Why can’t you get English butter in Normandy? I suppose it’s not such a stupid question, after all Tesco sells Kerrygold, Lurpack, Président and Isigny butter. It is all to do with French protectionism and laws on imports of foreign goods I expect. But, really, why would you want any other butter than Normandy butter?
I do get tired of Brits moaning about stuff they can’t buy here. That is not to say that I don’t give any visitors lists of stuff to bring over, but it is mostly treats that I can live without or get here just at a much higher price, like tea. Other than that, if I want it, I make it. Homemade soft British style sandwich bread, crumpets, marmalade, gravy (mind you I have never used granules in my life)muffins, focaccia, pizza, custard, British cakes of all descriptions (I’ve never bought them anyway), tomato soup, chutneys, pickles you name it! Of course they all taste ten times better anyway when made from scratch with no additives or E numbers.
However, there is still one thing I just don’t get. I live in Normandy, dairy capital of France, if not the world. The crème fraiche is fab, the butter to die for (literally), the cheeses are legendary. But WHY with all this vast array of cow based products can’t you get double or whipping cream like in the UK? This is not a complaint; I just find it really very puzzling. These types of cream figure in so many recipes, and much as I love it, even a good crème patissiere just doesn’t do the job for me! I overcome this by using mascarpone, beaten with enough of the thickest single cream I can find till I get the right consistency for the job. When I make anything with my own version of double cream my French friends and neighbours all come back for seconds.
I also think, a lot of other folks yearnings come for things that I would never have bought in the UK anyway, so please excuse my intolerance. But when you live in the cradle of haute cuisine, I find it frankly embarrassing to see Carrefour stocking Fray Bentos tinned steak & kidney pies! I would not want anyone thinking this was top of my list of UK food that I miss, for sure. A very bemused old Frenchman handed me one of these pies in the bar one night, having been given it by his English holiday home owners next door. He asked me to explain what it was. As I explained, his expression changed from bewilderment, to disbelief, to complete horror! I really don’t blame him! Go on, you try explaining an unbaked tinned pie in French! He did say that the biscuits they bring him are scrummy though……………………
So what about French cuisine? I guess what does surprise me is that the French don’t easily embrace the best of other cultures, they still live in the “French is the best & only” time bubble. One of my fellow choir members remarked as she left the other night, “killed a chicken, poule à la crème tomorrow” to which her buddy replied “can’t beat it”. Well actually, you can! You can at least match it, you can at least vary it, and you could at least try doing even slightly differently once in awhile! As a holiday maker, I would make a bee line for French apple tarts. As a local, I now eat them once in blue moon, why? Because they are the ubiquitous pudding of choice! I have a neighbour who only eats apple based deserts. Honest! They will get the desert menu in a restaurant and out of all the choices, the majority all go “mmmmm apple tart” like they hadn’t had any for the last six months. Puzzles me! Perhaps they have very short memory spans!
I think this is the reason that many innovative French chefs have made such an impact in the UK, whereas here they would have been treated with suspicion and mistrust here and probably gone bust, you just don’t change a recipe…… Watching Raymond Blanc’s Very Hungry Frenchman series, taking local traditional dishes and giving them a twist, or a variation or even incorporating them into a completely new dish, was fascinating. Seeing the usual expressions of polite apprehension on some of the diner’s faces were so typical, then seeing them glow with appreciation when they tasted it was something else. I particularly remember the face of a girl tasting a local goat’s cheese, served with drizzled honey and an English peach chutney, you can’t fake such an expression of delight.
I remember walking round Tesco when I lived in the UK and hearing a young French couple discussing their shopping “on peut bruncher” they said. I loved it! The adoption of the word “brunch” and grafted into a French verb. I have tried to explain the concept of brunch on a Sunday to French friends here. They look aghast and say “but I’d never manage lunch”! I explain the derivation of the word, combining lunch & brunch and reason that one can then eat in the evening, at which point the “Oh my God she is insane” look comes over their faces. Well you don’t have to do it every Sunday, I mutter, to their withering looks. And try explaining porridge and its health benefits, on second thoughts, no, don’t bother; there are only so many withering looks of disbelief one can handle in a lifetime.
It is sad that by and large many French scorn many other cuisines or cultures.There is a British couple in Vire, here in Normandy, who started a butchers shop, to great success. They don’t just sell British style hams, bacon, sausages, pork pies etc. They produce it all themselves. Using local pigs they brine & cure & smoke. Their sausages have won French prizes. Their bacon doesn’t ooze white scummy water when grilled, as it is not full of preservatives. They ship to the whole of France. I have wholehearted admiration for them. Their black pudding is the best I have ever tasted. A true marriage of quality French meat & British tradition, quite brilliant.
So I would dearly like to see the best of British product such as this on supermarket shelves here, not the MSG and E number rich rubbish, but quality gear. It is good to see that even Lidl now stock good old McVitie’s digestives, and had extra mature English Stilton at Christmas! Leclerc and Intermarché now stock good brands of extra mature Cheddar. But there is so much more! Like the bacon above!
I have now spotted two restaurants displaying “Fish & Chips” on their menus, being avidly scoffed by French clients, interestingly served with Heinz ketchup & Lee & Perrins as optional extras! I was most impressed to see it looked delicious.
I find it fascinating that even the poorest of French families eat oysters, mussels, whelks, foie gras etc. and know which wine goes best with what. Often despite lack of formal education and money, they have manners, sense of occasion, a certain finesse and culture, that you just don’t seem to get in Peckham!
I am proud to be regarded as not just a good cook, but a great cook by friends and neighbours, some of whom have never travelled far from home. I am very proud of the food I can produce that combines tastes of everything I like, from everywhere I’ve been. But honestly – tinned pies?