oulez-vous coucher avec moi? Non!
I mean, veux-tu dîner chez moi? Do you want to come over for dinner?
To dine with French people is an experience like no other. Why is that? you say. Food is food, right? People are people, right? Non and non.
Let’s begin with the French. Why do they make such excellent dinner companions? They are well informed. French people know something of history: theirs, ours, the world’s. While I wouldn’t wish upon you the need to rattle off the French kings and queens and their troubles, I will ask you this. How many French cities can you name? (Hint: Paris.) The French believe in (and are tested on) something called culture général. In an oral exam about said kings and queens, my daughter was asked what she knew about the person for whom her school was named, Jean Moulin, a hero killed in the resistance.
From a young age, the French read the papers and listen to the news. Children subscribe to their own newspapers: Le Petit Quotidien is for little kids in elementary school. One article discussed the number of children killed in the Iraqi war. We are a long way from bunnies and ice cream. And it’s a habit the French continue.
I THINK, THEREFORE I AM
Philosophy is a required class in the French curriculum, the last year of high school, called Terminale. I used to make (bad) jokes about just how terminal that last year actually was. More about that on another day. But this in-depth study of ideas gives everybody a common vocabulary. Perhaps the sole purpose is to add depth to the dinner conversation!
NEVER GO OUT IN THE YARD
The French use two important words for eating outside, either in the garden or on the terrace. Notice the word, “yard,” does not appear. So already you have this uplift in where you are going to eat. And we are not talking potluck, or picnic.
GODOT IN THE GARDEN
Imagine being seated in chairs in the fragrant garden. You have been served pistachios and perhaps a kir, which is made of a white wine (Bourgogne aligoté) with a syrup, often cassis, black currant. If you’re celebrating, which the French do easily, perhaps you will have a kir royale, champagne instead white wine. Soon you’ll sit at a long narrow table on cobblestones, a tablecloth appearing to float on the breeze.
Let the first course begin. One summer first course could be cantaloupe with rolled ham inside and porto gently moistening all. Or, let us imagine the winter holidays. That first course will be foie gras, fatted goose liver. (Vegetarians close your eyes). A great deal is made of where to purchase this delicacy, and everybody has their favorite butcher. I like to make scallop carpaccio, which require freezing raw scallops for about 15 minutes and then slicing them with a sharp knife. Squeeze lime juice and garnish with poivre 5 baies, multicolored peppercorns. A sweet wine, typically a sauterne, pairs with the foie gras, along toasted bread called pain de mie.
DO YOU HAVE A PLANE TO CATCH?
So how long does it take you to eat one tablespoon of foie gras? (FYI, you don’t spread this on your toast, you tap it down gently.) Or to eat a thinly sliced scallop or two arranged in a fetching way on the plate? Take a half an hour. Taste, breathe, talk. Sip your wine.
I would say a meal reaches its full glory at New Year’s. We begin with oysters. Ah, there is a treat. The saying goes to eat oysters only in the months with an “r” in them. In the summer, the oysters are reproducing, and the flavor is more fatty.
THE REAL FOOD
The hostess, say me, goes into the kitchen, takes the pintade out of the oven. This is a slightly more flavorful poultry than chicken. I enlist the aid of a guest to carve. “Oh, dear,” he says. “Not done.” I curse this oven for the umpteenth time. Sold to me by a colleague, it has never kept its temperature. But not to mind. We put it back in, crank up the temperature, and I mash the potatoes, stir fry the green beans in milk to sweeten them, and sauté apples and onions like my friend at the vegetable store told me to do.
The guests treat themselves to a second tablespoon of foie gras, which on this special occasion follows the oysters and the scallop carpaccio. The pintade is perfectly cooked by now, with a succulence that chicken rarely has. A French butcher told me to start this in a cold oven. And if your oven works properly, it is a guaranteed way to preserve the flavor and juices. Cover the bird with olive oil and salt. Insert fresh rosemary and chopped lemon in the cavity, and off you go!
We eat small portions, and drink our wine, a light red or a white, sparkling in crystal glasses. We ask questions of each other, tell stories, comment on the political state of affairs, reminisce, talk about work.
WHAT NEXT? DESSERT?
Mais non! A sprinkling of fresh salad greens tossed in a vinaigrette comes in here to freshen the palate before the cheese. And oh, the cheeses. Creamy brie, fresh goat cheese topped with mangoes, pecorino with actual pepper, a triangle of blue cheese, just to name a few. Marriages have been imperiled by improper cutting of cheeses. Some you cut as if you were climbing up the mountain; some as if you were going sideways. Red wine is best with cheese; I think the tannin enhances the flavor of the cheese.
My friend said, “Let me make individual clementine soufflés.” Can you imagine? Unbelievable. Coffee? Herb tea often concludes this extravaganza, with just a chocolate or two.
BE A SNOB
Fill the wine glasses only about 2/3 full. Swirl it around, appreciate the color and the legs, the little streaks the wine leaves behind.
Let empty plates sit on the table for a few minutes after everybody has finished eating. We’re not in a rush, remember.
Clear plates by taking one in each hand. You certainly neeeehver scrape the plates standing right there at the table. Mon dieu!
Congratulations! Certificat de snob.
GOODNIGHT, AU REVOIR
Oh, it’s 1 a.m. Time to go. Dinner started around 20h (8 pm). We’ve been at the table for how long? These convivial hours sit sweetly in the memory, to be revisited, in this blog for instance. Gifts of wine or flowers or a little treat, such as perfume for the home, are brought to the hostess and are treasured the next day.
I wonder if Beckett purposely left out meals from his play because it was a way of silently commenting on the current impoverishment of his characters. Beckett’s experience in the war must have reminded him keenly of the glories of French dining in their absence. Imagine the food the soldiers ate.
Another movie that comes to mind, rather than a book, because I think it is hard to write about food (and sex for that matter) is Vatel.
A chef attempts to save the fortunes of chateau by hosting the king. A catastrophe for a chef causes another catastrophe for the viewer. The script was translated by Tom Stoppard, of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern fame, two minor characters from Hamlet that he made the center of his play. One flips a coin and it always comes up heads. Absurd, right? But logically possible. You see where I’m going with this? Tossing coins for Godot.
May your coins always be heads!