My lunch of shame



Lunch is important in France. It still really matters. Although the approach to work in the cities is becoming more and more like northern Europe, two hour lunch breaks are broadly respected, and expected, in the countryside. In the cities they are still taken, but more selectively. To meet old friends and colleagues, to start and end relationships and to do business, but only once you reach the coffee.

The first element of my midday meal related shame stems from an abject failure to participate in, or even to observe, all this. I work from home most of the time and if I am out over lunch for any reason I tend to be rushing somewhere so I just grab a sandwich.
I could stop and order the menu du midi in any one of hundreds of cafés or restaurants. I could watch the early sparks that will grow into blazing affairs, the bis-ing of late arriving friends and the body language that gives away who is on top as a deal is clinched. I don’t though. My protestant work ethic prompts me to rush by. I should adapt to the French approach but I can’t. I’d love to assimilate but, shameful and ungrateful immigrant that I am, I can’t.

The second cause betrays an even deeper disloyalty to my adopted homeland. When people think of food they think of France and when they think of France they think of food. And wine of course, but that goes with food. Clearly I should use my domestic lunches to enjoy the best that our region has to offer. The Gers is sometimes called the Tuscany of France because of the sheer volume of delicious produce that springs from its terroir. I could enjoy a nice salade of duck gizzard. But I don’t. As I sit admiring the view of the Pyrénées my favourite thing to eat is my own recipe which is composed, almost entirely, of Spanish stuff!

You take a nice soft tortilla or two depending on the size and smear some wholegrain mustard on. Then add slim slices of cheese. I could use creamy chevre (goats cheese) from the local mountains, or even the ubiquitous Comté that is the French cheddar but a bit nuttier. I don’t though I use Manchego that has been smuggled across the border and is then sold at the special Spanish shop near Les Carmes market in Toulouse.

I can get the other ingredients almost anywhere but the same Spanish shop does them best of all. Chorizo forte that has the right balance of smoke and spice and whole piquillo peppers, preserved in olive oil alongside a clove of garlic. Sliced and placed on top of the cheese they make a delicious but distinctly un-French filling.

Rolled and toasted in a grill so the manchego melts and the oils from the peppers and sausage mix this is a delight to eat and will brighten any homeworker’s lunchbreak.

My French friends would point out that they have superb dried sausages, more cheeses than any nation on earth and all the forms of bread that anybody could wish for. They’re right and it is greener and better to support local producers too.
Nevertheless, and despite the side order of shame, my toasted Spanish masterpiece will continue to be the highlight of my solo lunches. Wherever you come from and whatever your lunch culture might be you should try one.


Propre potatoes

They look great but don't think you can just run amock using them as you wish...

They look great but don’t think you can run amok cooking them however you like…

You may live in a country where you can do what you like with vegetables. This wild and anarchic culinary background with a devil may care approach will not equip you well if you come to France. The deep seated French belief in things being ‘propre’ extends to, and indeed dominates, the quite complicated transactions that equate to routine shopping for groceries in most countries.
‘Propre’ means right or correct and sometimes clean. It plays a crucial role in the French psyche.

For the ‘functionaires’ and assorted bureaucrats that litter French society ‘propre’ means that paperwork being in ‘impeccable’ order is more important than any underlying mistake that it might be masking. For a sports shop it means selling trainers for specific athletic activities and sending anybody who might just want some comfortable, casual shoes elsewhere. For market traders it means asking what your intentions towards their vegetables might be. Take care, wrong answers can lead to a refusal of consent and your cooking plans could be dashed.

If you come from a fairly potato-centric culture, such as the UK or Ireland, this worship of ‘propre’ can make a simple attempt to cook a shepherd’s pie infuriating. God only knows how the German and Scandanavian hardcore potato lovers manage to eat at all.

By the way, for the culinary pedants out there, when I say shepherd’s pie I obviously mean a cottage pie – the price of lamb means that only millionaires now have left-overs from a slowly roasted leg to throw into Monday’s meal.

An example of how not to vegetable shop might be helpful. Not long after arriving in France I went to the market to buy some spuds to mash as the topping for my kids’ favourite meal. What I wanted was something like a King Edward or a Maris Piper, fluffy potatoes that make a fairly smooth but dense mash that sits firmly on the minced beef and vegetable base and seals in the juices as it finishes in the oven and the cheese on top browns and crisps a little.

After trying three stalls I realised that no varieties were being shown so I just asked for a couple of kilogrammes of ‘pomme de terre’. This what happened next-

Man in fleece and beret: What for?

Me: To eat ( Admittedly not the best answer but I was surprised at this inquisition).

Mifb: How?

Me: Parmentier (I knew that anything topped with mash was a parmentier).

