Mangez comme les Francais!

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One aspect of life the French have perfected is the art of dining out. And anyone who wishes to observe the French at this only needs to visit a restaurant on a Sunday afternoon to understand how seriously mealtimes are treated. Every bistro, brasserie and café is packed.

But restaurants are not the sole venues for the French penchant for large, family gatherings to share food and company. Any park, aire, picnic area, seaside bench, canal side or car park will be packed with groups of friends or family sharing a meal.

And this Sunday meal will not be some hastily wrapped cheese and pickle sandwich, a packet of Golden Wonder crisps and bottle of coke. Oh no. This will be a proper full-on, sit-at-a-table, cloth, knife and fork, wine and glasses, side salad, napkins, several courses kind of meal. During a cycle ride from Jard sur Mer to La Tranche sur Mer we passed a large family party seated at two tables [one for adults, one for children] made up of all manner of picnic tables. Everyone had a seat and a laid-up place-and all under the trees in the woods by the beach.

So how, then did the French acquire their reputation for sylph-like, uber-cool, modelly bodies? It is my theory that they [the women, especially] chain-smoked their way to skeletal skinny-ness. In any case the same cannot be said these days, for the French are no longer slender wraiths like Coco Chanel and Francoise Hardy but have become as chubby as every other nation.

Their haughty, sniffy attitudes to cuisine have taken a slight tumble, too since they embraced MacDonalds and took to fast food. Yes-you’d still be hard-pushed to find a better cooked steak than in France, but along every street there is a pizza joint, a burger bar, a kebab shop, ice creams galore and the inevitable chi-chis, galettes, crepes and doughnuts.
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And what is more-the French are not averse to strolling along with a bag of chi-chis [for the uninitiated these are strips of fried dough rolled in sugar-sometimes dipped in melted chocolate] munching as they go.

Pockets of resistance do exist, though. A mayor on Isle d’Oleron, Gregory Gendre is fighting to keep MacDonalds off the island [https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/aug/24/choose-a-side-fight-keep-france-ile-doleron-mcdonalds-free ]

Most days we endeavour to choose and buy fresh produce and prepare meals in the van, [see last week’s post for the shopping experience]. We like to make the most of such delicious items as the huge, luscious tomatoes, sweet, juicy melons, smooth, creamy cheeses and salty Toulouse sausages, sometimes using the deli counter to buy slices of thick quiche or pork cutlets.

But when in France it would be sacrilege not to dine out on occasion so every few days we do. I indulge in my very favourite French menu: oysters/steak/crème brulee, and very delicious it almost always is.

 

 

 

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Ten Things about Italy

We moved towards the last leg of the trip, leaving Italy to return to French soil in the shape of Corsica-one hour from and in sight of Sardinia. I began to reflect on the things I’d learned about Italy from having spent a longer and more comprehensive block of time in the country [albeit mainly in the south]. Here, in no particular order are some of them:

