Living in a new country can have a polarising effect on your previous conceptions of how things are done “back home”. Out of nowhere, a shining light of appreciation appears for certain things that once seemed the norm. When they are no longer there, or in an unfamiliar, less appealing form, you realise how fortunate you were to have them. Any Australian who has moved to a non-Mediterranean European city, for example, probably has a whole new appreciation of the sun that other Australians just don’t have!
But there are other things you realise aren’t done as well at home as they are in your adopted country. And whilst I will never knock the good ol’ Aussie BBQ, the quality of Australian fresh produce, the inventiveness of our modern chefs or the diversity of tasty cuisines we have readily available in Australia, I must say that I love how the French do food. And wine.
As much as French cuisine is renowned worldwide for being amongst the best on offer, and living here has given me a whole new appreciation of its diversity, the highlight for me is not actually the food itself but how it is appreciated. Food here is not just food. It’s an art. It’s a cultural pillar that brings society together. And it’s a source of national pride and identity. Food is not created to sustain life, rather it is life itself.
I love how the French come together around food and wine, the centre-pieces of social life. When meeting with a friend, it is almost always over dinner or “un verre” (a glass). Colleagues actually step away from their desks and dine together at lunchtime. And the tradition of eating together on Sundays is still strong, both amongst families and groups of friends.
And just as the idea of meeting for food lingers on, so does the meal itself! In the times of Louis XIV, 24 hour feasts were common amongst the nobles. Whilst the duration of meals is shorter these days, food still takes a considerable amount of time. Forget moving on to the pub after dinner, a good meal amongst friends consumes (excuse the pun) an entire evening. And maybe the afternoon as well! Sunday eating sessions may last anything up to 5 or 6 hours. Even the lunchtime work break is referred to as “entre midi et deux” (between midday and two), the two hour break reflecting the fact that the French love to take time over their food.
Food and wine are not just a consequence of a social event, they are a good part of the reason for it. Dinner party conversation will ebb and flow through politics, religion and the weather, but always return at regular intervals to the food and the wine at the centre of the event… the flavours of the food, the method of cooking… and of course which bottle of wine to open with the next course! But the wine is not for getting drunk… it is for being discussed and enjoyed. The odd bout of tipsyness is but a mere side-effect. It’s a far more sophisticated approach to alcohol consumption that leaves Anglo-Saxon binge drinking ways looking, well, unclassy.
The experience of a home-cooked meal in France is not soon forgotten by visitors or foreigners who have made this country their home… the length of the meal, the number of courses, the variety of wines and the way in which the meal is used as a social connection and is truly appreciated makes a lasting impression. Hosts pride themselves on making a meal a memorable experience for their invitees. Here’s hoping the six courses my boyfriend and I served up to our own PerfectlyRandom and some other friends during a slightly rushed four hours last weekend was one such experience…
* Images courtesy of PerfectlyRandom