The Inner Frenchman
The early part of my life was spent in the gastronomic wilderness of postwar England, when delicacies of the table were in extremely short supply. I suppose I must have possessed taste buds in my youth, but they were left undisturbed. Food was fuel, and in many cases not very appetizing fuel. I still have vivid memories of boarding school cuisine, which seemed to have been carefully color-coordinated--gray meat, gray potatoes, gray vegetables, gray flavor. At the time, I thought it was perfectly normal.
I was in for a pleasant shock. Not long after I became the lowliest trainee in an enormous multinational corporation, I was instructed to accompany my first boss, Mr. Jenkins, on a trip to Paris as his junior appendage. This was the way, so I was told, to start learning the ropes of big business. I should count myself lucky to have such an opportunity at the tender age of nineteen.
Jenkins was English and proud of it, English to the point of caricature, a role I think he took some pleasure in cultivating. When going abroad, he announced his nationality and armed himself against the elements with a bowler hat and a strictly furled umbrella. On this occasion, I was his personal bearer, and I had been given the important task of carrying his briefcase.
Before we left for the great unknown on the other side of the English Channel, Jenkins had been kind enough to give me some tips on dealing with the natives. One piece of advice was a model of clarity: I should never attempt to get involved with what he referred to as "their lingo." Speak English forcefully enough, he said, and they will eventually understand you. When in doubt, shout. It was a simple formula that Jenkins claimed had worked in outposts of the British Empire for hundreds of years, and he saw no reason for changing it now.
Like many of his generation, he had very little good to say about the French--an odd lot who couldn't even understand cricket. But he did admit that they knew their way around a kitchen, and one day he was graciously pleased to accept an invitation from two of his Parisian colleagues to have lunch; or, as Jenkins said, a spot of grub. It was the first memorable meal of my life.
We were taken to a suitably English address, the avenue Georges V, where there was (and still is) a restaurant called Marius and Janette. Even before sitting down, I could tell I was in a serious establishment, unlike anywhere I'd been before. It smelled different: exotic and tantalizing. There was the scent of the sea as we passed the display of oysters on their bed of crushed ice, the rich whiff of butter warming in a pan, and, coming through the air every time the kitchen door swung open, the pervasive--and to my untraveled nose, infinitely foreign--hum of garlic.
Jenkins surrendered his hat and umbrella as we sat down, and I looked with bewilderment at the crystal forest of glasses and the armory of knives and forks laid out in front of me. The trick was to start on the outside and work inward, I was told. But the correct choice of cutlery was a minor problem compared to making sense of the elaborate mysteries described on the pages of the menu. What was a bar grillé? What was a loup à l'écaille? And what in heaven's name was aioli? All I had to help me was schoolboy French, and I hadn't been a particularly gifted schoolboy. I dithered over these puzzling choices in a fog of almost complete ignorance, too timid to ask for help.
Jenkins, quite unconsciously, came to my rescue. "Personally," he said, "I never eat anything I can't pronounce." He closed his menu with a decisive snap. "Fish and chips for me. They do a very decent fish and chips in France. Not quite like ours, of course."
With a sense of relief, I said I'd have the same. Our two French colleagues raised four surprised eyebrows. No oysters to start with? No soupe de poissons? The company was paying; there was no need to hold back. But Jenkins was adamant. He couldn't abide the texture of oysters--"slippery little blighters" was how he described them--and he didn't care for the way soup had a tendency to cling to his mustache. Fish and chips would suit him very nicely, thank you.
By this time, I was already enjoying a minor revelation, which was the bread. It was light and crusty and slightly chewy, and I spread on to it some of the pale, almost white butter from the slab on a saucer in front of me. A slab. English butter in those days was highly salted and a lurid shade of yellow, and it was doled out in small, grudging pats. At the first mouthful of French bread and French butter, my taste buds, dormant until then, went into spasm.
The fish, a majestic creature that I think was sea bass, was ceremoniously presented, filleted in seconds with a spoon and fork, and arranged with great care on my plate. My previous experience of fish had been limited to either cod or plaice, heavily disguised, in accordance with the English preference, under a thick shroud of batter. In contrast, the sea bass, white and fragrant with what I now know was fennel, looked curiously naked. It was all very strange.
