Cooking in France

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 Food and cooking

There is a branch of philosophical thought that tries to understand notions of beauty.  Aesthetics deals with the nature of art, beauty, and taste. What is beauty? Why do we find certain things beautiful and others not so? The first questions we are asked to think about in a philosophical approach to aesthetics  concern whether or not we have an inborn ability to discern beauty or whether we learn it as a skill as we progress through life.

Next, we have to decide whether or not some things are beautiful in a universal sense or if beauty is culture specific. Where indeed does the beauty reside? In the object contemplated or in the eye of the beholder? Much ink has been spilled on these questions, but to my mind the answer to the innate vs learned issue is to be found in a combination of the two positions. If we are born with an innate ability to appreciate beauty then it arises as a correlate of our biological need to seek out things that enhance our potential to survive. When we need certain foods for example, those foods will seem particularly delicious.  The foods that we favour we might find so satisfactory and scarce that we could call them “beautiful”, or some other such word that indicates their transcendant desirability. Indeed for a strange reason “scarcity” always seems to enhance desirability.

The same goes, in terms of beauty, for the mates we choose. The specific cultures in which we find ourselves shape our tastes and the way we choose to fulfil those biological urges.  The degree of idiosyncrasy in our tastes may seem almost incomprehensible to people from other communities. Fashion and habit are enormously influential. Just note human beings’ changing preferences regarding body shape. Plumpness used to be attractive when plumpness was a sign of well-being and wealth. Then something happened. Plumpness is no longer a sign of well-being or wealth. Just what happened is moot point, but some suggest that the frighteningly thin body became desirable as a result of the wars. The story goes that plumpness began to seem self-indulgent. It was no longer deemed acceptable to appear to eat more than one’s share; nor to look robust and apple-cheeked. Another account along similar lines has it that we have somehow developed a perverse attraction to the image of the starved body so prevalent during and after the wars.  The current trends that laud “heroin chic” seem to support this intuition. Hollow eyes, exhaustion, grey-pallor, abstraction and sadness have assumed a perverse mystique.

The French are the first people on the planet to enact a law against the use of overly thin, indeed starved fashion models. Bless them.

So we might say that a capacity to appreciate beauty is innate and what we find beautiful is culture specific. Drawing on Aristotle’s explanation of the most superior form of knowledge we can suggest that something only becomes simply “beautiful” when we no longer require it to meet our basic survival needs. Until then it is merely necessary or useful. Regarding ideas of human beauty for example, we begin to appreciate the beauty of young healthy, fresh-faced, long-limbed creatures in a “disinterested” way when we no longer have any use for them as possible partners in the struggle to pass on our genes. In those circumstances we can recognise beauty simply for its own sake.

The same thing applies to the culinary arts. They become arts when we pursue them for their own sake and not to satisfy our need for sustenance. However, we are not creatures who are satisfied simply to follow our biological urges. Initially we learn about beauty in those most impressionable years we spend at the maternal knee. Our behaviours and choices are subject to the powerful strictures of received wisdom. We do not rely initially (or ever really) on our own tastes. One of the most powerful cultural modifiers is, of course, the media. Everything we read in books, view on television or see in films shapes our taste.  We learn from our peers, our parents and our cultural circumstances to such a degree that we hardly remember why we seek out things that taste good in the first place.

No account of a maison secondaire in France would be complete without making mention of matters gastronomic. Frances Mayes  (Under a Tuscan Sun) suggests that people who make second homes in Europe are usually foodies. I agree with that assessment, but I think it is has as much to do with the “literary consciousness” as with the love of food and cooking. Bookish people like to “lose” themselves a book and are very susceptible to the urge to live as if they are in a book. The old question of whether art imitates life or life imitates art is  a sub-genre of the nature vs nurture debate.  In our case it is definitely life imitating art, and secondarily because we are fervent cooking people.

The food in Charente-Maritime is truly delicious. No matter what the time of year we can cook in delectable game birds and superb seafood. The seasonal fruits and vegetables have to be tasted and smelled to be believed. Almost every village has a market day; some have two market days each week. In addition the bigger towns hold a fair once a month. A fair is a larger event involving the sale of just about everything one can think of from art supplies to tractors.

 

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In spring and summer these markets are joyful places. The marketplace has a perpetually festive air created by the music of buskers, organ grinders and always accordion music. Occasionally, if the accordionist is good enough, people will be moved to caper about in a few dance steps. The French love to dance. They still hold thés dansants  (literally dancing teas):  summer or autumn afternoon dances or early-evening dances from four to seven p.m. Dancing in the afternoon was practiced in earlier centuries, but it seems that it became even more popular after the world wars as an economical way to pass time and to lift spirits.

