Friday, May 8, 2009

Bread and Cheese

Whenever the subject of holidays in France comes up in a conversation you can guarantee that someone will ask what it is about the country that keeps you coming back. The resulting list usually includes French markets, the wine and the bread.

The big difference between the holidaymaker and the ‘immigrant’ resident (people like us) is that when you live here you are experiencing these 'magical 'things on a daily basis

French markets? Well, they still do what it says on the box. They are a great place to observe the ‘Frenchness’ of the French, to buy fresh fruit and great cheeses, to sit outside a café in the sun and watch the endless round of kissing and handshaking that accompanies every chance encounter, and to try and fathom the unfathomable: how, in a European alliance obsessed with health and safety rules and regulations, do the French get away with it? Live chickens stuffed into plastic carrier bags and taken home on a bus. Cubes of cheese, saussison, jambon cru for free tastings sweating in the sunshine on deli counters, having been delved into by fingers that have could been anywhere (don’t even think about it). Stillyards (you know the old spring weight thingy grandma used to weigh the baby with) dragged out from under a table when you ask for ‘livre’ (500 gms) of scabrous, but organic tomatoes from the old crone selling a handful of veggies from her allotment. And on the subject of these ‘dames anciennes’ …. Why,when you ask for a ‘livre’ which strangely turns out to be a kilo, do they suddenly develop a complete incapacity to understand your French when you protest? Apart from that, and a few other things, markets are pretty much as they have always been, which I suppose is why they still figure large on the holiday ‘lurve’ list .

No 2 on the What- I -Love- About- A -Holiday -In -France agenda is the wine. Hmm…well that’s thorny subject. There’ s been a lot of hot air spouted about French wine in the past, some rather difficult publicity about chemical nasties being added to some supposedly high quality wines, and the famous French obstinacy when it comes to modernising their production techniques. Perhaps if they stopped sneering at New World Wines they might learn something useful. And the day of the pichet of lovely cheap plonk in a cosy bistro are long gone, if they ever existed. Cheap French wine can taste like battery acid – or maybe it’s just the effect it now has on my poor old stomach and serially abused liver.

Ah, but what about the bread? Rack upon rack of golden, ramrod straight baguettes, little flutes, huge couronnes, grey pain de siegle….. surely the mysticism of the boulangerie still remains? Well, within a few months of our permanent arrival we were….dare I say it?....totally fed-up with bread that staled as you looked at it, a village bread shop that sold out before you were out of bed, and the sheer immoral waste of several yards of day-old bread being consigned to the bin. I had been given a bread machine as my new French house –warming present . I am now on my second and they don’t owe me a penny.I can make the sort of bread I like, using ingredients such as whole grains and nuts that are never seen in village boulangerie. True, the supermarkets now sell a bigger range but they are so stuffed with chemicals I'm loath to buy them .

Now Steven Kaplan, a professor of European history at Cornell University in New York has fired a broadside at the traditional baguette on the eve of La Fête du Pain (National Bread Week) in France The Times reports today that after a lifetime of studying — and eating — le pain francais, Professor Kaplan says that he has witnessed with despair the slow death of the crust.
“This is a significant and catastrophic trend,” he says “The crust is what stands between France and the Armageddon of soft, mushy, repugnant loaves that we get in the US and you get in Britain, too. A baguette de tradition should be a “voluptuous pleasure and an exulting moment” that speaks to all our senses, but I am getting hacked off because the basic quality is essentially being thrown away.”
The baker’s response is predictable : they are responding to customer demand, who don’t want a well cooked crust. Well that isn’t the case down here in the Haute Pyrenees. The traditional baguette sold in both high class town boulangeries and village depots de pain is a torpedo shaped loaf which tapers to twisted ends and is as hard as hell.The points on the ends could be classes as lethal weapons. Some even more traditional bakers pull the dough up into little spikes before baking them at nuclear heat for as long as possible, removing the loaves from the oven just before they actually combust. Those you could use as a knuckle duster. It could also be used as a hammer. What you can’t do with it, is actually eat it, without losing several teeth that is.
Mr Kaplan poses an interesting question…’Do the French care any more, do they care about taste? When you eat their tomatoes, their carrots and their merlotised wine, you start to wonder. Are they not collaborating in their own cultural demise?”

Hmm ….Answers on a postcard, please.


Frances said...

I think the French people and the government possibly stand a bit divided at the moment especially when it comes to attitudes on wine (ie you can now use red wine and white wine to make rose) and some of the bread we get around here is rock hard too - but some of it is divine!

You're right about the markets being 'magical' and it's important to remember that and not go for a quick dash around at breakneck speed to pick up your veg. Much better to take a bit of time to enjoy the pace of the market (as you would if you were on holiday), have a chat and take time over your buying. When you do that it's fantastic!

April Hollands said...

Hmmm, I'm totally with you on the bread thing. I don't think I've ever finished a baguette or eaten the nubbins, but I know some French people who think those impossible-to-eat bits are the best! Perhaps it's this market that's in decline. Sliced supermarket bread tastes like cake, so it's one extreme to the other. A bread maker therefore seems like a top idea.

The Weaver of Grass said...

I must say that most of the bread - and all of the cheese - and most of the wine - I have eaten/drunk in France have been far superior to the English versions. I do agree that their hygiene leaves something to be desired sometimes, but then what's a bit of dirt between friends (or are we still enemies of the French - some people seem to think so+)

Jon in France said...

In terms of the value of export sales, French wine is going through a bit of a purple patch at the moment. Partly I think this is due to the New World being guilty of the same sin as the French once were and resting on their laurels while the French seek to raise their game; partly it is due to a big clear out at the low end. As you say, the cheerful jug of bistro "vin très ordinaire" is something of a rarity these days.

Did you know that there is a special word for the knobby end of the bread? "Quignon" It doesn't get much of an outing these days.