A Year of Eating in France
In my last blog post I discussed broadly what was required for a practice or tradition to become recognized by UNESCO as being an ‘intangible cultural heritage’ item. Although there are many places around the world with note-worthy culinary traditions, some of my fondest food memories originate from my time spent living and working in France.
In between my Master and Undergraduate degrees, I took a year off to travel and work abroad – eager to explore the culture (and food) that Europe has to offer. With a longstanding interest in teaching and a desire to improve my French, I settled on France as my home base for the better part of a year. In this blog post I will share some of the lessons learned from my experience living, and eating, in France.
The French Gastronomic Meal
One of France’s intangible cultural heritage items is their world-renowned Gastronomic Meal. This is a practice used to celebrate important moments in the lives of individuals and groups – everything from birthdays to large family reunions. The intention is to bring people together to enjoy the art of good eating and drinking. By emphasizing the importance of togetherness, the pleasure of taste and the delicate balance between human beings and the products of nature, it is no wonder that eating is practically a national past-time.
The Gastronomic meal begins with the purchase of quality, often local, products that are then artfully paired with wine. The dishes served are selected from a growing repertoire of recipes and the table is set. There are some specific actions that take place during the meal and the process often follows a fixed structure starting with an aperitif, followed by four courses and ending with liqueurs.
I was lucky enough to experience firsthand the delight of a French gastronomic meal several times throughout my time in France. During my stay, I was fortunate enough to live with a wonderful family in the charming town of Avignon. The experience of eating most of our meals together fundamentally changed the way I saw food and eating, teaching me that the practice of eating is about more than simply what’s on your plate. The lengthy dinnertime meals allowed for longer, thought-provoking discussions. Of course, not every meal we enjoyed together was a full four course affair – many nights were soup with fresh crusty baguette – but they were always spent in good company.
Eating in Canada vs Eating in France
Oftentimes, my food experiences in France prompted me to reflect on the differences between the way I had grown up eating in Canada, and some of the cultural norms around food I was observing in France. Inevitably, in only one year and residing primarily in the South of France, the list of differences I have accumulated is nowhere near exhaustive. The amazing thing about France is how much everything from the dialect, the food, the countryside – even how many kisses on the cheek you give when saying hello – can vary immensely only an hour away. All that to say, I am far from an expert on French culture and food. However, there were some funny moments I had while living in France that highlighted just how differently we viewed food.
What I found most fascinating was the day to day interactions my colleagues and friends had around food. And thanks to some observant colleagues, my ‘strange’ eating habits were quickly and directly brought to my attention. As evidence, I have two experiences in the teachers’ lounge at the school I was teaching at in Avignon.
My role as an English language assistant at a middle and high school meant I was jumping from classroom to classroom often with breaks in between, where I would spend time in the teachers’ lounge. One morning, I was preparing for my 11am-1pm class when I realized with a jolt how hungry I was. I quickly reached for a snack in my lunch bag and found a slice of quiche that I had prepared the night before. As I was rushing to eat it, I suddenly became aware of one my colleagues watching me, open-mouthed and horrified, hunched in front of my locker. I quickly tried to explain – I was hungry, and I have to teach soon so I’m just having a bite to eat…”. She raised her eyebrows and asked me why I couldn’t just wait until lunch when I could sit down and eat.
My colleague had a very good point. The snacking culture I had been brought up with, combined with a busy schedule, had moulded me into a somewhat impatient eater. When we are hungry, we seek to rectify this as quickly as possible. But why not wait a mere hour or two and actually enjoy the food I was eating? This brings me to...
Lesson One: Eating in France is a social activity.
From that day on, I ignored my grumbling stomach for an extra hour in order to sit with my colleagues and slowly savour my lunch while simultaneously enjoying animated conversations. It also helped that our lunch breaks were at least an hour (often two hours) long.
Here is an example of one of the lunches I had at the school cafeteria. For only about 4 euros, I received a side of potato dauphinois, baked fish, 4 different salads, a large piece of baguette, 3 different kinds of fruits and a yogurt cup for dessert.
Another fond memory I have also takes place in the teachers’ lounge at the highschool where I was teaching. It had been a busy morning, so when lunch time rolled around I sat at the communal table somewhat absent-mindedly eating my lunch which consisted of a sandwich, some cut raw vegetables, a piece of fruit and of course, a small yogurt cup (a necessary cap to every meal in France). Mid-crunch into a piece of red pepper I looked up and found one of my colleagues staring at me, looking very concerned. “What are you eating?” she asked. Confused, I looked down, gestured at my red peppers and said “Poivrons?” She responded; “Yes, but… are they…raw? Do they taste good like that?”
