmn this mousse is delicious. It's just as light as the one that we had at Jacque's last weekend."

Guest two . "Yes but his wasn't home made. He bought it at Le Nôtre - pretty expensive"

Guest one . "I know but it really was worth it. After all they simply make the best cakes and desserts."

Guest three. "I'm not so sure about that. I find them rather overpriced. And besides there's a little patisserie just around the corner from me that's just as good and far less expensive."

Guest four. "Oh yes I remember. Last Cristmas you bought all those wonderful petit fours there....."

Host (that's me, in case you had forgotten). "So how's the starter?" as everyone seemed to be talking about dessert.

"Oh genial," came the collective response, and so the conversation continued in much a similar vain throughout the rest of the meal.

And what a meal - even if I have to say so myself - which clearly I do.

Now is neither the time nor the place to go into the ins and outs of the recipes - chef's secret and all that. Besides a quick surf on the Net will reveal a host of possible preparation alternatives and ingredients. But here's a guide as to what was on the menu.

To begin with there was that mousseline d'asperges à la pistache of course, followed by pintade au chou (pot roast guinea fowl with cabbage) cooked in Belgian blonde beer. Sélection de fromage (cheese platter) and Charlotte au chocolat (Chocolate Charlotte bought from Le Nôtre - as I'm not too good at making desserts).

Ever noticed how even the most unappetising sounding dishes in English can appear mouth watering when written in French?

The cheese in particular seemed to go down a real treat, which is hardly testament to my cooking abilities it has to be admitted.

Mind you, it's difficult to go wrong in a country whose former president, Charles de Gaulle, once famously asked how a country with 246 varieties could possibly be governed.

The choice is vast and as I live in the heart of Brie country on the outskirts of the capital, I knew from experience that the only way to serve it was by leaving it at room temperature for a couple of hours so that it would virtually make its way to the table by itself, by crawling off the plate and along the floor.

There was even an excellent "young" goats cheese (not too whiffy) and a rather sweet and mild Comté (one of my favourites).

But the "crowning glory" was to throw the British equivalent of a dairy spanner into the works with what only those across the Channel could tell the French is the "King of cheeses" - a deliciously ripe (read mouldy) blue Stilton.

Cheese apart, throughout every course I would continually enquire as to how the food tasted and whether the wine I had chosen was appropriate. Getting that right is never easy as the French clearly have their own thoughts on which wine goes with which dish, and woe betide you to contradict or break the rules.

The response may always have been more or less the same "genial" yet I knew, and felt pretty chuffed, that everyone seemed to enjoy the meal, even if they spent a great deal of it talking about other dishes.

As the evening gradually drew to a close, there were the inevitable longest goodbyes, before I was finally left alone to face the disaster zone of a kitchen and had the chance to reflect on the previous few hours.

And I realised - not for the first time - that this fascination or almost social obsession the French seem to have with food and chattering about other dishes virtually to the exclusion of the one they're currently "enjoying" has nothing to do with bad manners.

It's not even done intentionally. It simply seems to be what happens at the dinner table here in France. Even that "genial" isn't really as bad as it might at first seem.

The French love eating and are very appreciative of good food. So much so that they can't help talking about it.

Next time though, maybe I'll get caterers in - and let it be known beforehand.

That way, I too can participate in gastronomic gossip without the effort or worry of whether what I've actually served up has been in the least bit "genial".

Bon appétit et bon weekend.

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