Lizzy and Larry Lobster’s Yuletide Jacuzzi.

Lobsters

Lobsters (Photo credit: Foomandoonian)

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…

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The squirrel reflex.

I don’t know about you, but a strange thing happens to me when I see food from home here in France. Unexpectedly coming across a packet of ginger nuts in a French supermarket remains as incongruous for me as clapping eyes on a family of flamingos strolling across the beach in Blackpool. When my kids saw a man holding a pack of  «Seriously Strong » cheddar recently, I reluctantly had to intervene and nip their plan in the bud before they subjected him to a stealth attack in the car-park.

Seeing British food out of its usual context triggers an uncontrollable, primitive reflex in me, a squirrel-like survival instinct involving the purchase and immediate hoarding of all possible booty in a top-secret location. I mutter « my preciouuuus » under my breath, Gollum oozing from every pore as I admire my treasure trove. Infinitely more valuable than the legendary last Rolo, certain gastronomic delicacies of Perfidious Albion are jealously guarded and ceremoniously introduced to French friends (although this did backfire on me once, when a French friend practically threw up on tasting prawn cocktail crisps. You live and learn).

Me with an unexpected source of salt & vinegar crisps.

Me with an unexpected source of salt & vinegar crisps.

One memorable day in a Pezenas supermarket, I unexpectedly came across a shelf that was full to the brim with British produce. I pinched myself and looked closer, then started jumping up and down on the spot and squealing like a four-year-old who had unwittingly found her way into Willy Wonka’s factory.

A concerned P.F came hurtling round the corner with the kids following in hot pursuit, trolley teetering dangerously on two wheels. When he asked what the fuss was all about, I pointed a quivering finger at the shelf boasting a proud line-up of baked beans, my favourite brand of crisps, Ribena, Horlicks, chocolate digestives, P.G. Tips and Cadbury’s chocolate….. Like Scrat discovering a pile of acorns, I was wide-eyed and breathless, and my knees were shaking. I could finally alleviate the cold turkey symptoms of an expat life without black pepper Kettle Chips. I grabbed the shopping trolley and feverishly scooped tins of baked beans into it, happily humming Monty Python’s “Always look on the bright side of life” under my breath.

P.F, party-pooper par excellence, touched my arm and pointed solemnly at the price tag. My satisfied hum gave way to an indignant squawk, and I yelled, “Hang on, they’re beans, not caviar! That’s the price of a four-pack in Sainsbury’s! What a rip-off!” P.F helped me to return part of my hoard to the shelf, and I strode indignantly to the till with my overpriced beans, ginger nuts, porridge oats, jelly, chocolate and other comforting reminders of home. They remained in the cupboard for as long as I could resist opening them. A kind of visual reminder of home: the hot Ribena rituals of my childhood.

When we return home to see my parents, we always fit in a pilgrimage to Waitrose. Whilst the kids line up reverentially in front of the sweets, chocolates and biscuits, I am generally in front of the cheddar, bacon and sausage section, kissing the ground in a papal manner. After this moment of personal meditation and prayer to the food Gods, we grab a trolley and fill it with all the victuals needed to fill the cupboard at home in France.

However, returning to France with our booty can sometimes be complicated. I remember making the error of trying to travel with a tin of golden syrup in my hand-luggage. A verbal wrestling match ensued with the heartless robot whose X-ray machine had picked out what he obviously hoped to be his first major security threat. This would no doubt boost his career and jettison him into instant international fame for saving innocent Ryanair passengers from a madwoman armed to the hilt by Abram Lyle & Sons.

He dug the tin out of my carefully packed backpack, and pointed at it accusingly. “Can you tell me what this contains, please?” “Uh… To quote Katie Melua,  just what it says on the tin?” I suggested with humour. He stared blankly at me. “Gol-den sy-rup,” I added helpfully, pointing to the words on the oh-so-classy green and gold tin, which I had already earmarked as a pen pot for Bigfoot. I wondered whether reading was an obligatory part of the selection process for airport security, or whether communication skills were evaluated by the candidate’s ability to order a pint at last orders.

English: Lyle's Golden Syrup in a resealable t...

A very dangerous, explosive tin of Golden syrup. This image was created by Whitebox, and is licensed under the following license (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He cleared his throat and drew himself up to his full height. “Are you sure? For all I know, this could be filled with explosives.” He muttered suspiciously to himself as the queue grew. Impervious to the increasing sounds of tutting and grumbles of  “Oh for goodness sake, get a move on,” he turned the tin in his hands and inspected the plastic seal with insistence. In the end, he finally accepted my proposal to open the tin and taste the syrup. I didn’t explode, and I finally got on the plane as planned, remaining glued to my seat until arrival.

A second run-in with security happened when I was travelling back to France with a willing hostage. As airport security called me to the luggage desk, my youngest sister curled up in her seat, rolled her eyes and groaned “It just had to be you…” before disappearing behind her enviable curtain of curly hair. I had a strange sense of déjà vu as the lady unzipped my suitcase and rummaged through it, removing the offending items as she discovered them among my underwear and manky slippers. “This is bacon.” “Yes.” “Cheddar?”  “Yes.” Her eyes widened. “Baked beans? Umm….. can I ask you why you are travelling with this in your luggage?”

