Episode 4: The French Food Market and Food ‘tout court !’ – just simply!

Cheese and wine are reason enough to visit France; oh, and a good-tasting baguette or pain de compagne – country loaf. French stalls are so carefully laid out; they take such care with their produce. They recognise the importance of their cultural heritage – leur patrimoine culturel – and food is an integral part of that culture. They are aware of the value of what is old; they take pride in repairing and refurbishing anything from a falling-down wall or a crumbling village fountain where, once upon a time, the local women used it to wash their laundry. It’s about meaning and memories; all this material culture shapes who they are.

Haricots verts of natural and varied sizes; not those uniformly-cut! Even aesthetics has crept into our food. Here, peas-in-the-pod, mmm, the idea of shelling them and creating delightful combinations for this evening’s meal… umm with what? Let’s ramble some more…

I’m after getting side-tracked! A boulangerie – bakery – you will find all sorts of bread. Scrumptious smells wafting from the kitchen – behind the scenes. Les brioches, my favourite – full of salted butter – mouth-watering! You have, no doubt, happened upon the many chocolatiers – craft chocolate makers – or discovered one or two pâtisseries – French pastry shops – on your travels to Paris. I am always enthralled; my eyes are entranced by exquisite gâteaux of all shapes and sizes, mouth-watering, these pastries look as good as they taste!

As I step back in time to when, as a jeune fille au pair, I first set eyes on the mosaic of pastries I was mesmerised, wow, such choice, perhaps too much! Non, there is never too much! I appreciate good, bitter chocolate, and strong, but not-bitter, coffee, and so my choice of gâteau was, for quite some time, an opéra – mmm – just to think about it I can taste the delightful marriage of chocolate and coffee; all those layers… the onctueux – smooth chocolate, the rich coffee, what a mélange – a match made in heaven. So back to recalling this first time… the young shop assistant asking me to repeat, opéra, no less than three times! Of course I was not accentuating the ‘é’ of opéra, and she failed to understand my accent. It’s like the ‘fada’ in Irish; it indicates that the vowel is to be pronounced ‘long’. So in the end I just pointed to it – ce gâteau là ! – getting rather impatient, I suppose that is why I wanted to speak French without my Irish accent! Don’t worry I wasn’t traumatised or anything!

Every time my husband and I take a trip to Paris – or to France in general – the predominant theme that informs our vacances is food. We are constantly in pursuit of that original pâtisserie, bread, café, restaurant that heightens our senses.

Laurent Duchène, 238 Rue de la Convention, Paris XV, is a pâtissier with the edge. His work is colouful, creative, and bien entendu, tasty. The Club pistache griotte is a favourite of ours; L’exodus is a personal choice, go try it out, it’s worth the detour. And there’s so much more; the colourful shop front will entice you. We never leave Paris without having our box of macarons – not to be confused with macaroons. Made with almond flour (ground almond), Pierre Hermé, 72, rue Bonaparte, Paris VI is a renowned name in this speciality. But don’t forget to support small, local food businesses that produce their bread and pastry from scratch in the early hours of the morning, they are just as inviting so check them out. À suivre

Les Estivales

What I appreciate about France is the mosaic of associations; the French tend to be creative when it comes to the ‘collective’. From summer estvales to Christmas markets, France has a lot to offer… Here I would like to tell you about one place in particular – Le Guilvinec – in south Finistère, Brittany.

Les Estivales – summer festivities take place every year. They are a creative expression of the local people and place. Every Friday evening, during the month of August, different associations organise their own event around food and music. One particular Friday night I helped out the Twinning committee. People queue to choose and pay for their ‘menu’; in receipt of a ticket they then head to another queue for the ‘grub’.

Large wooden benches and tables are lined up in the car park near the pier. As locals and visitors alike settle themselves they begin their tasty meal, usually seafood chowder, mussels and French fries, followed by the incontournable – not-to-be-missed – Far Breton, a traditional Breton flan habitually made with prunes. Conversations between old friends and new acquaintances start in earnest; some of whom exchange mobile numbers et voilà, new friendships blossom.

There is a great crowd. I listen to the buzzing sound generated by the multitude of conversations floating through the atmosphere. The music commences; a mix of Breton traditional and contemporary. It really gets the crowd going. Young and not-so-young gather on the ‘dance floor’ – the car park tarmac but it does the job! Fingers are linked, arms are raised and feet begin to move to the beat, a Breton beat. The novices are guided by the experienced. While I enjoy dancing I just want to watch and soak it up. It’s enchanting; I’m mesmerised.

June had been extremely hot; July and August were cooler, with a misty day here and there, thrown in for good measure! As the evening draws to a close, the crowd disperses. Tables and benches are folded and stacked and put away until the next time. My host and I arrive home after midnight. Both body and mind are ready for a good night’s sleep. We bid one another ‘goodnight’; and I awaken the following morning to the sound of the Church bells chiming, it’s 8 o’clock!

