Raconter des salades

salades_marche

Lies, lies, lies. Half truths, tall tales and outright fibs. Every time you turn around these days it seems a new one is revealed, from Russian hijinks to politicians (not) paying their taxes.

The French language is filled with colourful expressions and ‘raconter des salades’ is a delightful example. Why one would tell salad tales to spin a yarn is not immediately obvious. Yet by gathering different ingredients and marinating them in a sauce, seasoning them with half-truths and jokes and then serving them up as fresh and healthy…it begins to make sense.

When you think about the meaning of the word ‘salade’ it becomes even clearer. Whereas in English a salad is a dish, in French it is also a lettuce or any of the various leaves that compose such dishes. What duplicity!

‘Salade’ the leaves are many indeed. Growing up in Canada in the ice age of the 1960s, iceberg was the only lettuce we knew. Along came the 70s and we discovered romaine (Hail, Caesar!) and in the 80s the advent of the spinach salad. (Raw spinach? In a salad!?!)

Arriving in France I was amazed by the number and varieties of lettuce and other leaves that people ate raw or dressed with different types of vinaigrette. From mesclun to watercress, frisée to lola rossa…the sheer variety was extraordinary. This image gives you an idea. (How did I never realize that dandelions are literally dents-de-lion, lion’s teeth?)raconter-une-salade

Perhaps most amazingly, there were salads served in restaurants that contained few or no leaves at all: salade de crudités with a variety of raw veg; salade Niçoise, with green beans, potatoes and tuna; salade Grecque with its chunks of feta, tomato and olives. When we moved to Lyon I discovered the salade Lyonnaise with its lovely runny egg and smoky lardons. The frisée lettuce served with this one can make it challenging to consume politely, without splattering vinaigrette or wending one’s knife.

I love salads, and not just because they are good for you. There are lemony carottes rapées (that’s grated, not raped because, let’s face it, if anyone is going to do the raping it is the carrot) and betterave (Better ‘ave ‘em? Beets me!) with lovely mâche and walnuts. As I shared in a previous post, the secret is in la sauce vinaigrette.

Pardon my use of so many silly puns, but is that not in keeping with the telling of salads?

What’s your favourite kind of salad?

Dans la joie et la bonne humeur

Foie gras - don't tell my daughter!
Foie gras – don’t tell my daughter!

Something strange happened when I hit the supermarché last week. The store was busy with shoppers but they seemed oddly unhurried. By the entrance the homeless fellow selling his ‘Sans Abri’ newspaper seemed rather upbeat. I may have glimpsed smiles on people’s lips as they flitted about the aisles, loading bottles and nibbles into their baskets. Une animatrice talked a joyful patter while selling off seafood at half-price as shoppers milled about. I believe I even heard Bing Crosby crooning out a seasonal melody over the sound system.

Qu’est-ce qui se passe? I wondered, filling up my cart as usual (after all these years I’ve never lost my North American habit of stocking up). Christmas is past and the sales haven’t started so what is everyone so happy about?

Then the cashier wished me a ‘bon réveillon’, leaving me scrambling to reply in kind. That was it! New Year’s Eve, the one day of the year you can be sure the French will be smiling.

As I posted way back when I first started this blog, I’ve never quite understood why the French are quite so enamoured with New Year’s. Beyond the big blowout on the 31st, there is real sentiment in France around the fresh start in January, and a feeling that our good wishes must be shared with all those we love.

Having neither party nor family to attend to that evening, we booked a table at a restaurant in town – our go-to solution for le réveillon. The few restaurants that are open on New Year’s Eve near us all offer un menu spécial – a fixed price, multiple-course affair with a glass of bubbly to start. After all the cooking and fussing over Christmas, I was happy to ring out the old year with someone else doing the service.

Death becomes her
Ghost of New Year’s past
New year's dinner 2016
Who can resist such artful presentation?

Out of respect for our feathered friends, and our daughter, who is studying to become a vet and has become rather militant about cruelty to animals, we had decided to henceforth abstain from eating foie gras. But when the restaurant had already gone to so much trouble to prepare such a lovely plate (shown in feature photo above), graced with truffle and onion compote, it seemed too cruel not to do it justice.

There followed a dish of white fish floating in a lovely sauce, then medallions of beef filet with a few veg for good measure and two desserts. By the time we got to the end I was feeling silly and playing with the table decorations.

Baubles from the table

How’s that for a bit of bling?

It was a fitting conclusion to a month of over-indulgence. The smiles are still on the faces of the people I pass on the street, probably at least until the end of this week. After a few more wishes of good health, and a slice of galette des rois, quite possibly accompanied by a few more glasses of champagne, it will be time enough to get back to normal.

‘Dans la joie et la bonne humeur’ is an expression that means, quite literally, ‘with joy and good humour’. I’ve often heard it used with a degree of sarcasm, however, referring to the need to pick up the plough and carry on with a smile. New year’s oblige.

Bonne année à tous!

Caractère de cochon

Caractere de cochonWe walked by this place several times on our recent trip to Paris. I was intrigued, not least by the name. Beyond the clever play on words, it reminded me of how often I had confused the false friends caractère and character when I first learned French.

How upset I was when then-to-be husband told me I had a ‘mauvais caractère’. When I realized this meant a bad temper and not a bad character, I had to admit he had a point.

I’m grateful he didn’t go whole hog as it were and say I had a caractère de cochon, which means the same thing only sounds worse. Why the poor pig is blamed for bad temper is beyond me. Dogs are also lumped in with the ill-tempered boar, with the variant on the expression being caractère de chien.

