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).
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.
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.