Are the French really so desperate for cheap food?
From my first recollections of food and cooking, I was aware that the food we had at home wasn’t like that of my school friends; we were a bit different; I grew up knowing that a salad arrived at the table hidden in a deep wooden bowl and dressed in vinaigrette; it wasn’t until staying with a class mate one half term when at boarding school that I discovered the meaning of “salad” created in a British kitchen.
In general terms the theory went that anything culinary could be guaranteed if it was French…and this notion of superiority was reinforced on a daily basis by my mother.
I grew up absolutely fascinated by cooking, wanting to be able to produce meals and dishes and baking…I pored over recipe leaflets and the limited cookbooks available at home. The start of formal cookery lessons at my convent school signalled for me the opening of the drawbridge, although I was always helping my mother in the kitchen and could bake a cake independently; cookery with Mrs Harrison was always the highlight of my week from September 1974. Through her I believe I learnt to think more independently about food; once she had demonstrated the principle demanded by her syllabus we could choose how to use that skill. An example was mastering both Bechamel white sauce and pastry and then being encouraged by her to create a vegetarian savoury tart, at some point having already expressed my interest in what was then a somewhat alternative dietary lifestyle, associated with hippies. However, despite her severe manner and apparent preference for a rather conservative selection of dishes to demonstrate, she never once tried to discourage my off-beat thoughts and desires in the kitchen. This was some distance away from the attitudes at home. Of course I learnt to prepare many classic dishes by sight and could take over a meal prep as long as I knew to do it the way my mother wanted. I also throughly enjoyed meal planning, having been completely fascinated by food values and “balanced meals” via Mrs Harrison’s classes in that scary first year of senior school. In the Sixth form we were treated to cookery again; a compulsory plan which had been put into place to prevent convent girls leaving school unable to feed themselves healthily…the cookery room had by then been relocated to much larger premises, with its fittings carefully designed by Mrs H. After years teaching in a rickety attic space perched above the convent laundry her time had finally come; I recall her looking far more relaxed, although she was just as strict, which didn’t bother me at all; as far as I was concerned cooking was a serious business.
Although my plan had only been a vague one with no date attached, I ditched the meat in the summer of 1979, and thus began to really learn how to cook for myself, free to experiment with various pulses and vegetables because I no longer lived at home under my mother’s distinctive culinary demands. The following year I was back in France after not seeing my French aunt since age 14; politely informing her of my meat-free life she promptly began the “omelette and white sauce challenge” and was both amused and irritated when I turned down a salad of pis-au lit dressed with bacon lardons and its fat…she told me it wasn’t meat! Add on another 4 years and I was back again; it was Round Two of the omelette and white sauce-dressed dishes; mid-way through the ten-day stay I knew I seriously could not face another egg and requested just the veg plain….perhaps that was the final straw for her? By now my mother had come to accept more meat-free meals , understanding that I was able to serve up some tasty dishes which even impressed my father. Clearly puzzled by my rejection of the eggs, my aunt asked me what I cooked….her look of bemusement when I described a vegetarian “Bourguignon” of potatoes, carrots and mushrooms was underlined by a brisk “never heard of it!”
When, many years later, at the start of a new century I ventured back into France, it was clear that the notion of meat-free meals was certainly a generation behind Britain; despite the gorgeous variety of vegetables heaped up on colourful market stalls, eating out was impossible unless it was a pizza restaurant, or a brasserie with omelette on the menu.
What I did notice was how French citizens were just as gripped by supermarket shopping as the British, the aisles stuffed with pre-packaged meals, plastic pots of highly-sweetened yoghurt and fromage frais, hundreds of garish cakes and greasy pastries balanced by ready-grated carrots and tinned Brussel sprouts. The day we discovered the latter delivered us an enormous unstoppable laughter; the joys of these highly-nutritious “boules” must surely be limited to their being freshly-cooked and existing free from the confines of a metallic container?
From then on nothing ever surprised me including one long journey down the entire length of France with nothing to eat because not one of the motorway services we stopped at had any meat-free sandwiches on sale; it was clear the factory must have had a glut of jambon because nothing appeared ham-free either! I had always self-catered for journeys but had been reassured it wouldn’t be necessary as we’d get a meal en-route…as they say “live and learn!”
Now things have improved in the land which is part of my heritage, but anyone with glorious images of French folk cooking from scratch every day really are existing in fantasy-land! French supermarkets are the life-blood for most cooks and consumers; of course there are still the massive cheese and meat counters, and fresh fruit, vegetables and piles of lettuce, but their fridges and freezers carry as wide a range of chilled and frozen ready-made meals as any other country, their boulangerie section heaves with pastries, ready-made pies and tarts and industrial plastic-wrapped bread. In fact receipts will itemise all foods and any bread items sold wrapped in bags will show up labelled “industrial”….ideal as a base for the palm-fat sweetness of Nutella!
So what about Nutella? Why the riots?
Quite simply, a famous supermarket chain decided to offer a substantial discount on large jars of the famous spread; the hungry crowds were not polite with each other and fought to grab their share. The gendarmes were called in to restore order…thus was created the main French news headline for that day. Was it all a PR stunt? Or were the “Nutella riots” a cover-up to distract the world from something more sinister?
I hope Nutella wasn’t misused to smother bad news; my gut feeling accepts this madness as real…perhaps the supermarket should have insisted that each purchaser also grab a tin of choux de Brussel at the same time, an offer akin to a “meal deal”?