‘Coco will be taking you to lunch today’ Serge imparts this bit of information just as I pop the last bit of my midmorning coffee and croissant into my mouth, the French lunch starts at 12 or 12H30 . After three months in a country where I don’t understand the language I have become fairly accustomed to the lack of control over my destiny, but any prudent person knows that a French Sunday lunch requires at least a three day fast in order to be able to do justice to it. ‘Sorry, I forgot’ mumbles Serge, ‘but hey’, he brightens ‘you have half an hour to get ready before Coco arrives to pick you up’. I stare in disbelief , the French dress for lunch and I have spent the morning gardening. Judging by my ravaged hands I calculate that getting ready in half an hour will be nothing short of miraculous.
One miracle later and I am ready just as Coco arrives , looking very dashing. We are to eat at the table of Francois. In a small town in the north east of France, Francois lives in a house of heirlooms which his friends call the museum. The museum however plays a useful role in ensuring that each course at his vast and well stocked table is served in just the right vessel. The guests all arrive punctually and I am introduced with many enchantes and much kissing of cheeks. Learning a new culture is interesting from all sorts of angles. The kissing of the cheek is a custom that needs to be observed just so. At occasions where friends gather even strangers such as myself are greeted with kisses on the cheek. I have yet to work out exactly how many kisses, some people do two some three and some insist on four so you end up feeling like a penguin in mating season. Children will charmingly present their cheeks to be kissed and all this goes on both at the beginning and at the end of the visit. Maybe this is why the French are so ‘French’ all the kissing constantly reinforces their bond.
So finally with the kissing out of the way lunch is launched- there is no other way to describe the mountain of food we all know François will serve – with champagne and being France it is only natural that you are drinking the good stuff. Then with a great outpouring of French this group of friends catches up on the gossip. While my French has improved vastly over the last few months I still manage to think we are talking about China while in fact the conversation is about dogs so I silently sip my champagne ,polite smile firmly in place. A pate foie gras arrives; I am not sure about the whole goose stuffing thing, but the French are quite convinced that a goose was invented for no other purpose. I take my first bite of this French delicacy and decide that it is like eating a meat ice cream. The intense flavour combined with the rich creamy texture are overwhelming, fortunately a lively Rosé from Serge’s old wine estate is at hand to wash it down and a quick bite of bread cleans the palette. As far as I am concerned the poor goose suffered in vain.
Bread plays a big role in the French meal; it would be unthinkable to have a meal with out bread involved somewhere. For casual meals the whole baguette – always baguette- is placed on the table but for formal occasions it comes ready sliced in a ‘twee’ little basket. The bread is passed around and not too take a piece attracts attention; nobody says anything but you can see the thought bubbles – no bread hmmm- once you have your piece of bread take note that in France the bread is placed smack on the table not on the plate. This titbit of cultural information I got from a very chic Parisian so it seems it is not the habit of peasants but good French table manners. As the bread is never cut but ripped – with your fingertips not your teeth – into edible pieces a great production of crumbs ensues. There never seems to be any butter to accompany the bread ; a great pity I think. As the French meal consists of many courses, several served on the same plate, I soon learn to follow the example of my fellow guests and dutifully use the bread as a plate-swab to mop up the last bits of sauce from my plate leaving it well prepared for the next course.
My neighbour at lunch is the irascible Brigitte who; with the arrival at the table of a huge dandelion, bacon and poached egg salad – a dish that is only eaten in the first few weeks of Spring – tells me that the foxes in the region carry a decease that is transferred to humans via the dandelion and once lodged in the kidney the decease is incurable and deadly. I stare at her and then at the pile of potentially lethal salad leaves in front of me. This is a bit of dilemma, do I risk death rather than be impolite? But Coco comes to my rescue, the wild salad is not so very wild any more and the dandelion leaves I have on my plate were grown in a hothouse. Brigitte collapses with mirth. The salad is delicious; the slightly bitter leaves tossed in light vinaigrette are offset by the smoky bacon and the flavours blended by the creamy egg. This goes down very nicely with a very fine Pinot Gris
I discover Brigitte works for NATO in Luxemburg which the French have only very recently joined thereby becoming full members of world community. The French remaining outside of NATO is a De Gaulle leftover as – according to an English wag- they were able to forgive the Germans the invasion of France but until today were unable to forgive Britain and Americans for their liberation. Suddenly the historical French animosity to the Americans and the French disdain for the English language makes a little more sense. I insert this bit of information into the conversation but quickly realise that I am on very shaky ground as the whole table irrupts with denials of any help from the allied forces for the liberation of Paris. Whoops, sometimes learning a new culture can be a dangerous thing.