Mifb: Of duck?

Me: No, beef ( I had not yet learned about the deep love of duck in the south-west).

Mifb: Why not duck? Duck is best for parmentier.

Me: Maybe, but I’ve got some beef that I want to use up (I’d clearly caused some offence so I needed an excuse for my ridiculous rejection of duck).

Mifb: Pierre over there could sell you some duck and you could use your beef tomorrow.

Me: OK I’ll go to him next, please could I have some potatoes? ( I was trying to be clever and find a way out)
Mifb: Yes, these are for purée – they make perfect parmentier.

Me: (knowing that none of my family like the overly moist and terribly smooth French puréed potatoes) Thanks, but I’d prefer those others.

Mifb: No. They aren’t for parmentier. You need these.

Me: But….

Mifb: Monsieur, for parmentier these are propre. Those would be wrong, they would spoil your meal.

Me: (resigned to defeat through lack of linguistic and cultural know-how) OK thanks.

After this experience I realised that all supermarkets here sell potatoes labelled by cooking method, not by variety. They are for purée, risollé, vapeur or possibly for use in a salade. Ingredients have specific, pre-ordained destinations that were decided years ago by the French culinary gods. For example, only white or yellow onions can be used in a tarte. You might like red onions but they are not even vaguely ‘propre’ and you can only use them if pretend you want them for something else.

This isn’t about making money by always selling you the priciest option, it is an entrenched cultural belief. I once went to buy some tomatoes and the stallholder explained that she had some fantastic tomatoes that had been grown on the foothills of the Pyrénéees on ‘terrain’ that only got sun in the afternoon. She believed that this had slowed their maturation to give a much deeper flavour than most tomatoes could provide. They were eye-wateringly expensive.

I must have looked shocked because she then asked what I wanted them for. When I said pasta sauce she replied that they were far too good for that, these were for salade only and she couldn’t countenance the idea of anybody cooking them. Instead she returned them to their hiding place beneath the stall and sold me a huge box of mis-shapen ones for a euro.

So, I have two pieces of advice on vegetable buying if you don’t plan to cook in an entirely French style. The first is very practical. Decide which variety of potato you want and then construct a culinary web of deceit to justify your request. Use a French recipe book to do this and you’ll get the veg you want as well as the approval of the veg seller. Everybody will be satisfied and comfortable knowing that your spuds will be used in the correct manner.

The second option is more fun. When you are asked what you want the vegetable reveal that it is for a non-French cuisine. In the case of potatoes say it is for Bombay Aloo. This will throw the stallholder into crisis.

The rules of ‘propre’ only apply to France and French speaking former-colonies. Therefore Indian food is by definition not ‘propre’. This does not mean that the concept of ‘propre’ falls though. Indian cuisine must have its own ‘propre’ but admitting that they know nothing about this does not incur any loss of face for a market stall holder in south-west France. As the person with the superior understanding of Indian cuisine it is entirely ‘propre’ for you to choose your own tatties.

Just don’t go back and accidentally admit that you couldn’t be bothered with the curry so you baked them instead.

King of the Mountains!



Everybody likes snowy mountain ranges like the Pyrénées, old Volkswagen camper vans and family days out don’t they? So if you combine them all nothing can possibly go wrong, can it?

Well, yes it can, if our experience was anything to judge by.

When we first moved to France our only form of transport was a chianti red, 1972, Danbury converted Volkswagen camper called Emperor Rosko. He was named after the veteran pirate DJ whose slightly sleazy but certainly soulful style of chat was immortalised on the album ‘I’ll Take You There…’ which was released in the year of our van’s manufacture. It has clips of Rosko in between songs and one of them includes the instruction to lie down on the fur rug in front of the fire to enjoy the sound of Mr Brook Benton’s Rainy Night In Georgia. I think this advice may have been intended for the ladies.

He was what is known among fans as a crossdresser. Our van that is, not the DJ or the deep voiced soul crooner. 1972 vans and buses are given this epithet because from the front they look like early bays thanks to their low indicators and wrap around bumpers that incorporate steps, but from the back they look like a post-72 late bay because of the big lights, less curvy corners and squarer air in-takes.

There are other important ‘crossover’ features of vans of that vintage. In particular, the old, often ineffective, drum brakes were replaced with disc brakes but only at the front. This is a detail that might not seem terribly important but it is. Trust me.
This is something I said to my wife as we set off on the road from Bagnères Du Luchon, the town, to what is known as Super Bagnères, the ski resort. Our original plan was to park in the town and take a cable car up the mountain. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get parked but I spotted a sign pointing to Superbagnères.

