But first, visualize the French asking the same question of me: “What are ze Americans really like?” Uh………which Americans? Native Americans? African Americans? Italian Americans? Poor Americans? Middle-class Americans? Rich Americans? You’re getting my drift, are you not, dear reader?
Gross generalizations produce gross mis-information and cultural clichés i.e. the rude French, the loud Americans, the stingy Scots.
That said, given that France is roughly fifty times smaller than the excited States; there are some common cultural traditions/attitudes throughout the land of wine, perfume and fashion. Like most of us, the French don’t like to be cold.
So, when vines become grape less skeletons, terrace lunches are only for polar bear club members, and it’s dark by four thirty; those that can afford it head to the sun. Typically, Morroco, Tunisia, or the French isles of Gaudeloupe and Reunion.
The ones who can’t, the ones in those hilltop villages with no multiplex or 24/7 supermarket eat, drink and tell stories. Used to be, in simpler times, they did that in the excited States. The travelling storyteller was a respected and welcome guest. An “Oral Historian” who kept traditions, heritage, and regional humour, alive and vibrant.
They still got ‘em here folks. Here’s how it works: The regional cultural council sets up a series of Contes, or story evenings in villages throughout the area.
As my more sophisticated and erudite readers know the French are not renowned for vegetarianism. Alors, Quelle surprise round two of “stories-be-us”, is accompanied by a plate of cold cuts (“charcuterie”) along with wine number one.
When this action winds down, it’s time to circulate, commiserate and appreciate an exhibition of local art. The main course, usually chicken or lamb, arrives chaperoned by wine number two. Accompanied by, you guessed it, more stories.
Naturally, by this time, after one or more aperitifs, at least two glasses of wine and the grub, the assembled multitude are feeling no pain.
And he is now definitely on a roll. And tho’ his humour is past borderline risqué, his double-entendres, register only on the adults. Then, just when you think these folks couldn’t possibly be any happier, guess what? You’re right. Wine number three.
At this point, the locals are seriously interacting with the man-o-many-words. Exuberantly investing themselves in the narrative and the spirit of the evening. Something that’s difficult to do with the slasher movie from videos-r-us.
Aware of the French passion for chocolate, cream, and all things diet-busting; I know your taste buds are spewing rivers of saliva as you imagine what’s for dessert? Well it’s not Black Forest gateau, soaked in Kirsch and studded with cherries, tonight’s piece de la resistance, although a French dessert classic contains no chocolate, no cream or candied fruit.
It’s a seasonal favourite, served in a cone of warm newspaper. Does the phrase, chestnuts roasting on an open fire ring any bells?
Next to wine and cheese, meat is the staple of the French diet and most of it comes from the pig found in mind-numbing variations on virtually every French table.
In earlier days, I passed a summer, singing/playing at a hotel on a Greek isle; where the Chef had managed to include veal in the menu thirteen consecutive nights.
Thus, I was obliged to endure the rapier-sharp wit of the (mostly English) guests, who with sly smiles, borne of self-appreciation asked: “What do you know, veal meat again.”
Like that resourceful Greek chef, the French have invented many unique methods of pig presentation. First up saucisson, which as you have no doubt divined, dear reader, is a form of sausage. But not the usual, soft, pliable sausage you may be familiar with.
Instead, imagine a tube of fibreglass, filled with leather, seasoned with spices, which requires a chainsaw to cut. This is saucisson.
Some eat the entire slice. Others cut off the rind. Regardless of how you chow down on it, you will not be able to avoid it. It’s the number one aperitif munchie.
A close number two is ham, or jambon. The crème de la ceme being jambon cru. This is raw, uncooked pieces o’ pork. Rarely refrigerated. Usually wrapped in a burlapish sack and hung in a cool place between slicing. Although its texture varies, jambon cru is generally more pliable than saucisson, but not a lot more.
It is, bien sur, a gross social faux pas for any non-Frenchie to refuse to a) taste, b) be enraptured by or c) rave about jambon cru and saucisson.
But now, it’s time to take the gloves off. The next variation on the theme of (chuckle, chuckle) ‘pig meat again’, is boudin. This is a sausage as you know it, dear reader, soft, pliable, easy to fry or bar-b-que, boudin is a mixture of pig’s blood and meat. (Hey, I told you I was takin’ the gloves off!)
But however boudin hits your taste buds, it’s small potatoes on the “offensive-to-non-Frenchies” culinary scale, compared to andouillette.
This delicacy, originally concocted in Normandy, is a sausage casing stuffed with pig intestines. Imagine a chunk of soft, creamy cheese, stuffed into a sock, and buried under your dog’s blanket for a year. Then, sealed in an air tight container in the sun, for two years.
Suffice to say, until the aroma of andouillette assaults and blasts your smell receptors off the Richter scale, you have not yet even begun to bring up your cookies!
But, surprise, surprise, every time I give the French a definite, firm, not-gonna-budge ‘no’ to their tripe in a tube, they always say: “tu deja pas gouter le vrai!” (you didn’t taste the real deal before).
Hey, Pierre, the stench alone is enough to get me dialling 911.
US-born video film maker Christopher Strong produced the Bicycle Gourmet's Treasures of France tour, which fulfilled his dream of cycling around the country visiting interesting places and meeting entertaining characters.