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My French life: No Culinary Cowardice For Me

Whenever we go out to a restaurant in France, which isn’t very often on account of the fact that I have a lot of animals to feed, a house to renovate and not much  income to speak of, I always try to pick something from the menu that I’ve never had before to make it eventful and try things that real French people eat not just tourist food. The Other Half thinks this is madness. He always goes for the safe option, usually roast chicken, steak, that sort of thing.

Me? I pick whatever it is on the menu that sounds exotic and I have no idea what it means! Although my French is reasonably good these days, there are some dishes that have strange colloquial, local or traditional names and I’ve long since given up carrying a dictionary to translate. I found that the dictionary after a couple of years was actually counterproductive for me unless I was dealing with a) people who work for the tax office or b) going to the hairdressers. On no account could I afford to be woolly in my meaning on those occasions. The rest of the time I just try really hard to understand and to make myself understood and I do okay.

Quite often in restaurants I’ll get the words right such as agneau (lamb) or lapin (rabbit) but it will be followed by a string of words that I don’t understand and I must admit that the names for fish dishes continue to elude me even after several years here.

I don’t really know why I continue to practice this French restaurant roulette game. Sometimes I’ve been really delighted with the surprise that arrives at my table but more often than not I am appalled! The worst thing is when we have guests and I tell them I really don’t know what I’m ordering and I’m not going to ask, I’m just going to take a risk and go for it. Then, they decide what a good idea, yes, we’ll have that too, and then we are all appalled!

One such memorable occasion was when our friends Katy and Jonathon came to stay for a weekend. It was over the new year bank holiday weekend, all of our usual haunts were closed so we had to go a bit further afield than usual. After an hour we gave up looking for somewhere that looked nice for somewhere that just looked … well, open really.

Finally, in a little town on the outskirts of the Somme region we found a small brasserie. We trooped in, sat down and a rather mad looking waiter came over. He was like a bear, huge and somewhat menacing and he thrust a menu at each of us then went back to the bar and sipped from a small glass while he watched us. There was a bottle of absinthe on the bar and he filled his glass from this. We were the only people in the room apart from Monsieur Le Bear and our voices echoed round the emptiness as we discussed what was available. The Other Half said “absinthe makes you go mad you know”  in his usual stage whisper and his words echoed round the empty room.

The menu was of mostly standard fare, poulet et frites (chicken and chips), moules et frites (mussels and chips) but there was an exotic sounding  something – it had the words cassoulet, confit and canard in the very long sentence. Ah, I said, duck, some sort of casserole I think – could be very good! The other half of course went for chicken and chips and I and our guests (the fools!) went for the canard dish.

It arrived, eventually (after a couple of absinthe top ups). The canard confit cassoulet great-sounding-dish was actually the most disgusting thing I have ever tasted. It was cold, it was out of a tin and it consisted of various types of bean and some duck fat swimming in grease. It was inedible. We looked at each other in dismay, Katy and Jonathon who are lovely people tried to eat a bit but gave up rapidly. Monsieur Le Bear arrived at the table and looked me in the eye as he picked up our plates which were hardly touched (except for he who had chicken and chips and pronounced it very nice) and walked away without a word. It is a terrible insult to a chef to not eat his food but really, tinned duck fat and beans – I ask you!

Wishing you all bon appetite whatever your choices.

A bientôt
Janine
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