Christmas is at our place this year, and MM’s age-old fear has resurfaced… Cooking For The French. My stomach is turning somersaults at the idea of cooking for my in-laws (or “the Outlaws”, as I fondly call them). Don’t get me wrong: they are adorable with me, and reassure me that my food is wonderful -(in other words, edible-) every time I cook for them.
The problem is mine, and mine only – my gastronomic inferiority complex sticks to me like Spotted Dick and custard to last night’s dishes. Just the thought of getting it wrong paralyses me. Wondeure Woomane, my nemesis, manages to simultaneousy slip into something feminine, clean the house and set a table with matching napkins, individual name settings and decorations made by Tibetan monks. She somehow manages to control events in the kitchen (presumably via thought transmission to the cooker) whilst she perches delicately on the sofa with her glass of Crémant, beaming like the Bell Rock lighthouse as she modestly accepts praise for her Christmas tree, then discusses poverty and hunger in the third world in hushed tones as her foie gras and smoked salmon chill in the fridge.
I, on the other hand, am wild-eyed and dishevelled as my guests arrive, having stuck my finger through my tights, my dress covered with smelly dog’s hair, and gravy stains on my top. Later, as my guests await the starter in the living room, I can be found entrenched in the kitchen, glugging down a large glass of white wine as I stare dismally at a main dish that has either done a Phoenix on me or is so undercooked that it could make a break for freedom off the plate.
Despite my doubtful track record in the festive gastronomy stakes, I pulled out my 1940’s cookery book this week – the cookery bible that PF’s great-aunt Renée gave me many years ago. I treasure it. As I turned the pages, the memories of her and the “oldies” inevitably tumbled out, and a lump big enough to remind me of my run-ins with bechamel sauce formed in my throat. Then I remembered PF’s granny’s comment at our wedding, and toughened up. “Make sure you feed my grandson properly,” she had whispered in my ear as she meaningfully pressed a cookery book into my hands. Welcome to the family, kiddo.
I was looking for a fish recipe to please PF, who had been gnawing on his favourite festive bone of contention: seafood. MM doesn’t cook seafood, and he knows it – it’s the Holy Grail of Gallic gastronomy, and as such, is unattainable for our family table. So like any self-respecting (-albeit big-) kid, PF demands it every year. This is how I found myself reading page 262 of Renée’s recipe book and wondering if I’d picked up a guide for budding torture fanatics by mistake. I gawped in horror at the recipe: “Take six small, live lobsters. Cut them energetically into slices (not too thick) and throw them into a pan containing boiling butter and oil”.
Now let’s get this straight. I’m no Brigitte Bardot as far as food is concerned. Living in France has knocked all cute bunny sentiment out of me, and I have absolutely no issues with eating Bambi, Thumper or the handsome Prince (-before his transformation, obviously-) with whatever sauce and sides are on the menu. I can munch snails, look on as the butcher decapitates pheasants, and even gobble baby boars marinated in wine with as much enthusiastic grunting as Obelix. But the idea of sawing Lizzie and Larry Lobster into bite-sized chunks and chucking them into boiling oil makes me feel like a seafood fiend. Halibut Hindley – the domestic equivalent of Hannibal the Cannibal.
Later, at the fish stand, I stared at the semi-comatose lobsters stranded on a bed of ice. As they semaphored SOS messages at me with their frozen little antennae and legs and blew bubbles of distress, all I could think of was this:
A French housewife pointed at Larry and Lizzie the lobsters on the fishmonger’s display, had them sealed in a plastic bag sarcophage then drove them home for their sad demise, no doubt orchestrated with the help of a woman’s weekly magazine recipe page and an axe. MM turned her back on the sorry scene and went home.
I trawled the net in search of humane lobster sacrifice technique. Top French chefs on Youtube recommended throwing the live lobster into a vat of boiling water and cooking it alive. The image of Larry and Lizzie swirling in a boiling jacuzzi decided me: there would be no live lobsters coming here for Christmas.
So MM has copped out and bought two packets of frozen lobster tails. Call me yellow-bellied if you wish, but life’s hard enough without having a torture session on my conscience too.
Now let’s get that recipe sorted. I wish you all a calm, relaxing and fulfilling Christmas with those you love. And when you tuck into your turkey tomorrow, spare a thought for Lizzie and Larry…