  • If you want a coffee in Italy, forget about Starbucks and Costa. It will be no use asking for a cortado, a machiatto, a cappucino or a flat white. These are coffees that sound Italian, that someone in marketing has thought up. You may get a latte [although to my mind you may just as well get a cup of hot milk, but in any bar you can have an espresso [beloved by most Italians]-a tiny shot or an Americano-a tiny shot with extra hot water. I achieved my preferred coffee by asking for Americano with ‘piccolo latte’.
  • Despite the Walls ice cream ad, asking for a cornetto will get you a croissant. The custard ones are wonderful.
  • It is well known that Italian drivers are amongst the worst, most aggressive and dangerous in the world.Sicilian drivers are the worst in Italy. The cities of Messina, Catania and Palermo boast the worst of the worst. Intersections in Palermo are akin to some demonic, vehicule version of the Hokey-Cokey, with everyone rushing into the middle, hooting, shouting and gesticulating. Traffic lights are entirely superfluous.
  • Service stations and some cafes have a most eccentric and baffling system for purchasing coffees and snacks whereby a ticket must be got from a cashier in advance of items being prepared. So confused were we the first time that we gave up altogether.
  • Whilst we sweltered in T-shirts and shorts in the fierce May sun the locals went about their business swathed in multiple layers of puffa jackets, body warmers and scarves. I imagine we seemed insane to their chilly selves.
  • Despite the likes of Versace etc Italians slob around as style-less as the rest of us. On the ferry to Sardinia there was a distressing array of bri-nylon track suits. The women are welded to their cosmetics, rarely to be seen without a full face of make-up and the men are fond of their hair, often sporting outrageous styles. Thy are also as weight challenged as anybody else.
  • To chomp your way through a typical Italian menu you would have to be Billy Bunter. There is a bewildering number of courses, the second of which is a full plate of pasta. Best advice is to skip the pasta course.
  • It seems a cliche but Italians are correct to be proud of their gelati. Italian ice cream really is the best. The coffee cone I had in Venice was the most delicious ice cream ever.
  • The contrasts are extreme. In the East of Sicily, where package tourists congregate the roads are akin to the Etna volcanic landscape, the fly tippers have carte blanche and the drivers are suicidal maniacs. The West is a pristine, smooth, quiet haven. In Palermo there are beautiful, renovated piazzas with clean, restored basilicas, cathedrals and monuments. Step away down a narrow alley and you will be instantly into a third world ghetto of open sewers, garbage, feral dogs and dodgy characters.
  • Italian is a most beautiful, musical language about which I intend to devote an entire post in due course…

Out Damn Sugar! Out I Say!

Sugar is the new evil. What a revelation! Every day there is a press article revealing some new disease, some new side-effect or some new and sinister ill that sugar has wrought. Yet who in the world could not, by now, know that sugar is not good for you, makes you fat, rots your teeth, gives you diabetes etc?

Just as everyone is aware that burgers, chips and pizza should be consumed in moderation, so we know it is the same for sugary products. Strangely, though, knowing these things is not enough. You have to care that sugar and fat are unhealthy to do anything about them, too.

Eradicating sugary and fatty foods from your life is tedious beyond belief. You have to watch others consuming slabs of cake, portions of chips, ice creams or creamy desserts whilst sipping black coffees or nibbling on a lettuce leaf. You have to sustain this regime for what seems years. You may not ever slip from a religious observance of ‘no sugar, no fat’.

It is never enough to undertake vast amounts of exercise; to run miles each day, leap around aerobically, swim, dance and lift weights. Sugar will still be bad. It will, at best, rot your teeth.

As a child I was not denied sugar, neither was I obese, although during my teens I did have so many teeth filled [with lethal amalgam consisting of, amongst other substances, mercury] I was like a walking barometer and you could almost tell when a storm was coming by staring into my open mouth. The fillings were not a result of decay. No, they were the outcome of a rush of enthusiasm by my national health dentist who was, at that time, paid handsomely for each filling he could complete, regardless of need. That this is now needing to be expensively addressed has been described in a previous post.

My mother’s problem with her very young children was not how to keep them on the straight and narrow of dietary goodness. It was how to feed us enough of anything. We were like a small clutch of baby birds reaching our beaks to the sky and squawking, ‘feed us!’

My father grew a lot of vegetables in our sprawling garden. There were hens at the end of it, obligingly providing eggs; [unlucky ones, on occasions would also provide the Sunday roast]. The odds and ends of discarded fruit from my uncle’s market greengrocer stall provided us with treats, although we were never allowed to consume a banana without an accompanying slice of bread and butter. We were always given a ‘pudding’-usually something carb-laden such as rice pudding [we fought over the toffee-like skin that clung to the sides of the dish], suet apple pudding or jam roly-poly. These starch fests were to fill us up. We were not chubby children.

So what went wrong? I can only guess at the answer, but I’d say affluence is the culprit, along with too many options, but you can’t turn the clock back, nor would you want to; so it’s back to coffee and lettuce leaves…