I have three simple rules that define my eating habits.
1. Squelch, crunch. I hate seafood, because it is rubbery, squishy and horrible to taste. Meat and fish, on the other hand is great. The defining difference between them of course, is that meat and fish have the bones on the inside, where all self-respecting food chain minions should keen them, while seafood thinks it’s a good idea to put the shell on the outside. Basically, it come down to the noise they make when you eat them – if it goes crunch, squelch then the shell is on the outside and is to be avoided. Squelch, crunch is fine – that’s how meat should sound.
2. The punch test. The better the cheese, the more resistant it will be to a good punch. Think about it – parmesan, the king of cheeses with its beautiful aroma and perfect texture for pasta, could do you some damage if you punched it unprotected. Other mighty cheeses such as cheddar or gruyere would more or less stand up; slightly flavourless Edam or cardboardy Wensleydale would experience some damage to their structural integrity; while disgustingly pongy cheese like Brie or Stilton would turn into a crime scene upon receiving a hefty punch.
3. No blood. My third rule concerns the cooking of meat. Well done is my rule of thumb.
France, as you could imagine, was a stern test to each of these rules. The French love their seafood and snails, their cheeses are often of the squidgy variety, and meat is regularly served rare or even (appallingly) raw.
I feared the worst prior to my time in France this summer, but thankfully I wasn’t threatened too much on these rules. I even voluntarily crossed the line on one of them. In any case, France is famous for its food and drink, and it says something about the French emphasis on food that not only is it excellent quality but it is usually good value for money. Especially the wine, which I understand benefits from preferable tax rates. Contrast that to French beer, however, which is usually unimpressive and overpriced.
Whether delicious pains au chocolate from a bakery for breakfast, home-barbecued duck, lovely meat and cheese from market stalls, or wonderful dishes in restaurants, food was a key anchor for our road trip and we planned with great relish our eating activities each day.
The southwest of France, where we spent a lot of our time, is famous for its duck (like the photo on the right), and it was invariably soft, succulent and beautifully cooked. You could buy all sorts of lovely fresh produce from markets, and inevitably the fruit and vegetables would be rich, flavoursome and fresh. Even the bread was lovely.
The wine, too, was top notch, and one highlight was a visit to the Cave du Jurançon near Pau. We undertook a tour of their premises (not hugely extensive – their production is reassuringly small and mostly sold locally) and enjoyed a tasting of a good five or six wines, all of which were vibrant with diverse flavours and scents.
Not that I am going to get all dewy-eyed and idealistic about French food, mind. There are many weak spots to France’s cuisine as I have mentioned. Frog’s legs, for instance, sounds most unappetising, and – so I am told – is meagre and tastes like chicken.
Snails are another stomach-churning prospect, but when in a French home you are presented with the prospect of hundreds of barbecued snails, it would be rude and unadventurous not to try my very first taste.
I’d love to give you a detailed taste report, but frankly I switched off my senses, wrapped a solitary snail in bread and mounds of garlic butter, and just ate it. So strong was the garlic, I’ve actually no idea what the snail itself tasted like, and have no desire to go back to find out. I’ve moved on and blotted the experience from my memory.
At least it’s something to tell my grandchildren (assuming they’re not French).
Something I definitely gave a bodyswerve to, though, was raw beef. That’s one rule I’m not breaking. And the punch test was not too much of a problem either, as the French produce some lovely firm cheeses as well.
Perhaps some of my uncultured culinary tastes may not make me popular in France, but I think I’ll be too busy on my next trip consuming all the duck, cheese and wine to represent too much of a national insult.