The French seem to love the tableaux vivants or living statues. They are everywhere and the actors are very talented. Once we enjoyed the sight of Mary Antoinette having a cup of coffee and a quick cigarette in between acts.

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It would seem impossible to feel cast down in these market places. The stall-holders often dress up in traditional costume to vend their wares and they seem to relish the chance to assume the roles. Even in the dead of winter there will still be a colourful display of fruit and vegetables imported from Spain.

In France I have learned to put vases of flowers out in the garden. I stumbled upon this happy practice when we had too many vases of flowers to cope with indoors and more kept arriving from our neighbours who were happy to have someone in residence in the “Moinet House.”  In order to create some space in the kitchen and dining room I put some of the vases out into the courtyard. They looked so lovely there that it has become a routine to dress up the outside dining space as well. The French delight in decorating their public spaces and put flowers everywhere.

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A feeling of well-being seems inevitable when there are large numbers of fresh flowers about. Sitting in the sun watching enormous bumble-bees tumbling and fumbling about in the sage and flowering chives, completely covering themselves in pollen; raising my eyes to gaze at a lavender hedge with its full purple fringe, roses everywhere and still more assorted flowers in vases positioned here and there to bring colour to any quiet places I feel as if I have become a character in a book. It is the practice of mindful enjoyment. It makes me laugh.

In summer the local produce is mouth-watering and the flowers are breathtaking. There are no melons that taste as heavenly as a Charentaise melon and in spring the phrase “as beautiful as the flowers in May!” begins to make sense. Everywhere you look there are flowers: roses, azaleas, tulips, daffodils, pansies, lilies, iris and more flowers. They grow wild in the streets, hedgerows and more; picking berries and plums from the hedgerows is an activity that bookish people find irresistible.

8995414345_5af16fe71b_zFrom the Hedgerows

Men who would look quite at home chopping down trees, driving tractors, or threatening other lives are happy to push around shopping-trolleys loaded with bouquets, flowering plants and one or two bottles of wine; all of these commodities are of high quality in the markets.

Always somewhere near the centre of the market place a group of several men will be found “chewing the fat” as we would say in Australia: “Bavards” the French would call them. Their wives are off making their purchases while the men occupy themselves with putting the world to rights. They are so alike as to look like brothers: all wearing berets or cheese-cutter hats and smoking cigarettes. Others are literally chewing the fat, walking around the stalls filling hollowed out loaves of bread with a variety of aromatic samples.

There is an orderly but long queue outside the local boulangeie. In this family business les grands-parents stand behind the counter and smilingly dispense the most fragrant and delicious Pain Noix we have ever tasted. Number one  fils is this generation’s boulanger and on occasions a pair of large brown eyes can be seen peeping out from behind the apron of la Grand-mere as the third generation imbibes the wheaten ambiance of his world.

 

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The pet dogs too are dressed up in stylish coats or scarves and are the happy recipients of numerous tidbits. The stall owners urge the grazers to try their wares and having done that, it is impossible to resist buying.
In the market pavilion itself there are bountiful fish stalls selling dozens of varieties of glowing, gleamingly fresh fish: huge cod, merleau, bars, rougets, salmon,  live crevettes, crabs, homards, piles of blushing langoustines, eels, gambas as large as one’s hand, thousands of mussels, cockles, sardines. The fish queue is one we visit twice a week as if we are going to church.

We are served by healthy, attractive looking young people who sing “avec ceci?” and “grater, vider?” When we nod that “yes” we do want the fish scaled and cleaned, the fishmonger “guts” the fish efficiently and then ceremonially waves the scaling device vaguely in its direction. And that is that. The scaling is of a standard that leaves a lot to be desired. One day I asked a stallholder for eight oysters and threw him and his assistant into complete confusion. Oysters come in dozens or half dozens and nothing in between. After much head-scratching and totting up I was offered a baker’s half-dozen i.e. seven oysters.