Again, I found myself contemplating this simple question. I personally didn’t mind the taste of raw peppers but certainly they would be better cooked, perhaps in a stewed vegetable dish with herbes de provences or roasted in a sandwich.
Admittedly, they didn’t taste amazing, but that also wasn’t the point. I had taken to eating raw vegetables with my lunch in order to mitigate some of the guilt I felt about eating my daily pain au chocolat. In my mind, taste and health were sometimes, unfortunately, mutually exclusive characteristics. I didn’t always eat something because it tasted good – I did it because it was good FOR me.
But my curious colleague was right – why eat something if you don’t enjoy it? It is worth taking a bit more time to transform a raw pepper into something a bit more palatable. Eventually, I learned to let my guilt subside and enjoy what I was eating because it tasted good. Certainly, there are limits to this – but it was an important lesson learned. Things brings me to
Lesson 2: More often than not, the French like to eat food only if or because it tastes good.
Another difference I noticed while living in France was how people talked about eating. It was a celebratory act, enjoyed fully and without guilt or hesitation. When ordering dessert at a restaurant, others would 'ooh and aah' in appreciation. Enjoy it! Savour it! Take pleasure! Which quickly brings me to
Lesson 3: The French love to share and talk about food.
It has been said that the French can be a bit, well, anti-social. The usual niceties and small talk
about the weather just didn’t seem to work in France the same way it did back home. Even smiling at people in the street was bizarre, a habit I quickly dropped after enough strange looks my way.
What I quickly learned was that the best icebreaker proved to be a compliment about French cuisine. Although I am mostly fluent in French, my accent always gave me away as a non-native. Seemingly without fail, all it took was a compliment about how good the bread was here or how much I am enjoying the harvest of (insert local produce) and the stony-faced merchant would immediately soften up. There was a teacher I worked with who I remember finding particularly intimidating. He rarely acknowledged me and seemed perpetually confused about my role at the school and whether or not I was a student. That was until one day, he brought in a package of candy from his recent trip in the North of France. Bergamot flavoured taffy - a food I had never seen! I was chatting about how much I enjoyed it and he began to tell me the history of the candy and how he had eaten it growing up. From that day on, he was very friendly and the next time he went on holidays, he made sure to offer me some of the sweets he brought back and tell me about them in some detail.
Food really is, a universal language and what a wonderful language that we can all share!
A final example of this that I will share is from when I was teaching a fairly quiet, reserved class of grade 12 students. The students were hesitant, if not outright unwilling, to participate in my classes. Getting increasingly frustrated, I finally asked the class which foods I should be sure to try while in France. There was an outburst of suggestions and the class quickly came together to write up a list of their favourite foods. Although many of the desserts’ names were admittedly in French, having them explain them to me in English proved to be a fairly good language exercise.
One of my favourite meals shared in France is called Raclette. This meal involves melted cheese, fried meats and hearty baked potatoes. A classic apres-ski meal for cold wintery days.
What was most surprising to me was the way the students lit up when asked about food and how enthusiastically they described their favourite foods. You could tell they had a lot of passion and pride in their local cuisine and they were more than eager to share this with a friendly Canadian. When the excitement eventually died down, the students turned to me and asked what my favourite Canadian foods were. Answering this question was not nearly as easy for me as it was for them. I thought carefully of some ‘typical’ Canadian foods. Poutine, tortiere, beaver tails… when I tried to explain these dishes to the class, they looked rather disappointed – and confused. I had to clarify that no, a dish consisting of fries, gravy and cheese curds is not named after the Russian Prime Minister Putin – its spelled Poutine.
These dishes weren’t ones I was particularly fond of nor did I feel represented the breadth and diversity of Canadian cuisine. My answer felt disappointing to all of us and I decided that I would do a better job at researching and understanding Canadian food – a cuisine, I should add, that I am immensely proud of.
And so, here I am almost four years later eagerly watching as Canadian cuisine gains more momentum and international respect. In my next blog post I will build on these ideas more and discuss some potential foods that should be considered for UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list.
Recommended Citation Format: Gallant, M. "A Year of Eating in France". Food Focus Guelph (74), Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Guelph, March 3rd, 2020.