We recently had the amazing fortune (and spent an amazing fortune) to have an unforgettable family holiday in the South of France, staying in a traditional country house where we were joined, at various times, by family members from Australia, the UK and France. The homestead featured a huge outdoor room with a large wooden dining table, just made for long, lazy lunches and al fresco dinners. It was the stuff that lifelong memories (and holiday weight gain) are made of.
Much has been said about the French way of life and attitude towards food and it was fascinating to see some of this first-hand. Here are 10 lessons I learnt about food in France.
1. Truffles go with everything
We stayed in rural Provence, France’s truffle mecca, so were keen to experience some of this unique delicacy. Markets sold huge chunks of the stuff, which looked not unlike large pieces of cow poo. (But much more expensive.) Provence offered unlimited options to get our truffle on – we tried truffle omelette, truffle steak, truffle salad and even truffle ice-cream. Can’t say I’ll be going back for seconds of the last one, but kudos to the French for finding a way to include that rather expensive food-stuff on every course of the menu.
2. Apricots in September? Fuggedaboudit!
My mum spotted some juicy plump apricots in the supermarket at the beginning of our trip, and tried to buy some a couple of weeks later. Unable to find any on the shelves, she asked a staff member, who looked at her like she was mad. ‘It’s September! We ‘aven’t ‘ad apricots for weeks!’ Yes, France is truly seasonal. If it ain’t on the tree, it ain’t on the shelf. None of this ‘importing from elsewhere’ malarkey.
3. Omelette is the perfect meal at any time of the day
Speaking of omelettes, oh how the French love them. And so do I. The joy of omelettes in France is that they aren’t just reserved for breakfast (in fact, that’s when you’re least likely to find them. More on that later.) Lunch, dinner, supper, all perfect omelette occasions. A ham and cheese omelette and salad – it’s just the perfect meal. Go there. And have some wine while you’re at it. Because that’s what the French do, non?
4. Your kids won’t miraculously transform into French Kids Who Eat Anything just because you’re in France
If only. In fact, certain meals were particularly challenging – like breakfast. My son, as you may be aware, has rather specific tastes. Every morning at home he has Multi-Grain Weetbix turned mushy with hot water and milk. (I know, I know, blame his father, I had nothing to do with it.) Anyhoo, the Weetbix equivalents are verrry different in France and Etienne refused to eat them, and nor did he like any of the bread in France. Or the croissants. (I wonder about that boy. I really do.) In desperation, we ended up giving him some cereal that a previous guest had left behind – something dubiously called ‘Pops Cracks’. He loved the stuff – unsurprisingly, since it appeared to contain little else than sugar. I tried not to look whenever he ate it and told myself that the cultural experience of four weeks in France would compensate for his teeth potentially falling out.
5. The simplest meals can be the most exceptional
My husband’s French aunt joined us for part of the trip and made a ratatouille that we are all still talking about to this day. She came back from the markets with a bulging bag of shiny vegetables, plonked them in front of her and starting chopping with perfect precision. Never have so many vegetables been so uniform in size and shape (certainly not while in my hands anyway…). An hour bubbling away on the stove and you had a very simple, very rustic dish that oozed flavour and vibrancy. (No, of course my son didn’t eat it, are you kidding?)
6. Check the price of cheese at the markets before buying
While perusing the markets – a favourite past-time as much as our children would allow it – I came across some irresistible-looking truffle cheese that was on sample. It tasted as good as it looked, and I mentioned my glorious find to my husband when I found him buying lollipops for the kids (anything to get a bit more market-wandering time). ‘Go buy some!’ he said, so I scampered off and asked for a largeish slab. When the seller told me the price, I went a bit pale. ‘Er, perhaps I won’t have quite so much,’ I managed. ‘I take a euro off the price for you!’ he generously offered. I meekly handed over a small fortune in euros, wandered back to my husband in a daze and whispered, ‘I think I just spent $50 on a slice of cheese.’ Such is his cheese devotion that he didn’t seem to care.
7. Don’t let the grotesque appearance of something put you off trying it
From gnarled and wizened sausages, to pates that look like squished together dog’s meat, to cheeses that look like a science experiment gone wrong, to snails that look like, well, snails, some French food is undeniably unattractive to look at. But hot dang, it all sure taste goooood. You haven’t lived until you’ve knocked back some hot garlic snails with a delicious red wine from the local wine region. As Hannibal Lecter would say, ‘fthpflllpfththfpthlll!!’
8. There’s no better food than that you’ve just picked off a tree
Our accommodation was situated on six lush hectares, which included a massive olive tree by the pool (our kids’ favourite afternoon activity was picking up fallen olives, putting them in a tin and then ‘planting’ them around the garden), as well as a fig tree and peach trees. Cycle down the road and you’d see huge butternut pumpkins lying in the ground. Our next door neighbours had grapes dropping from their vines. We had some incredible meals all thanks to the glorious fresh produce. (We won’t mention my disastrous pumpkin risotto, okay?)
9. The French aren’t big on breakfast
While we made most of our breakfasts at home, my husband and I took a two day excursion without the kids and after a little too much red wine the first night in Aix-en-Provence, I was keen for a hearty breakfast to start the day. An omelette, perhaps. A bacon and egg roll with tomato sauce, preferably. Do you think I could find anywhere that did breakfasts? We kept passing café after café that sold nothing more than… café. A small baked good, at the most. Perhaps that’s why French women don’t get fat. They don’t eat breakfast.
10. When a Frenchwoman offers to make you soup, don’t order pizza
We stayed with the most delightful French hosts, Christian and Sophie, who were always on hand if we needed help. Sophie was an incredible cook, who would wander out at the perfect time of afternoon and casually say, ‘I ‘ave made a chocolat and pear tart if you would like serm.’
So when Sophie offered to make us all pumpkin soup for supper one night, we should have known she wasn’t just planning on cracking open a tin of Campbell’s… and perhaps we should have thought twice about ordering several boxes of pizzas first. So we were already feeling rather stuffed, when Sophie and Christian (yes, it took two of them to carry it) came out with this.
This amazing soup had been slow-cooked in the oven in its own skin, with French bread already tossed in and soaking up all the pumpkiny deliciousness. Oh, heaven. Somehow room was made in the tum-tum, but it’s safe to say there were some buttons of pants that were discreetly popped under the table that night. Bon appetit!