The conversation that followed the chance sign sighting went like this:
Me – “Look, it is only another 4 kilometres- we’ll be up there in five minutes.”
Family – “Won’t it be very steep and dangerous though?”
Me – “No. They wouldn’t have a hotel up there if the road was too steep or dangerous we’ll be going up a mountain pass.”
Family – “Will the van be OK?”
Me – “Of course, I’ll take it easy and Rosko’s engine will be fine- it doesn’t even look that high, I thought 1,800m would be bigger than that.”
Family – “So you’re sure about all this.”

Me- “Absolutely, it will be perfectly safe and much quicker than looking for parking spaces. It will be fun. Trust me.”

The first clue that I might have been a tiny bit too confident came when we reached the top of the mountain, or what turned out to be the first ridge. With the rest of the ascent now clear I started to feel some doubts but the option of a three point turn meant going off the road onto the snow and then possibly into one of the beckoning chasms that now surrounded us. Best to keep cheerful and keep the revs up I decided.

The climb got steeper and the drops got bigger with every dog-leg bend as we crawled to the summit. When we got there it was great though. We got a round of applause from skiers who had spotted us coming and doubted whether our trusty air-cooled vehicle could reach the top. There was even a car park full of modern four wheel drives to prove that motoring to the top wasn’t unusual.

I even met another VW owner who said that he took his van off the road for winter but wouldn’t even attempt to get to Superbagnères in the summer. He kept patting me on the back and saying, “Chapeau!” I later learned that he wasn’t concerned about whether my head was cold, which it was by then. He was using a cycling term that indicates respect- you take your hat off to a person who achieves a notable feat. I was the vintage camper van equivalent of the Tour de France’s King of the Mountains and it felt good.
We paused for photos before setting off back down, which is where it all went wrong.

Coming up had been all about worrying whether the ancient 1600cc single carbed completely stock motor could cope. It soon became clear that the way down would be about the brakes and the steering. Every bend became a nightmare as I swung the giant wheel and fought to keep our speed down.

The whole time I maintained a cheery demeanour so as not to worry the passengers but in a van the front seats are ahead of the front wheels and we seemed to be going out into the void on every bend. My wife leant across and whispered, “If the children are hurt I will kill you.” I glanced down at the snowy cliffs and thought that I’d accept a bit of us all being hurt in exchange for not being killed but decided to say, “We’ll be fine trust me,” instead. This did not seem to have quite the soothing affect I’d hoped for.
On the way up I’d been cold but now I was sweating profusely and the acrid smell from the brakes did nothing to add to the calm either. No longer the King of the Mountains I now felt very, very bad. The old drum brakes were clearly dying and only those crucial 1972 discs were now between us and a snowy death.

And they did it- hurrah for crossovers! Those early bay purists who mock them for their slightly impure design should remember that although the back end is undoubtedly uglier than a ‘71 that brake upgrade can be a life saver. Once the road flattened out and we got out of Rosko I realised that my legs resembled jelly and I couldn’t stop shaking. We drove home slowly as the brakes were now barely hindering our progess and if we’d gone faster than 30mph we would have had to treat all red lights as optional.
Anyway, my advice is that if you have a van bring it to France. No other vehicle will lead to young women kissing you in IKEA car park and forcing their boyfriend to take a photo of them doing so. This actually happened to me and I’m no oil painting so it was definitely the vehicle that caused the excitement. Vans are great and help you to make friends- just what you need in a new country.

I’ve got wood!


DSC_0397Not in the unsuitable for blogging American way though.

What I mean is that after much careful research and many stressful decisions we have a good stock of ‘bois de chauffage’ and should now stay reasonably warm for the next few months. That might sound like a simple thing to those of you who don’t live in rural France but the whole business is far more complicated than you could ever imagine from the outside.

The first facts for ‘campagne’ dwellers to face up to are that it does get cold here in winter and that all forms of heating other than wood are out of the question. The electric heaters popular with landlords dry the air out to such an extent that by the middle of our first January here I was suffering nosebleeds with a regularity that would have been familiar to Francis Rossi and his Status Quo chums when they were busy destroying their septums in the mid-80s.

Anybody entirely dependent on these heaters for the whole winter would just be a pile of dessicated skin by the end of March. They could possibly be used to replace coconut in some recipes but that isn’t really a fully productive role for a human.

The other alternative in rural areas is ‘fioul’ which is often referred to as oil but is actually red diesel. This is a bit cheaper than diesel for your car but that hardly makes up for needing to provide an extra room for the colossal boiler that is a about the size of a juggernaut or the tank needed to hold the couple of thousand litres that might get you through a couple of cold months. As long as you never have baths and make your children wear enough layers to prevent their arms from straightening.

