Tebbit, Thompson and French wiring – How integrated are you?

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Norman with Jimmy. Sound chaps.

Norman with Jimmy. Sound chaps.

In 1990, Norman Tebbit, a Tory politician so profoundly vile that he made Margaret Thatcher look cuddly, decided that the best way to judge whether an immigrant to the UK had integrated was to ask them about cricket. In particular, who did they support when England played against the country of their ancestors in a test match? It was a terrible idea that probably said a lot more about just how deeply scarred racists were by the brilliant West Indian sides of the preceding decades than it did about the loyalties of black and brown Britons.

Tebbit’s test was deliberately crude and controversial and it triggered a debate about whether immigrants should completely adopt the culture of their host country. Putting aside minor considerations such as whether host countries actually have mono-cultures that even the keenest immigrants can adopt, regional variations and deep-seated religious beliefs the general consensus emerged that a bit of integration is a good thing.

Many British people in France have picked up the ball and run with it. Far enough to impress Mo Farrah. In fact,integration levels have become the key arbiter in deciding a person’s worth. A kindly vicar who spends almost all of his disposable income on opening wells that allow some of the world’s poorest orphans a chance to attend school instead of labouring beneath a bucket-carrying yoke can be roundly despised if he spends his last few pounds on a Sky Sports subscription.

Equally, a braying, bullying snob can be forgiven all of their sins if they opt for the paté de tete entree followed by a dish that includes gesiers. If they can round it off with an ile flottante without mentioning that the custard is very runny all the better. Gleefully downing a digestif that could power a Bunsen burner ensures sainthood.

Assessing the levels of duck fat in the bloodstream could possibly work as a food based Tebbit test for anglophones in France but there is a real human rights issue with pinning them down to take the samples as well as a problem with vegetarians. You could of course argue that being a vegetarian in the land of foie gras completely rules out integration anyway but I daren’t. Better to look for a food-free, non-contentious way forward.

Attitudes to the chasse could be the litmus test. If you start to see them as harmless country folk who respect the land and eat what they shoot you’re integrated. If you still think of them as borderline psychopaths, grown men who enjoy dressing up as soldiers and discharging their weapons in public, you’re not settling in. If you think they seem disturbingly like the hillbillies from Deliverance and, despite the Gersoise accent rendering their conversations impenetrable, you’re convinced that one of them muttered, “Squeal like a piggy boy!” you might as well get back to your urban headquarters in London, Melbourne or Los Angeles. It could work if it wasn’t confused by issues involving gun control, the tastiness of wild boar, the desirability of white vans and whether hunting is better or worse when you use a crossbow. We all know that a bow and arrow makes it very much worse and opens up a whole range of issues best reserved for students of Lord of the Flies.

Hunter S

No, the Tebbit test for anglophone immigrants in France has to be based on attitudes to mixing electricity with water. Anyone brought up in the UK, USA, Canada or Australia knows that this is very wrong. So wrong that it haunts our psyche even at the most uncontrolled moments.

In one of the best passages in his masterpiece ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ Hunter S Thompson, father of gonzo journalism and breaker of almost all social taboos considers killing himself. He is listening to Jefferson Airplane’s ‘White Rabbit’ in the bath while spending a few days in a hotel that has is hosting a conference for narcotics agents. He has taken a vast cocktail of hallucogens, opiates, booze and random chemicals and decides to plunge the radio into the bath water just as the guitars reach a crescendo and Grace Slick screams “Feed your head!”

But he doesn’t. Even after spending several days operating as a human drug hoover one of the most depraved social outlaws of our times knew deep down not to mix water and electricity. Somewhere in his addled brain a deep-seated instinct said, “Hunter, that would be dangerous.” And he listened.

This contrasts sharply with the actual death of Claude ‘Clo-Clo’ Francois which left the world of Gallic pop traumatised. He was the smiling, dancing and singing, clean living antithesis of the likes of Thompson. Outside France he was viewed as a French Cliff Richard, which was a compliment at the time.

Inside France he was revered and ranked alongside Johnny Halliday as a star whose unthreatening appeal spanned the generations. On March 11 1978 he went for a shower and, just as he was finishing, he noticed that the bulb in the light directly above the cubicle had gone out. No deep seated instinct spoke to him so he started to adjust the electrical fitting while his feet were still in the water. Claude saw no problem with mixing electricity and water and, as a result, died instantly.

Adoring fans try to remind Claude of the golden rule of DIY electricals -Don't Involve Yourself.

Adoring fans try to remind Claude of the golden rule of DIY electricals -Don’t Involve Yourself.

Now, Clo-Clo might have been particularly cavalier in his approach but his demise is a reminder that one fundamental and distinctive element of French culture is a complete disregard for electrical safety procedures. Which leads me to my Tebbit test – would you consider installing this integrated sink/draining board combined with a hob? Choose one answer and then check beneath the photo for your results.
a) No, it is clearly extraordinarily dangerous.
b) Not in my house but it might be OK for the gite. I’ll provide rubber gloves.
c) Yes, why not? I can see the space saving potential.

IMAG0237

If you answered:
a) After all this time you’re not even a bit French. If Britain leaves the EU you’ll be deported.
b) You’re part-French, part-British but all landlord.
c) Hoist the tricolor! You have become fully Gallic and might start to find the lanes at roundabouts confusing.

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Propre potatoes

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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.