I used to be very happy with a sandwich at midday or thereabouts. It was better if the bread had grains or a bit of character as the white plastic-bagged square slices only hold appeal for me when freshly toasted with margarine and vegemite. I wasn’t particularly fussy about what I ate between breakfast and dinner although I knew when I had got lucky and was served up a proper sandwich, usually by my husband. Then, it had good volume, flavour and colour and was definitely always more calorie laden than my restrained attempts. Often I would realize mid-afternoon that I had forgotten to eat anything and then would ravenously scavenge around for nuts, fruit… ok, chocolate, biscuits, cake.
So, what has changed? Why now do I find it normal to sit down at lunchtime and consume an entrée, main course, cheese, dessert with wine and coffee? And have I put on weight in the process? First question, easier to be objective, the second will just have to remain a well-guarded secret. Suffice to say that a book has been written about how French women don’t get fat.
The first step towards the change happened on day 4 after our arrival in France. The children had all headed off to their first day at school, still feeling a bit jet-lagged and decidedly nervous about what was to face them with new pencils, papers and folders in their school-bags but no lunch box. They just don’t exist here. In fact I struggle to come up with a word to describe the phenomena, usually resorting to ‘boîte à pique-nique’.
So, naturally, we said that we would pick them up for lunch. We wanted to make sure that the first morning hadn’t been too traumatic and were eager to enlighten the guilt burden that we were carrying concerning having wrenched them from their well-loved Australian schools and friends into the foreignness of French schooling. We thought that a fresh little salad, followed by pasta and crunchy French bread and then little tubs of cold pudding, the latter pre-prepared from the supermarket, would do the trick. As we were walking distance from the school and freshly off the plane my husband and I also enjoyed a glass of red wine picked up from the wine cellar on the way home. At that stage we thought that we were getting a right royal bargain, only paying 12 euro for the bottle. We laugh now to think that the supermarkets have a big selection at a fraction of the price without the need to undergo an intimidating interrogation about one’s personal preferences from said wine cellars. Reasonable table wines can be had for just 3 euros. But, I digress from the lunch. Once had and enjoyed, both the lunch and the wine, it was a pleasure to be re-served.
The second factor in our changed behaviour came in the form of hand written personally delivered invitations for lunch – yes, our children were regularly invited out for lunch. The two hour window of opportunity, between 11.30am and 1.30pm on school days, gives the children and their families the opportunity to travel home for lunch, take a real break from school, eat and then not want to return. It also gives them the opportunity to be social and in our case the opportunity for the host family to practice their English.
What we didn’t think about was that acceptance came at a price – that of the return invitation. Knowing what ours had eaten when out we simply could not serve up freshly cut homemade baguette with ham, cheese and tomato, perhaps a touch of mustard or mayonnaise and a little side salad. No, it was necessary to plan, shop for and cook a proper meal. What stress, as our newest guests turned out to be unintentionally very French. They were always most polite but hard work all the same, declining some courses and picking at others. Clearly we did not know what the rules of dégustation were and had to find out quickly.
Here is an attempt at deciphering the lunchtime etiquette which was learned by asking the tough questions of my few French aquaintances:-
• Bread, yes always – but definitely cut – not torn
• Water – always, no need for juices or fancy drinks
• Salad – served before or after the main course. Before if it is an entrée and after if it is an accompaniment.
• Size of salad varies according to whether it is served before or after.
• Extra bits and pieces, such as corn, cucumber and tomato in the salad are acceptable if entrée size, it is usually plain if served as an accompaniment.
• Plain salad as an entrée is also fine depending on the heaviness of what is to follow.
Are you following? Let’s continue…
• Main course could be a piece of meat on its own but woe behold anyone who dares serve it up without a sauce.
• Dessert can be a tub of yogurt or a piece of fruit. It does not have to be fancy but a little homemade apple tart with cream or ice cream would similarly go down a treat.
• Cheese comes before dessert – the French are just incapable of eating anything else once they have eaten their sweets. This last fact I already knew having accompanied a French school trip to England twenty years previously. My French colleague had had to wade through an English high tea of shortbread, sweet sandwiches, savoury biscuits, cheese and cups of tea at 5pm. She had no idea whether she was eating afternoon tea or dinner and politely picked at just a few dry Sao biscuits and cheese and went hungry until the morning.
It is hard now to imagine life without our multiple-layered languorous lunches. Initially, we would somewhat guiltily hide the fact that wine was always on our menu, or justify our consumption under lame pretexts such as 'we are on holidays,' 'we are living like the French,' 'it is so very cheap' or even 'why not, the sun is shining' until we realized that we were not alone. On the ski slopes, in the cafés and restaurants, camping grounds, autoroute parking lots and family kitchens all over France time is devoted to sitting down together and properly eating and drinking, not just consuming at speed. 'Santé, alors.'
My son now asks if what he is being served is an entrée or main meal. We used to smirk indulgently behind our hands but now it seems like a sensible question. And the right answer, 'entrée, but please help yourself to seconds anyway.'