Love cards – much better than Snapchatted genitalia? Discuss.

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On Sunday I discovered a new thing to look out for at this spring’s vide greniers – love cards. They might sound a bit iffy but don’t worry, they aren’t a pervy parlour game based on the kama sutra.Quite the opposite in fact.

Back in the 1940s an amourous jeune homme lacked the vast range of online and mobile based courting approaches that are now available. No Tindr or Grindr for the youth of France or anywhere else for that matter. Even the option of taking a quick picture of your genitalia, sending it to your intended and then deleting it before they passed it on to their mates was out of the question.

Instead you would buy a ‘love card’ such as this one: IMAG0922
A little kitsch perhaps and bit too job specific to sell in their thousands but who could resist avoiding sadness by spending time with a paratrooper? You might even be tempted to wear your very best floral frock in a bid to keep him keen.

Other love cards, like this one, were more sinister:
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Like a gothic take on the baby in the sun from Tellytubbies the vampire’s face has been stuck on a flower to give the impression of romance but it is clear that those heavily made up lips are clamped shut to hide the fangs.

The next one goes down an explicit route that could be seen as the grandaddy of the suggestive selfie.
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A thought of Fleurance? Not really, no. I’m too busy wondering why you’re feeling the need to finger that flower while looking straight at me. And why does your hair remind me of one of the victims in the badly ‘colorised’ version of Night of the Living Dead?

The last one I’ve selected from the set of thirteen cards makes the recipient very much aware of the sender’s intentions. I’m still a amazed the stall holder was happy to let these go for 20 centimes each even though the sender was her uncle who did indeed go on to marry the recipient – her aunt who kept them all her life:
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Lets not get mawkish though. More flowers, another bloke with loads of slap on and another vibrant frock with stiff hair combo for the lady. This time the threat of long-term enforced monogamy is made very clear – this is no booty call.

Maybe that’s the key to the appeal of these cards. They might be sickeningly coloured, overly reliant on obvious imagery and carrying a strong whiff of fromage but, to me, that seems better than exchanging quick pics of crinkly bits, abs and intimate tattoos.

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My lunch of shame

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Chorizo

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

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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.