We had so many of our fellow Aussies staying (15 in all) on one occasion that even though we had invested in a car called a “people mover” able to carry seven people, still we had to split into two parties. I was driver for the seven adults who wanted to visit the market and a nerve-wrackingly unruly bunch they were too. I could have anticipated the difficulties in store by the confusion when I tooted the horn of the “market bus” prior to departure. It took forever to decide who was catching the bus and then quite a while to sort out the seating arrangements.  When we arrived at the market without mishap the enthusiastic fair-goers leapt out and scattered to the four winds. They only reappeared when they required my services as translator. I felt like a mother of a large group of toddlers. The constant demands for my services as translator meant that it was difficult to get my shopping done and when it came time to leave the trouble became acute. They were loath to leave and they were much more resourceful and unruly than any toddlers.  Having rounded up one or two and deposited them at the car I would go in search of the others only to discover on our return that those at the car had become bored and wandered off. The one and a half hours I had anticipated spending at the market grew to three and a half before I had them all safely belted up for take off. I was completely frazzled, but they seemed to enjoy themselves.

The French in our area are not tall people. A tall man would be hard pressed to reach one hundred and seventy centimetres and the women are much smaller. At the fairs we often become separated because each of us tends to follow his or her own nose. We discovered early on that we have simply to sweep our gaze around over the heads of the locals and we will discover the Australians standing a good twenty to fifty centimetres taller than the crowd. The local people think nothing of subjecting etrangers to long, hard stares.  The scrutiny is like the solemn, unselfconscious gaze of absorbed children.

When my pretty young nieces were over for a visit they literally stopped the traffic as they walked down the road to the village centre. French men are very generous in their appreciation of feminine beauty – even middle-aged beauty. When I first went to France I was surprised to discover myself once again the recipient of the interested male gaze. In Australia middle-aged women are quite invisible, noticed by no one. It is a liberating state of affairs in a way to be able to go about one’s business without anyone noting our presence. Women in middle-age are compensated for the loss of the power of beauty by the opportunity to regain the unselfconsciousness lost at the onset of puberty when we first become aware of that oppressive, assessing gaze.  Yet, each time I return to Australia I am aware that something is missing.

For us though, the real delight in food in France comes from cooking in our own kitchen. We like nothing better than to have a large gathering of family and friends to cook with. Each meal becomes a festive event and with so many people there to share the tasks it is not hard work. In the evenings especially, an atmosphere of competition and camaraderie pervades the kitchen and we have difficulty getting enough space to work. All around the long kitchen table we have chatting sous chefs chopping up herbs and vegetables, stuffing things, grating this and that, swapping cooking tips. At the end of the kitchen, where the double doors open out into the courtyard, sits Warwick, our resident artist, sketching the activities and complaining loudly when we move the vinegar bottle and upset the composition of his drawing.

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We have revamped the kitchen to a modest degree with a new floor of creamy tiles. The light tiles were a mistake because they are very difficult to keep clean. The French favour dark red tiles in the kitchen and I can follow their reasoning.  We have a lovely old kitchen dresser bought from a depot vente for the equivalent of one hundred and fifty dollars. At these depots, people leave the things they wish to sell and I assume that they pay a small fee for the service. We have been able to buy all sorts of useful furniture including a massive and ugly, solid oak dining table and chairs and a matching buffet. We call it the “Monstre meuble” because it has such a huge and commanding presence that we feel like bowing when we enter the room. We use it in winter of course, and in summer on the rare occasions we are obliged to eat indoors it accommodates a big party very well.

Another addition to the kitchen is one we call the “la folie“. It is a large indoor open cooking fire.  Again made of creamy, lime-stone it is a handsome piece of work commissioned from our local tailleur de pierre. We met Didier in his workshop just up the road from our place when we wandered in to see what was going on. As we approached the large warehouse type building with the acoustics of an echo chamber we heard him hammering, cutting and polishing away.

Kitchen fireplaceLa Folie

Didier, who was about 30 years old, and his young assistant, dressed in overalls and aprons, were completely covered from head to toe in white stone dust and as they stared at us with large dark eyes they reminded us of a pair of  startled panda bears. All around the walls were lovely stone sculptures, friezes, fountains, tables and garden benches. Didier greeted us warmly and escorted around the premises while he showed us how the stone rang like a bell when carved into certain configurations. He stroked the stone reverently and was immensely proud of his work in a shy sort of way. We explained what we wanted for our kitchen and we set up a rendez-vous  for him to come visit the site.

When he arrived chez Tourners he was no longer covered in dust and had taken great pains to give his appearance a professional yet highly individual look. He wore enormous Doc Martin type boots with a mirror shine, pale bluish-white designer jeans, a floral shirt artfully unbuttoned in places and through which we were able to glimpse his supportive orthopaedic back brace, a different floral patterned tie knotted half way down his chest and a voluminous, pastel, linen sports jacket over the top of everything. Under his arm he had a large clipboard and a pile of pamphlets and pictures and he had two pencils poking out of his leonine head of dark hair. His manner was gently formal and he looked absolutely wonderful: debonair and utterly creative.