But I am seen as a friendly foreigner and am soon forgiven for my indiscretion. Brigitte speaks English very well and takes me under her wing, giving me guidelines to the general direction the discussions around the table have taken. For this I am grateful as I have discovered that when learning new language it is the sudden shifts of topic that leave one floundering in the dandelion salad while the conversation has moved to the Middle East. The Middle East is big news in Europe the discussion inevitably turns to the ‘Muslim problem’ it is the big bugbear, the great scapegoat, the harbinger of sin and evil and so the conversation goes. My thoughts wander off as the discussion rages around me.
We always seem to need someone else to blame. I wonder at how Israel gets away with what are simply acts of terrorism against the innocents of Gaza. To be a Muslim is no more a crime than it is a crime to be a Jew, a Christian or a Buddhist. Yet with the blessing of the media that panders to the West the Israelis have built a wall around the Gaza strip effectively creating a slave camp from which they draw labour as and when it suits them. That the people of the Gaza strip fight back, dig tunnels to escape or to bring food and supplies in, is hardly surprising. The world turns a blind eye as those who where once persecuted are now the tyrants. And so the wheel turns and we are all the same, hanging onto past slights against ourselves to justify our current atrocities against others…
The arrival of a giant silver tureen , with flaming burners keeping the mysterious contents bubbling hot, brings my attention back to the table. With a flourish François whips off the lid and releases the aromas of Sauerkraut und Schweinefleisch We are eating German today. With the borders of Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and France all within a few kilometres of Longwy the culinary spill-over is not really surprising. The carving begins. Eisbein both cured and natural, a side of smoky bacon, chorizo sausages and for good measure bratwurst as well. I watch in bemusement as the pile of meat on my plate grows. I am surely not meant to eat all this and I have yet to receive my portion of sauerkraut and potatoes. Fortunately ,as my contribution to the conversation is none existent, I am largely ignored which allows for plenty of opportunity to sneak back the bulk of meat into the tureen and with a manageable portion on my plate I settle into silence along with the other guests to enjoy good Germany country cooking in France.
Over glasses of red wine the conversation starts up again, this time about the coming summer – halleluiah- and the firing up of the summer vehicles. Already the roads are sporting more and more convertibles that are only ever driven with their tops down. Soon it will be motorbike season. Something that Jean-Paul on my left is looking forward to. He owns a road bike fitted with all the conveniences which he takes for road trips along the highways to the South. Biking in Europe is a very staid affair the bikes are fitted with GPS, stereo, aircon, comfortable seats, two-way radios in the helmets and judging by the motorcyclists – ‘bikers’ seems too crude a word- on European highways , riding without the full leather regalia is simply not done. A far cry from the early morning breakfast-runs I remember from my youth where the only nod to the dangers of biking was a helmet and perhaps a pair of leather gloves. While the conversation revolves around the sun of the south the plates are cleared to make way for the cheese course. Is the need for a three day fast prior to a French lunch clear yet?
Cheese is as indispensable to the French meal as bread. Today it is served on a giant platter in varying shades of white, yellow and blue. This is an olfactory assault as the closest the French come to a mild cheese is a young camembert. As the newest member of the group I am encouraged to help myself. I proceed with caution taking only the tiniest of morsels much to the derision of the whole table; but truly I am so full that I will surely pop with another bite. To help my digestion I have another sip of red wine and manfully taste the cheese on offer. Too much pungency for my taste the blue is good; sharp and creamy, but now really I am all in. Not so fast says my good host François ,there is still coffee and a homemade apple tart with caramel topping. Eeuurgh.
A French lunch is not for amateurs.