How to Be Parisian: French Feast

How to Be Parisian: French Feast

Stephen finds a French feast as difficult to digest as school dinners.

Οne of my earliest, and worst, school memories was the result of misplaced generosity. I was five, and it was my first ever contact with school canteen mashed potato, consisting of 50% water, 20% over-boiled potato, and 30% salt and various unidentified (and probably now illegal) additives. Exactly the kind of fake food that gives English cuisine such a bad reputation amongst the French.

I took one mouthful and quickly scraped my plate into the serving tray that was mercifully in the middle of the table. A dinner lady came by, one of those matrons in nylon overalls, and congratulated me on my healthy appetite. Generously, she slopped a ladleful of mash on to my plate and, misinterpreting my horrified silence as expectation, followed it up with a second. Still getting no reaction, she urged me to tuck in, picked up my fork and tried to stuff a wad of tepid cement into my mouth. The only way to stop her was to be sick all over the table.

Paris was my oyster

My first ever Christmas Eve in Paris inspired flashbacks to that humiliating day, even though the food was of infinitely higher quality. I had a new French girlfriend whose parents generously invited me to spend Christmas with them, and it all started out wonderfully.

We began the evening with champagne and blinis heaped with tiny orange pearls that were, I was assured, edible fish eggs. Drizzled with fresh lemon juice, these were delicious and I tucked in as if I hadn’t eaten for weeks.

Then my girlfriend’s brother turned up with a huge tray of fresh oysters that he had bought literally minutes earlier. He’d had them opened by the local fishmonger, so they had travelled unhygienically though the polluted streets of Paris, but I was promised that this was not a problem. I’d never eaten oysters, and the brother warned me to check that they were alive. Squirt lemon juice on them, he said, and if they don’t twitch, they’re dead – don’t eat them.

Everyone watched as I gingerly performed the check for vital signs – twitch- and then tipped my first oyster into my mouth. My first impression was that it felt like a bad attack of bronchitis, but then the ozone kicked in and I got the tangy taste of the ocean a citrusy sea – and swallowed… “Non!!!”

The brother explained his cry of pain – you have to chew the oyster before swallowing, he said, to make sure it’s dead when it enters the stomach. Otherwise it defends itself with antibodies that can make you allergic to oysters for life. This hadn’t happened yet so, quaffing enough champagne to make the first oyster drunk, I began gorging myself, chewing steadfastly every time.

Next, though, things got a bit delicate. My girlfriend’s mother produced a large brick of what looked like meat pâté surrounded in lemon icing. It was, of course, foie gras.

Fish eggs for apéritif! © barmalini / shutterstock

Not so good for the goose

Even back then, I was ideologically opposed to the idea of force-feeding a goose until it becomes obese and then eating its bloated liver swathed in yellow fat. But this was at a time when, in France, no one objected to any kinds of food. If you said you were végétarien they expressed pity for you and served you chicken, or said, “but you eat charcuterie?”.

What was I going to do? I didn’t want to create a diplomatic incident, so I just said, “non, merci” and slurped another oyster.

“But you must try it !” they all urged me. I watched in horror as an over-generous slab of foie gras was squashed on to toast. My well-meaning girlfriend lifted it to my lips and… Well, let’s just say everyone in that Christmassy French room was transported back in time to an English school canteen. La honte, as the French say. The shame of it.

Stephen Clarke‘s new novel is Merde at the Paris Olympics

From France Today Magazine

Lead photo credit : © MARIE LISS

Share to:  Facebook  Twitter   LinkedIn   Email

More in French food, French lifestyle, life in France

Previous Article A Weekend in Saint Gilles Croix de Vie 
Next Article Carnet de Voyage: Snowshoeing in the Vercors

Related Articles

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *