While I'm living here in France, I've been determined to try to live as much like a French person as much as possible. I have this underlying belief that the European ways of life are older than ours, and although may sometimes seem strange and different to Americans, I'm very willing to believe that they happen here because of some wisdom that's older than what we have in the states. After all, which country is the one with all the fat people and unhealthy relationships with food? So for now I'm doing my best to try and suspend my disbelief, and just become one of them. Then at the end of the 10 months I'll be able to make an educated decision about which aspects I want to keep or drop. The trouble, is how do you know what are the actual French ways of eating? I've heard general things, like that they eat small sugar laden breakfasts, or that lunch is the biggest meal. Or that they always take a digestif after dinner, something heavy in alcohol, after having already drank a bunch of wine with the meal.
In an attempt to ascertain exactly what is this French way of life, I asked one of my French coworkers what I would have to do to live like them. The side effect of this question is that I think it makes them instantly like you. French people love to talk about their way of life, especially food and wine. Let's face it, it is one of the major things they are known for. So I got to endear myself to my companions, as well as learn something at the same time. Win-win! But his answer was a bit cryptic. He said I just had to "mange bien." Now the literal translation of that term means to eat well. But I had a feeling that the meaning goes a little deeper than that. I did a little research, and it turns out that if you say "bien manger," that means something pretty different, closer to eating healthy, or really, eating to live. As opposed to "manger bien," which really means living to eat. In other words, eat food that you love to eat. It's quite possible eating well in America could mean, eating a lot, or really eating enough to keep you alive, probably a little more than you really need to stay alive. But in France it just means enjoying your food. This is a critical distinction to me.
So would we be able to mange bien? The quality of the food was one of the biggest things I was looking forward to during the harvest. I'd heard stories of great things. All the standard dishes of France, prepared by an authentic home cook, with very few repeats. Aperitif, Cheese, dessert, digestif, the whole shabang. Unfortunately for me and especially for my French coworkers, reality fell a bit short of that. The food we ate ranged from dismally uninspired all the way up to just plain bland. This in and of it itself was pretty interesting, because it gave me a chance to observe the French appreciation of food from a different angle. It's one thing to eat great food with French people and see them happy. But it's quite another thing to see what they just absolutely can't stand, and why.
Dinner always started with some kind of salad. Salad is a pretty loose term here, as there wasn't ever anything green or leafy in it. Instead it usually involved tomatoes, tuna, and something like corn or carrots. This stuff was quite bland, but to me pretty inoffensive. As I was usually starving from all the hard labor of the day, I was OK with cramming a bunch of this stuff down, as it was pretty filling, and likely to be less offensive than what followed. But for the French people, they could barely stomach it. I noticed the first night that our salad was full of the kind of pitted black olives you only see come out of a can, and that all the French people were diligently separating them out and not eating them.
They said they seemed to "industrial." This was a general complaint about the food I heard from them. At one other point we were discussing stereotypes of American and French people. When I asked them what the stereotype of Americans was, someone said that they eat a lot of "GM" (genetically modified) food. Now, keep in mind, these are not mid 30's Park Slope trained hippy/crunchy/granola types watching out for the environment. These are just your every day average early 20's French kids. This is a big difference between French people. They don't need Michael Pollan here, because everyone already knows where really good food comes from. I'm convinced that if you mentioned GM (even if you used the full name) to most 20 something Americans, they'd have no idea what you were talking about. To the French, they'd rather go hungry than eat any kind of industrially processed food. Time and time again, I would see French people just refusing to eat, turning instead to their glasses of wine.
The main course for dinner was usually some kind of meat, like this Pintade (basically a breed of chicken), we had the first night:
It seems the French rarely eat just plain old simple "poulet" here. It's usually Pintade or Poulet de Bresse (one of the best breeds) or something more classified than our simple old roasting chicken back in the US. This particular pintade we had was OK. The sauce, while it may look creamy and buttery, had almost no flavor to it. That was pretty typical of our main course. Big pieces of meat in a watery sauce. There was usually some kind of vegetable also, which looked and tasted like it had been boiled for about 15 hours. I did notice another subtle cultural difference here. I feel like in America with this type of food served in large pans, people would take the plate, pass it around and everyone would serve how much they wanted for themselves. But that almost never happened at our dinners. More commonly, people would pass their plates down to whoever was closest, and they would serve everyone. They seemed to me also to take a great deal of pleasure in doing this for each other. Again, this wasn't a hard and fast rule, and I know the other option is never a hard and fast rule in the states, but they did tend pretty far in the direction I've noted.
The entree, was of course always followed by a plate of cheese. While I wouldn't say the cheese was super high quality examples of each type, and it was often not quite warm enough to give off all of it's flavor, this was one of the most consistently reliable parts of the meal. We usually had Chevre, Tomme de Savoie, Brie, and Roquefort. You can't go wrong with any of those. Then there was always some kind of dessert. The first night we had eclairs, and the filling was definitely the highlight of the meal. The pastry part was a bit soggy and flabby, but that chocolate goodness did not fail to impress. Later on the quality of dessert would vary greatly. One night we had apple sauce which sounds a lot fancier when you use the french translation, "compote." but tasted exactly like Motts from the big old glass jar.