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!

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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?

Les papillotes

IMG_4442Both sides of our supermarket’s central aisle are lined with chocolate at this time of year. At least half of these are the Christmas holiday confection preferred in our parts: les papillotes. These brightly wrapped bonbons hide not only a delightful chocolate but a message inside, much like the fortune cookies we North Americans enjoy at Chinese restaurants. The difference is that the message inside the papillote is traditionally one of love. This is, after all, France.

Legend has it that a young assistant candymaker chez Monsieur Papillot in Lyon back in the late 17th century was inspired to slip love notes inside his confections as a way of gaining favour with the boss’s niece, who worked on the upper floor.

The fate of the hapless fellow is contested: some have it that he married his sweetheart (a happy pun if ever there was one), others claim that he was sent packing by Monsieur Papillot, who wisely retained the young man’s clever idea.

I cannot help but suspect a marketing mind at work somewhere in that story: ‘papillot’ plays upon papille, or papilles gustatives which mean taste buds in French. And to wrap and cook food en papillote is a longstanding cooking tradition. Peu importe, the ending is inevitably a happy one.

I open the cellophane bag and an unmistakable bittersweet fragrance wafts out: le chocolat. Could there be a headier elixir? I plunge my hand deep into the bag and pull out one of the tasselled wrappers, holding it up to the light. “Ganache” it says. Ha! It will be a good day indeed. With a gentle twist I pop the shiny wrapping to reveal the inner, waxen one, upon which is written my fate.

“Forgiveness, tolerance and wisdom are the language of the strong.” Hardly a love note, but this year the chocolate-maker, Révillon, has decided to go all dark on us, packing up the papillotes with African proverbs.

I bite into the deep, dark secret that is my daily advent ritual and decide that forgiveness is in order.

Have you ever enjoyed a papillote? What is your favourite way to eat chocolate?

 

 

 

La gourmandise

IMG_2715Among the desires that define the French, la gourmandise is perhaps the most universal.

It is not greed, exactly, although in excess it can be. Nor is it gluttony, although it is considered as one of the seven deadly sins. La gourmandise is the appreciation and enjoyment of good food. It is appetite. It is life itself.

Sometimes you will meet someone who says, “Je ne suis pas très gourmand.” Do not trust such people. They are either fibbing or deviants of some kind. For what is the appreciation of taste and texture, fragrance and flavour, if not a healthy enjoyment of life?

As we enter this month of indulgence, of chocolate and caramel, foie gras and fleur de sel, let us truly savour each treat we bestow upon ourselves and each other. To me that is the best part of this culture and this time of year. It is taking the time and trouble to prepare something that satisfies, whether in the freshness of its ingredients, the depth of its flavours, the originality of its presentation or simply the timeliness of its offering.

‘Gourmandise’ means different things to different people. To some it is spontaneously enjoying a crêpe at the Christmas market, to others a cornet of marrons chauds (hot chestnuts). Some prefer to be seated at table to enjoy finely flavoured macarons. Still others care little for sweets but let themselves go on the savoury – the cheese course, creamy or pungent, with ample chunks of baguette and two or three glasses of red.

Whatever it is, I say enjoy it. Pleasure is what counts, not calories or even cost. Treat yourself and savour the moment, but whatever you do, do it with gusto.

What is your favourite gourmandise? If you’re looking for inspiration, check out my top 100 things to enjoy in France and let me know what catches your fancy.