Even the chips, the pommes frites, didn't resemble the sturdy English variety. These chips, a golden pyramid of them served on a separate dish, were pencil-slim, crisp between the teeth, tender to chew, a perfect foil for the delicate flesh of the fish. It was lucky for me that I wasn't required to contribute to the conversation of my elders and betters; I was too busy discovering real food.
Then there was cheese. Or rather, there were a dozen or more cheeses, another source of confusion after years of having only the simple choice of Cheddar or Gorgonzola. I thought I recognized a vaguely familiar shape, safe and Cheddar-like, and pointed to it. The waiter insisted on giving me two other cheeses as well, so that I could compare the textural delights of hard, medium, and creamy. More of that bread. More signals of joy from the taste buds, which were making up for lost time.
Tarte aux pommes. Even I knew what that was; even Jenkins knew. "Excellent," he said. "Apple pie. I wonder if they have any proper cream." Unlike the apple pies of my youth, with a thick crust top and bottom, the tart on my plate was topless, displaying the fruit--wafers of apple, beautifully arranged in overlapping layers, glistening with glaze on a sliver of buttery pastry.
Too young to be offered an expense-account cigar and a balloon of brandy, I sat in a daze of repletion while my companions puffed away and considered a return to the cares of office. I was slightly tipsy after my two permitted glasses of wine, and I completely forgot that I was responsible for the all-important Jenkins briefcase. When we left the restaurant I left it under the table, which demonstrated to him that I was not executive material, and which marked the beginning of the end of my career in that particular company. But, much more important, lunch had been a personal turning point, the loss of my gastronomic virginity.
It wasn't only because of what I had eaten, although that had been incomparably better than anything I'd eaten before. It was the total experience: the elegance of the table setting, the ritual of opening and tasting the wine, the unobtrusive efficiency of the waiters and their attention to detail, arranging the plates just so, whisking up bread crumbs from the tablecloth. For me, it had been a special occasion. I couldn't imagine people eating like this every day; and yet, in France, they did. It was the start of an enduring fascination with the French and their love affair with food.
It is, of course, the most whiskery old cliché, but clichés usually have their basis in fact, and this one certainly does: Historically, the French have paid extraordinary--some would say excessive--attention to what they eat and how they eat it. And they put their money where their mouth is, spending a greater proportion of their income on food and drink than any other nation in the world. This is true not only of the affluent bourgeois gourmet; where food is concerned, interest, enjoyment, and knowledge extend throughout all levels of society, from the president to the peasant.
Nature must take some of the credit for this. If you were to make a list of the ideal conditions for agriculture, livestock and game, seafood and wine, you would find that most of them exist in one part or another of France. Fertile soil, varied climate, the fishing grounds of the Channel, the Atlantic, and the Mediterranean--every natural advantage is here except for a tropical region. (Although, such is the luck of the French, they have Guadeloupe and Martinique to provide them with rum and coconuts.) Living in the middle of such abundance, it's not surprising that the Frenchman makes the most of it.
The other major national gastronomic asset is an army of outstanding chefs, and for this the French have to give some credit to one of the more grisly periods in their history. Before their Revolution, the best cooking was not available to the general public. The most talented chefs sweated over their hot stoves in private for their aristocratic masters, creating multicourse banquets in the kitchens of mansions and palaces. And then, in 1789, the guillotine struck. The aristocracy more or less disappeared, and so did their private kitchens. Faced with the prospect of having nobody to cook for and nowhere to cook, many of the unemployed chefs did the intelligent and democratic thing: They opened restaurants and began to cook for their fellow citizens. The common man could now enjoy the food of kings, prepared by the finest chefs in France. Liberté, égalité, gastronomie.
More than two hundred years later, the common man still does pretty well, despite what pessimists will tell you about times changing for the worse. It's true that traditions are under attack from several directions. For a start, more than 50 percent of all food bought in France is now provided b...