Only insiders know this but the popularity of the ménage a trois in France is nothing to do with the sexy antics of libertines. On the contrary, what appears to be an exciting and free alternative domestic arrangement is actually the only way anybody with fioul heating can afford to run it at a reasonable temperature all winter – two wages just aren’t enough to feed the boiler so you have to get a third earner in to help.

The problem is that once you opt for wood you have to embark on a very steep learning curve before buying any. Measurements present the first obstacle.

Wood is sold by the ‘stere’, an ancient measurement originally used by hobbits. Nobody now knows exactly what a stere is. Some vendeurs claim that a stere is a cubic metre of one metre long logs but others advertise cubic metres of wood on the grounds that these are bigger than a stere. It is best to work on the basis that a stere means some wood but that the exact amount will vary. Streres also shrink if the logs are cut smaller than a metre. If you want 50cm logs you pay more and the stere reduces by 20%, 33cm and it goes smaller still. Fans of the tiny 25cm log have told me that a stere can sometimes fit into a child’s backpack. French kids do carry a lot of books but that has to be wrong.

The next question is how moist is your wood? If that sounds a bit too personal don’t be offended. It just means that the moisture left in logs will have an impact on how well they burn. The lower the level the better but under 20% is pretty much essential. Given that most wood sellers say that their product has been seasoned for two years this shouldn’t be a problem but, unless you buy an instrument to measure the moisture with, you can’t really tell until you chuck it on the fire. If it sizzles and moisture drips out of the end of the logs your wood is far too moist but best of luck returning the minimum order of five steres without a fairly substantial tipper truck and a crane. Easier to leave it to season for another year.

A local wood expert told me that all French people assume that they will need to do this and wouldn’t expect to be able to burn a delivery straight away even if they had paid more to get wood that was ready to burn. This explains the need for all homes to have at least one, and possibly four, crumbling outbuildings that are stuffed with neatly stacked logs and the presence of little mounds of logs in the middle of fields. They are all at different stages of seasoning. I’d always thought of that as something TV chefs did with salt and pepper but it turns out to mean drying wood too.

Luckily, you’re now approaching the end of your wood experience and chopping it up is the easy part. Simply equip one of your children with some gloves, a warm hat, a powerful chainsaw and a huge axe. They have to be young enough to feel enthusiastic about the challenge facing them but old enough to handle the tools. I’d say between 9 and 13 is about right. Offer them 10 euros to sort it all out and then go and have a sleep on the sofa. Some people have criticised this approach and suggested that it could be dangerous. Perhaps, but it works for me, as the photo proves, and we shouldn’t mollycoddle the young. If they want to stay warm they must learns the ways of wood.

A good polite beating



The splendid news that since Wednesday the French police are legally obliged to refer to everyone with the polite ‘vous’ got an enthusiastic welcome in our house. Since arriving in France we’d been labouring under the illusion that the routinely atrocious treatment dished out to young people of North African descent was because of some sort of deeply ingrained racism born of imperialism, reinforced by defeat in the Algerian war and strenghtened by the role of the CRS and Police Nationale in intimidating ordinary citizens.

How wrong we were. It turns out that what appears to be endemic racially motivated discrimination is actually just a bit of rudeness so the obvious solution is a healthy dose of politeness. As ‘vous’ is a respectful term the officers of the law who have been disrespecting with a flurry of ‘tu-ing’ and ‘toi-ing’ their victims will now find it impossible to continue with their targeted harassment, beatings and wrongful arrests.

If only somebody had thought of this sooner all sorts of dubious situations in the past could have easily been avoided. In their time the Metropolitan Police have been denounced as institutionally racist and recently revealed Cabinet papers confirm what many members of the NUM already knew – they weren’t terribly fond of miners either. If only they had been told to address young black men as ‘Sir’ while they stopped and searched them on SUS nobody could possibly have objected and decades of mistrust would have been avoided.

Obviously, ‘Sirs’ wouldn’t have sounded quite right while warning picketing miners to disperse before baton charges were launched but something like ‘chaps’ or ‘my good fellows’ might well have done the trick. A bit of thought about their choice of language, maybe even the revival of thee and thou, and the history books might be referring to the firm but fair discussion of Orgreave.

I have met one other group of people in France who have a strict rule about vous-ing. Owners of air-cooled Volkswagens just won’t allow it. When we first got to France I was driving a 1972 Campervan and, after a trip up the Pyrenees, it needed some urgent brake care. I visited Speedshop,a specialist garage near Toulouse and accidentally tu-ed the owner before apologising for my rudeness. He laughed and explained that in the world of VWs everybody was tu. Older or younger, richer or poorer, black or white – none of it mattered compared to what you were driving.

Maybe they should buy the CRS some Coccinelles just in case the vous doesn’t have enough power on its own.