The way to an expat’s heart…
Source: Creative Commons/ Xiaozhuli
When you move to a new country, you expect changes. You figure you’ll learn a thing or two, develop some new habits, maybe get frustrated and shake your fist at times, shed a tear or two. But if you can, you move to another place excited about the differences, ready to embrace the change and make the most of it.
At least that’s how my American family has looked at our seven years of living abroad. We’ve had our share of hiccups, complications and second guessing our decisions, no doubt. But more than that, we’ve changed, taken on new ideas, altered our thinking, tried new things and some of us (the children) have mastered a new language.
All that is well and good; an enrichment of life and a shift in thinking have made our expat life worthwhile beyond measure, sure.
But I have to admit the thing that I enjoy most about our lives in the South of France is the food. Ah, yes, my favourite topic of thought, conversation, study and practice—the French table.
Food, shopping for it, reading about it, cooking and eating it. It’s a popular past time these days. I love a cooking show as much as other ‘foodies’ out there; colorful cookbook towers stacked on bedside tables along with a mix of beautifully photographed cooking magazines , food memoirs and the odd novel. This is what we fall asleep reading.
So, lucky me to live in France where food is one of the most seriously guarded and precious aspects of national image. You don’t mess with the French and their food.
Each region has its signature dish, produce and style of cooking. I made the grave error one night at dinner with French friends, five French women asking me what I thought about French food, when I said that the thing I miss the most about American food is the variety. Alors! But variety exists here in France, they said. You can find every type of food across all the regions in France. Variety abounds!
Um, yeah. If you only want French food. That’s the thing they don’t get. Their food is such a big deal, such a symbol of national pride, that they don’t see that for foreigners or ‘etrangers’ the whole of it falls under the heading, ‘French food’.
Some of us want Thai, Indian, Cuban and of course, this Texan girl wants her beloved Tex-Mex. All of which you can easily find in America. That’s variety, my French friends. Of course I would never say that. I only agreed, back pedaled, acted like they were teaching me something new about variety and the world of different food.
This protective pride is what makes French food special. Bestowing government protection on varieties of cheese, only one cheese in the world can be called Roquefort, safeguarding wine blends by allowing only certain varieties of raisins to be grown in certain regions, regions sometimes distinguished and divided by a creek or simple dirt path, making it a law for restaurants to print where their meat comes from and if they use frozen ingredients on their menu. All these things are what make French food, French.
For the most part, the French eat seasonally. You’ll find some exotic things like mango and passion fruit at the big grocery stores no matter the season. Maybe some green beans from Kenya when the French ones have all been canned or eaten up in nicoise salads, but generally the produce department changes with the seasons. What you won’t find are strawberries or stone fruits in mid-winter, no cherries in March, and absolutely no cantaloupe or melon until early summer.
All that makes sense, for a variety of reasons like the cost of flying out of season fruit and vegetables from the bout du monde, but the most important part to me is simply this. It tastes better when it’s grown a few kilometers away. The cantaloupe melons grown in a nearby village are the most delicious I’ve ever eaten.
My family has changed in the way we regard eating and meal times, especially snacking and when and how to do it. It’s subtle, like most resounding changes, and it has made a difference to the way we live and look. Yes, I said look. The eating what you want and not getting fat thing that you’ve no doubt heard of and wondered about yourself? That’s down to one thing--snacking. Mindless eating, the middle of the day, whenever the mood strikes you, nibble. They just don’t do it.
One of my daughter’s little friends was over one day after lunch (they would never schedule a play date during the lunch hours of noon and 2pm) and they were running around outside, swimming and playing. I figured they might be a bit hungry for a snack so I offered one. The 8 year-old French girl’s immediate reaction to this offer may shock you.
She didn’t immediately say non, merci. She didn’t jump blindly at the chance to eat something, either. What she did do was look at the clock. And when she saw that it was 3:30 and not later, she said no thank you. Simple. It’s just this. You don’t eat at 3:30. That’s not gouter or snack time.
My children eat at school most days, in the cantine, where they’re served a seasonal five course meal, where they eat with real utensils, course by course, over half an hour or more and where no one puts fork to mouth without everyone saying, ‘Bon appetit!’ and beginning together.
They can ask for seconds of the starter and main course that are usually served family style in the center of the table. Things like beets in mustard dressing, radishes with baguette and butter and shredded carrots are typical starters or entrees. Main dishes of roast chicken, cordon bleu, and lemon fish are some of my kids’ favorites. The French eat like this most days at midday. This is the main meal, the one to sustain you until snack time. And it does sustain you.
My children have better table manners. Even the 4 year-old is learning. ‘Bon appetit!’ he shouts before every evening meal (of course he shouts it, we’re still Americans after all). But the days of wheeling the kids around in the grocery store trolley, quieting them with snacks of banana, apple chips, crackers and string cheese, torn and half empty packets lolling open and sticky on the checkout belt, are gone. French people just don’t walk around eating things at all times of day. It would be weird.
There’s a sea change all over I think. People are going back to farmers markets, growing their own (I could never do this as my thumbs are black as soot) and learning and trying new things. It’s exciting and fun and then you get to eat it. I’ve learned how to make things at home out of necessity that I would have relied on a restaurant to make for me before. We’re back to Tex-Mex again, you realise.
I’ve tasted things in French restaurants that have moved me. I’m talking close your eyes and savor the moment delicious. So sublime was one egg that I couldn’t stop thinking about it and had to make it at home. Something I never would have done back in Texas, maybe because I could always just pop back out and have it again. Also because I have never seen a soft-boiled egg breaded and fried and served over an earthy mushroom cream before. That’s France for you.
France has taught me how to enjoy food; portions, patience, and quality are the secrets of a good meal. Be it curry night or homemade pizza chez nous, the portions are reasonable, there’s not a lot of fuss or dishes per course and we eat slowly, savoring and talking as we go. Before France, we always ate together as a family so this isn’t new. It’s the way we do it here that’s different, that has changed us. It will be a part of my childrens’ relationship to food and fellowship forever.
About the author
Aidan resides in France with her family and blogs at Conjugating Irregular Verbs. Follow her @aidan_larson
Expat Explorer returns for another year – bigger and better than before! If you want to have a say in what it’s really like to live abroad and share your expat experiences with others, then click here to fill in the Expat Explorer survey for 2012.