The stone dust ingrained into his hands did nothing to dispel our enchantment. Needless to say we were pleased to be able to commission him to create our folly. He was accompanied by his wife who was keen to try out some English conversation and his 4 year old daughter. Didier himself spoke no English and his wife was not much more advanced.

We waited all that summer for la folie to be finished and finally it was installed on the eve of our departure home to Australia. The two artisans worked all day to install it and connect it up to the existing chimney by drilling a large hole through the wall into the fireplace in the dining room. With great excitement we lit our first fire and to our horror we were smoked out of the kitchen. It was impossible to stay in the room. We called the masons back urgently and they came rushing in wearing the important and anxious expressions of fire fighters who at any moment might be called upon to evacuate the premises.

There followed much testing of drafts, scratching of heads, repositioning of the fire itself and so on, but nothing would work. The chimney refused to accept any of the smoke and it billowed out into the room in choking clouds. The poor stonemason was a picture of despair; his entire bearing sensationally cast down, shoulders slumped, arms hanging heavy, mouth turned down. We felt sad for him, because he is such a proud and careful workman. We never did discover how he solved the problem because we had to leave for Australia, but it involved somehow better connecting it to the other chimney . On our return to Tourners the next occasion we lit the fire it functioned properly. It is still a temperamental and fussy apparatus but it does the job and looks very handsome and foolish doing it.

We cook fish and game birds on it and they are incomparably delicious.
We bought ourselves an ordinary kitchen stove in at a large furniture store in our nearest large town, Saint Jean d’Angely. It was a sizeable device and far too big for the smallish car we were driving at that time. Our house is at seventeen kilometres distance from the shop, so we asked if they could arrange delivery. No, they said, we cannot. The delivery people are off on holidays for the next month. The month of August is always the same. Nothing happens in France and nothing is done except les vacances. Davis and I looked at each other in complete horror. What could we do? Soon we would have a house full of people to feed and no stove.

The young man took in our disappointment and looked thoughtful for a moment. Then we could see the light bulb flashing above his head as he hit upon the solution: “You can borrow our delivery truck if you like!” So, with no further ado, no checks of driver’s licences, references or anything of that nature, the stove was loaded into the back of an enormous delivery van and away we drove, happy and pleased to have the experience.

Davis is considered by all and sundry to be a wonderful cook. A belief he does nothing to dispel. He comes from a family of dedicated cooks and as he is the adored oldest brother his reputation is one that family is pleased to endorse. However, the enthusiastic amateur chefs are no blushing violets either and there are many opinions expressed quite forcefully about how things ought to be done. Very early in our first large family holiday we decided that there had to be a head chef appointed each day or we might well end up eating nothing at all.  The chef in charge would choose the menu in consultation with the others and moreover, he or she would decide on the music to be played that evening. It works very well and the carte du jour is written up on the kitchen white board for everyone to peruse, anticipate and criticise.

Kitchen workersThe head chef of the day wears the red hat

At 6pm the cocktail du jour is  created ceremoniously, the more colourful and outrageous the better. Everyone gulps them down as if they contain nothing more intoxicating than lemonade and they are a lovely way to start an evening of conversation and scrumptious dishes. We usually cook four courses because it takes at least that number to satisfy the creative urges of all the chefs many of whom have collected appropriate recipes for months.
We have some difficulties ensuring that we are all hungry enough to do justice to the food, so we don’t eat between meals and we keep the courses small. No matter what your taste, if there are four courses to choose from you will be unlucky not to find something that you like. We eat out in the garden with the large windows open to allow the music chosen by the chef of the day to waft around us, enhancing the festivities, lifting our hearts.

For our lunches which are really like elaborate picnics we move the venue from place to place around the garden: now in front of the house, now up at the high barn, now in the back garden under the gigantic linden tree that Monsieur Albert calls La Grand-Mere.

There are few subjects that are taboo in the conversations that spring up around the table. On one occasion I began a discussion about a favourite hobbyhorse of mine: the rights of animals. Having stirred up a lively debate I was obliged to leave the table to attend to a pressing matter concerning potatoes and cream. When I looked out through the window at the seated diners I was pleased to see that most of the people at the long table were talking loudly. Not a lot of listening going on since they all felt they were authorities on the matter. It is the same when the topics of the soul vs. mind vs. brain are raised. Since we all have a brain/mind/soul we all feel eminently qualified to voice an opinion.