Tuesday, August 05, 2003
Living with the food
One reason for moving to France is always valid: food.The French still have more respect for food and more love for it than any other nation. Well, certainly the British.
As Jonathan Meade recently said in one of his excellent TV programmes, only the British use the word ‘wicked’ when referring to food. The French would never.
Food is a pleasure and to create pleasure well is to be civilized.
There are bad meals. I’ve eaten badly here. But this is more to do with statistics than attitude. There is a joy in preparing food, in presenting it and serving it that transmits itself to the consumer and to the consumer’s digestive system.
Some highlights and some not so highlights…
We used to have a bakery down the road from us in Cambridge (England!). I won’t name it. It was a ‘traditional’ English bakery, not a modern bread shop. One day I stopped by for a ‘French stick’. They were out; so I was offered a standard tin loaf: ‘It’s the same bread’.
Oh no. Not here.
Bread is poetry. Bread is art. Bread is… not always as good as it looks.
The best French boulangeries are the best shops in the world for care, tradition, standards and (somewhat arbitrarily) friendliness. There’s something about making and selling bread that instills a quality of life found… not everywhere.
If I want to make visitors feel welcome to France, I go out at 7:30 their first morning and buy croissant, pain au chocolat and baguettes a l’ancienne at a superb bakers just a kilometre or two away in Biot called Angelus (which lends an unlooked-for Buffy aspect to it all). I offer their name with a strong recommendation. We sit on the terrace and breakfast on these works of art while gazing at the blue Med. Me, I’m as happy as can be. I always suppose the guests are impressed.
Croissants vary so much. In Switzerland all patisserie was stacked with butter and very, very filling. Most pastries, if they had any air spaces in them, would be stuffed with the famous Swiss nut paste - which I liked a lot but isn’t everyone’s best buy.
In France pastries are generally lighter but not consistently. Fresh croissant from Angelus are angel kisses, light as a politician’s promises.
Just a few steps away, at the backup boulangerie… not quite as light but tasty.
One of the great mysteries of life in modern France is where did the baguette go? I remember the traditional baguette of my first visits to France 30-odd years ago: thin, fragile with a leathery, polished crust and practically nothing inside, a nutty, malty taste and a moist, but quickly fading texture.
These days, here at least, a ‘baguette’ is a fairly normal length of white bread, still - it must be stressed - a thousand times better than bread in other countries but with a more even texture and a somewhat more pliant crust. The usual alternative on offer - the baguette a l’ancienne - is a strange, pointy-ended affair with a drier, harder crust and a slightly greyer, denser inside. Not the ‘former baguette’ I’d expected.
Perhaps it’s the result of EC regulations about the pasteurisation of flour: perhaps it’s just dying traditions, changing tastes, globalization. Who knows? It seems to be gone forever.
But now be careful. Although I’d say that 80% of bread bought at random from boulangeries in this area will fill your mouth with joy, some shops are bound to disappoint. Nothing is inedible. Nothing is even unsatisfying as such. It’s just that some of the bread seems a little pedestrian. I’m thinking of one shop (again, I won’t name it) somewhere on our route to and from Cannes. This is a grand shop with a huge frontage and car-park. It looks like a bakery with history and clout. Their cakes and sandwiches are some of the most expensive in the region. They offer the usual dozen or so types of bread (these are not all the same bread).
However, their baguettes (ancienne ou non) are thoroughly boring. Nothing bad. You couldn’t take them back and complain. They are just boring. It happens. Don’t be disappointed. Try a selection of bakers. You may find your Angelus.
Moules et frites
I have not much to say. Moules et frites. Mussels and chips. Wonderful and so usual that you can have a banquet for €8 in Antibes or Nice. In Cannes you might have to pay 10. It’s a posh place.
Le menu à…
It still amazes me that you can sit down in a splendid little restaurant, be served by lovely, warm, friendly people, food cooked with love by enthusiasts and on the menu will be listed a three course delirium entitled ‘le menu à €20′. ‘Twas ever thus and will ever be so. Lovely France.
Wine is still very heavily marked up in all restaurants, something I have never been as happy about. We always ask for a carafe d’eau. It doesn’t cause offence.