The fact is I do have a terrible temper and am prone to lose it more often than I should. The wall in the living room of my family’s old house bore the stigmata of that time I kicked my clog (those babies had wooden soles and packed a punch) at my brother and it hit the wall instead. “Don’t irk me!” was my battle cry.

Yoga breathing and mindful meditation, along with (purely medicinal, of course) doses of wine, beer and cognac, have helped me to curb my ill-tempered outbursts in recent years. Despite the ready availability of alcohol I must say that living in France hasn’t helped me learn to keep my temper in check. Niceness just isn’t inbred here the way it is in other cultures.

As for the place, I deeply regretted not having gone in for a bite when I read this review by food blogger David Lebovitz. That sandwich! Le jambon!

CARACTEREDECOCHON_3293
Photo credit: http://www.luckymiam.com/en/caractere-de-cochon/

I could just kick myself.

What kind of caractère are you?

 

 

 

Avec ou sans gaz?

Mineral WaterWine is often thought of as the national beverage in France but mineral water is a close contender. You will find it on the tables of every restaurant and most homes. Every region has its own local mineral water. The supermarket has an entire aisle devoted to l’eau minérale in all its varieties: flat, sparkling, flavored, high in magnesium salt to aid digestion.

The first thing a non-native needs to know is that there are essentially two kinds of mineral water on offer in French restaurants. I was somewhat surprised the first time I ordered ‘eau minérale’ to be asked: “Avec ou sans gaz?”

‘Gaz’ sounds a little too close to reality to be polite. Can’t they say bubbles?

“Avec gaz,” I replied, deciding to go for the gusto. When you sit down for a meal in France, there will be gas at some point.

Now the French have adopted a similar term for sparkling water: ‘eau pétillante’. (Maybe they realized that ‘gassy’ just didn’t do it?)

When I first came to France I only knew of one kind of sparkling water: Perrier. In fact, I used the brand name as a generic short form for sparkling water. Until I discovered that whenever I asked for Perrier, I actually got Perrier. In all its intensely carbonated glory. All very well as a drink on its own but there are so many finer, more delicate tasting mineral waters to accompany food.

Over the years I became somewhat addicted to sparkling water. I can give up wine, if forced, but please don’t ask me to go bubble-free. Most French people in my experience will prefer flat mineral water like Evian or Volvic. A few will insist upon tap water, a carafe of which must be offered for free by law in restaurants. But there is a general misgiving about drinking tap water in France, perhaps a holdover from bygone days when the water filtration system was less sanitary.

For years, Badoit held pride of place on our table. It tends to lose its sparkle just after opening, though, which is probably why they introduced a more intense version, Badoit Rouge, a few years ago. Now my house sparkling water is St. Pellegrino, which has just the right bubble for me. Yes, it’s Italian and many French people hate that. But hey, they’re all owned by Nestlé or Danone anyway.

OrezzaWhen on holiday, I love to try the local waters. This one from Corsica was beautifully refreshing.

The French are not the only ones with a predilection sparkling mineral water. In Germany I have often found it to be offered along with flat water in business meetings, with a choice of small, medium or large bubble. Some people drink it all day long, which even for me is a bit much gaz.

How about you? Flat, sparkling or non, merci?

Foie gras

A very famous Canadian has been making headlines in France this week. Pamela Anderson, ex-‘BabeWatch’ star and future Brigitte Bardot, has brought the sad plight of the geese and ducks of southwest France to the attention of l’Assemblée Nationale.

Some wag on a talk show joked that it was the first time in the history of parliament that all of its members showed up.

I first heard about le foie gras from my then-future husband, who regaled me with tales of his best-loved French foods. It came just after oysters and raw-milk cheese. I reacted like a typical North American.

“Fwah grah? What’s that?” I asked, making a face. “Fat liver?” He explained that duck or goose liver – paté as we English speakers insist on calling it – was considered a fine delicacy in France. “But don’t they force feed the geese?” He shrugged, muttering something about gastronomic tradition.

When it came time to taste my first foie gras, at table with his parents during a fancy dinner, I did so with a relatively open mind. By then I had experienced enough good French food to trust them when they said something was good. As tastes and textures went, it wasn’t bad. In fact, I developed a minor appreciation for the stuff, accompanied by toasted brioche and a sweeter white wine.

You cannot live in France without making certain value adjustments. Over the years my attitude on many subjects has adapted, from the time I first ate rabbit to raw meat and runny cheese. When it comes to foie gras I am on the fence.

Eating meat of any kind for me requires a sliding moral scale. I am opposed to cruelty in general and the factory farming of animals horrifies me. I shudder when I see the way our poor pigs are transported to slaughter, and at the thought of chickens in cages or of any animal that doesn’t see the light of day. When you look at the traditional production of foie gras, is it any more cruel than those practices?

Our daughter, who is studying to become a veterinarian, gave us a bit of a tongue lashing for serving foie gras over the holidays. So I think we will be giving it a miss in the future. And to be honest, it will be no great sacrifice. In fact, if I may make a small confession, one that will forever brand me as being decidedly un-French, I find myself increasingly enjoying the pleasures of a more plant-based diet. I still eat meat, along with cheese and eggs, but not as often and in smaller quantities.

The French mostly turn a deaf ear to the pleas of animal rights activists. They are more concerned about cultural traditions, gastronomy and jobs. This is not a particularly vegetarian-friendly culture, although the variety and quality of locally sourced fresh produce makes it entirely possible to pursue such choices here.

Foie gras is a delicacy that I can quite happily live without. I think my own foie will thank me. Not to mention a few hundred ducks.

What about you? Do you eat foie gras or consider it off limits?