I’ve often wondered why, during a family meal, my mum will often instruct us to keep the same cutlery for the starter and main, saying ‘its French style today’.
The usual response she receives runs along the lines of ‘French style? Really? Do they ACTUALLY do that?!’, and no doubt the majority of our dinner guests assume such a declaration to be a clever avoidance tactic of extra washing up.
Even I, the token Dove family French student, have never been entirely convinced by this technique. Surely a sneaky napkin wipe or casual lick of fois-gras remnants from an all-purpose knife would be discouraged by the perfectionist country known worldwide to be the home of fine dining and haute-cuisine?
Have us Brits not learnt anything about French restaurant etiquette from the Python boys’ ‘Dirty Fork’ sketch?
Well, after using the same cutlery set last week for vegetable quiche, duck à l’orange, spreading brie onto pieces of baguette and apple tart with whipped cream, I was forced to (literally) eat my words.
Whether a one-time faux-pas of the school chef or the entire kitchen staff’s devilish plot to play a game of ‘Educate The Anglophone’ I cannot say, but there we were, teachers and pupils alike, unwittingly mixing courses and flavours as gaily as can be. That old joke about the rabbit ‘mixing-his-toasties’ springs to mind. Anyway, the moral of the story: mums are always right.
At home in Kent, my family Christmas (and indeed any other special occasion) invariably consists of hypermarket-bought French nibbles.
In the past, fresh pizzas, snails in garlic, and Coquilles-st-Jacques have all made their way across the border, ready to grace dinner parties with their exotic presence.
Of course, that’s not to mention the boot-fuls of French wine, the production dates of which my Uncle always writes down in his little black book, and the vast assortment of cheeses with debatably-pronounced names which collectively produce a not-so-exotic aroma after two hours out of the fridge. Luxury.
I have some fond memories of these Dover to Calais trips; memories which perhaps the other Eurotunnel passengers at the time would not necessarily share.
A prominent moment which will always stay in my mind is the occasion we were caught red-handed by a customs officer leaning against the car munching on two baguettes and a selection of incredibly runny cheeses whilst waiting for our train to begin boarding.
Looking back, it probably wasn’t the brightest idea as we were at the very front of the queue, meaning that as soon as the first vehicles were directed to load onto the Shuttle, an extremely panicked not to mention messy scene ensued, involving a whole host of bread-cramming and excessive yelling on my mother’s part not to get crumbs on the seats of her (relatively) new car.I honestly have never (and possibly never will again) shoved that much brie into my pockets.
One thing is for sure; the glitz of French cuisine is certainly not quite so glamorous after four months of living here. Of course, it’s all still delicious, but the people themselves are definitely not as well-mannered as they like to appear.
At one of my schools for instance, soup has been served up twice now as a starter and on both occasions I was made to look incredibly posh just for picking up a spoon. Well, how else do you eat soup? I hear you ask. My point exactly.
You can imagine my shock when a roomful of usually-sophisticated teachers almost in unison lifted their bowls to their lips and began to sip. I say ‘sip’, when actually a far more appropriate expression would be ‘slurp’, or perhaps ‘see-how-much-noise-you-can-make-with-carrot-and-coriander’. I did get a second helping of tiramasu that day though, so it wasn’t all bad. Turns out firing the odd ‘bonjour’ at the school chef is always a good plan.
As a self-confessed ‘foody’, in many ways I am loving life here. Croissants and pain-au-chocolats every day for breakfast, ridiculously good value ‘Menu de jours' such as three hearty courses for just eleven euros, and supermarket ready meals which are actually healthy and non-artificial (today I ate a microwave paella complete with prawns, squid and mussels!).
I’ve even been to several ‘proper French’ dinner parties, details of which will be recounted to you shortly, yet there are aspects of English cuisine that France simply cannot replicate. Battered cod and mushy peas from the chippy for instance, a greasy Chinese takeaway and not forgetting a classic home-cooked roast dinner (hi again Mumma).
Can you tell I’m excited for half-term?
** ABOVE: The French getting creative with their fast food.....yes, I have tried them both. And yes, bitterly disappointing. The bun wasn't even black!