Wednesday, 2 September 2009

7. Steak & Kidney Pies and Baguettes

We were bumbling around Bayonne the other day (as you entitled to do when you’re a fully paid-up pensioner) and we found an Irish shop – its window was full of Scotch whisky – but we went in for a look and found that they had a food section. They had HP sauce, baked beans, S&K pies in tins (like Fray Bentos do), custard creams, tins of Bird’s custard, syrup, treacle, Jacobs Crackers, PG Tips – in fact, everything any self-respecting Englishman would need when sojourning abroad.. (joke!)

France has changed in many ways in the last forty years. The French are finally becoming a nation of home owners and more of them (but still only a minority) are living in houses and on estates. I would still guess that many still prefer to live in town in an apartment and, in my view, long may this continue. This is probably the main factor which keeps French town centres alive after 6pm – unlike across the Channel where many English town centres are ‘no-go’ zones in the evenings due to binge-drinking yoofs (not like us at all!).

Those English tabloid hacks who persist in retailing horror stories about surly French waiters and general French rudeness have got it all so wrong. It may once have been true – but I doubt it. It’s just that the two cultures have different concepts of manners. Unlike in England, in France it is considered polite to acknowledge other customers upon entering a shop or other patients in a doctor’s waiting room with a bonjour or a mesdames, messieurs. A shopkeeper will invariably wish you a bon continuation, a bon après midi or a bon fin d’après midi. Or if you thank them on leaving, they will often reply – No, it’s me who should thank you.

Shaking hands on meeting someone (whether a friend or a stranger) is expected – and if you don’t – as we Brits tend not to – people will think you’re either rude or standoffish, or both. However, if these hack stereotypes help to stem the tide of Anglos (apart from me) from invading France, then fine.

However, some aspects of French life remain unchanging. I realised that we were deep in rural France (la France profonde as it's known) when we took the Golf for its Contrôle Technique, the French equivalent of an MOT, at a garage in the village. There was a notice up on the wall that advertised a forthcoming Bingo night. One of the prizes was half a pig

Another ever-present element in French life is their continuing love affair with the baguette. I used to think it a French affectation when you’d see them nibbling the end of their still warm baguette on the way home from the bakers. But, all I’d say is - don’t knock it until you’ve tried it! I’m sure a small fortune awaits the person who can work out how to make just baguette ends.. While the French love their baguette, it’s true to say that the number and type of baguettes have proliferated – each with their own name. Although the one that’s currently ‘in’ with us is the baguette à l’ancienne, there are many others.. such as the Flocaline, or the banette or the campaillette.. But each baker has his own name for each – so, as my French teacher says – just point at what you want. Some bakers advertise that their bread is baked in a wood-fired oven. This is worth trying as the wood smoke imparts a pleasant flavour to the bread. Each to their own though.. Trial and error in a baker’s is not exactly hard work!

The final thing to bear in mind is whether or not you want one that’s a bit more high-baked.. In that case, you specify that you want your baguette bien cuite – without forgetting that all important final ‘e’ as baguette is feminin.. (it never stops!) Buying bread in a supermarket is not recommended. It's an industrial product and similar to the bread found in UK supermarkets.

And now if you'll excuse me, I'll bid you bon fin d’après midi as I've got half a pig to deal with..

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