I wasn’t sure what to reply. Why on earth do you think I’m doing this? An Amélie Poulainèsque desire to take a photo of tin of beans at the top of the Tour Eiffel, at the Kremlin, and other exotic locations*? For my picnic on the plane because a) the food’s overpriced rubbish and b) the fart power will help me to gain altitude if the plane blows up and I find myself plunging headfirst towards the English Channel in my seat?

That was when I heard the conversation going on just beside me. “Umm…. excuse me, Madam, but can you please tell me why you have 20 walnut whips in your luggage ?” I turned my head, our eyes met, and mine lit up. “Are you going to tell them, or shall I?”

* I  do in fact know of a blog about a travelling bag of oats, and it’s jolly good, it’s called “Tales of a Travelling Porridge”, and it’s here!

The French food paradox.

The other day I was amazed to see mothers enthusiastically grabbing a new product off the supermarket shelf: a chocolate spread made of soft cheese and milk chocolate. It struck me that whilst the French clamour their gastronomic superiority and force-feed me cheap jokes about flagship British clichés like jelly, cucumber sandwiches, flavoured crisps and mint sauce, they do not seem to see any contradiction between their rhetoric and their regular consumption of what they themselves describe as rubbish. This is my favourite French paradox: their love-hate relationship with junk food.

“La Malbouffe” is a recent French term for the invasion of junk food and sodas from the outside world, deemed responsible by many for the decline of traditional family meals and the expanding waistline of the population.

I remember one memorable debate during a family meal in Marseille, as we all religiously grunted contentment over the hors d’oeuvres. As white-haired Gervais served the Sauternes to go with the foie gras, he and Mamie shook their heads sadly at how gastronomic standards in France had lowered since Ronald and his pals had arrived on the food scene. When I pointed out to them with a smile that the meal we were eating was probably much worse for our health, I was stared at in horror. I had committed gastro-cultural blasphemy.

I could sense a tangible risk of going down in family history as the Judas who had dared to betray the Gallic dinner table as I developed my argument a little further at the end of the meal. During the aperitif we had nibbled on glistening olives, peanuts and crisps. Then we had munched our way through foie gras, and boeuf bourgignon (beef cooked for hours in a rich wine sauce) served with a gratin dauphinois: sliced potatoes cooked slowly in single cream. A huge cheese platter followed, and a salade verte for conscience’s sake before the dessert. The whole meal was washed down with varying amounts of different wines.  With all due respect, it was unfair to point an accusatory finger at the number of calories in Ronald’s menu: although it was not the tastier choice, it was probably much less likely to clog up your arteries.

The funny thing is that the French appear to be closet junk food addicts. Paradoxically, I see them queuing for their food at one particular “restaurant” much more often than I do – the one run by a scary, oversized guy with red hair, stripy pj’s and huge red shoes. Caught in the act, they shrug their shoulders, wink and say « Oh, we come here for the kids – I can’t stand the stuff. But it can’t do any harm from time to time, hey? », before tucking enthusiastically into their tray full of carbs covered in ketchup and industrial mayonnaise.

The face of food shopping in France has changed too. I was surprised when frozen burgers and microwaveable chips appeared in local supermarket freezers. Even the Englishwoman that I am, reared on the likes of jelly and roast beef, can’t imagine buying something like that, let alone eat it. Then take the example of crisps: when I first came here, you chose between bog-standard salted or a strange paprika flavour crisps, or strange things called “Curlies”, that look like bright orange fox poo and have all the flavour and texture of sawdust. Now, supermarket shelves boast acres of crisps with every flavour, shape and colour imaginable.

The humble sandwich has also been pulled out of the hall of shame and given a full makeover. When I arrived in France in 1989, it was a survival ration: something you ate when you had no other choice. The SNCF’s* overpriced, droopy excuse for a sandwich was so uninspiring that French upper lips curled in disdain at the mere mention of it. Now supermarkets have an impressive shelf of neatly-packaged triangular butties, indicating that the tables have turned, and that the French have compromised their midday traditions for less tasty but conveniently packaged lunch options whilst the foreign expats scream “noooooooooooooo, don’t do it!” on the sidelines.

And let’s not forget the “approved” daily junk food.  Believe it or not, there are skeletons in the French pantry, tucked between the fond de veau and the bouquet garni. The vast majority of French kids – and adults – are hooked on Nutella, or “Nutegras”**, as I call it. Advertising promotes the nutritional benefits of the nuts, milk and chocolate it contains, yet mysteriously forgets to mention the remaining 70% of the recipe: sugar and palm oil. This does not appear to be a major concern for French parents, who have nevertheless given it the thumbs-up for daily consumption whilst remaining highly suspicious about the nutritional value of the humble hamburger – with its bread, ground beef and fresh salad ingredients.

So I’m sorry, France, but I am baffled by your dual gastronomic personality and amused by your “do as I say, don’t do as I do” junk-food denial. I hope that one day you will come out of the closet and freely admit that you enjoy “junk” food, which is no better and no worse than the traditional meal, and that moderation is necessary in both. And please stop worrying about the burger removing Mamie’s traditional nosh-up from the podium: it’s just not going to happen, guys.

* French railway company.

**gras = fat, grease.