Le Guilvinec has a lot to offer in terms of quaint seafood restaurants, a delightful beach and coastal promenade, and a maritime visitor centre called ‘Haliotika’. This visitor centre is worth the trip; plenty of things to see and do – go check out the website: https://www.haliotika.com/

Roman Holiday

Rome, what a refreshing city; the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain… there is so much to see and experience… If these ancient structures could talk, I think they would have a lot of secrets.

Finding myself at the Colosseum I couldn’t help but think about Gladiator (2000) and they thought the Celts were barbaric! But I suppose it was all in a day’s work; it was the context in which life evolved. The sheer volume of this edifice; I am in awe, I hear the cries, the shouts, the roaring crowd that fills the amphitheatre… I try to imagine what life was like but it’s rather difficult. Emerging from my dream-like state, the hustle-and-bustle of modernity bring me back to my reality… a plethora of tourists speaking multitude of languages.

If Walls Could Talk!

Next the Pantheon; a former Roman temple and is now a church. What architectural prowess, marble floor with geometric patterns, what majestic craftsmanship. The nine metre diameter hole, called the Oculus is fascinating. The floor is slightly convex so when it rains the water flows away. I respect the fact that even ruins are so important to the local people, they carry significance in their own right.

I like Rome. It’s a compact city. It has kept its architectural heritage; there are no unwanted ugliness creeping its way into Roman architecture. I breathe a sigh of relief at the lack of standardisation, in other words, globalisation is on their terms…

I appreciate the exuberance of the Italians. The notion of far niente is compelling; the sweet idleness, delightfully slow-paced way of life. It reminds me of parts of France where life has a rhythm of its own. I feel lifted by the musicality of their language, but also, I think that the musicality comes from their personality and body language. They drive around the streets like mad yet they appear to soak-up life’s pleasures. The streets are so narrow that almost every car has its ‘signature dent’; they remind me of little laneways in an alpine village.

Rome often reminds me of the film The Scarlet and the Black (1983). It’s based on the true story of an Irish priest, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, who saved thousands of Jews and Allied soldiers during World War II.

Back to the present…food is simply delicious here. One thing I remarked was the importance of fresh vegetables. Italy is a great place to eat for a vegetarian. There is great taste in their vegetable dishes, a real delight. Of course, not forgetting pizzas and pasta! My choice is the indispensible Margherita, always authentic. My husband finds the pasta Carbonara irresistible; made with pancetta or pork jowl – guanciale – the name is derived from guancia, the Italian word for cheek – a sweet and moist piece of pork.

I want to return to Rome and explore other parts of Italy; Venice, Florence – indulge my senses in art history – Naples, Sicily… My parents and brother’s family toured Italy last year; gosh looking at the myriad of photos they took was enough to persuade me to take another trip there. My sister has already toured many parts of Italy some years ago but she is ready for another trip! Perhaps we’ll explore together…

An Encounter with Brittany

There are many things that remind me of France – of course la Tour Eiffel, le Champs de Mars, le Champs Elysees – for me it is without doubt the food. It’s always a culinary experience to eat in France. I suppose my first ‘taste’ of France was around the breakfast table of our host family in Morbihan, Brittany. Baskets overflowing with croissants, pain au chocolat – literally translates as ‘chocolate bread’ – and the incontournable – indispensible – baguette! Bien entendu – of course – no French table is without its beurre salé – salted butter – un délice – a delight – my mouth is watering!

In today’s post I’m going to be more specific; I want to tell you about the myriad of specialities that you can experience in Brittany. I suppose you have all heard of the infamous crêpe –pancake – but much thinner (I’m actually making crêpes for lunch mmm!). In Brittany one makes the distinction between crêpes, used for sweet fillings, and galettes, used for savoury ones. Crêpes, just like our pancakes are made with plain, white flour. However, galettes are made with blé noir (or sarrasin), buckwheat in English. Galettes are like dentelle – lace – they are so thin and slightly crispy.

Galettes and crêpes are a meal in themselves. The ritual is to have a ‘taste’ by having a galette au beurre – butter – this is the ‘opening scene’ to what is to come. It is important to get the earthy taste of the sarrasin; this awakens the taste buds. Afterwards, there is usually the choice of combinations, à composer soi-même, with cheese, ham, mushrooms, egg, saumon fumé – smoked salmon and so forth. A popular choice is la complète, consisting of ham, cheese, usually gruyère or emmental, and an œuf miroir – egg sunny-side up cooked on the galette and not separately. For dessert, it’s over to the crêpes! Again, some have the ritual of having a plain one or with a little sugar; sets the taste buds in motion. Then you can be more adventurous by tasting caramel au beurre salé – salted butter caramel. And the Bretons know how to make their caramel au beurre salé! Of course, there are the usual suspects with chocolate, sometimes with Chantilly (sweetened whipped cream) or orange segments. Our family favourite is a crêpe flambé au Grand Marnier. This orange-flavoured liqueur was created in 1880 by Louis-Alexandre Marnier-Lapostolle. Its best-known product is Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge; a delicate blend of fine cognacs and distilled essence of tropical oranges. Slow ageing in French oak casks gives it incomparable roundness and finesse. Accompanied with a bolée of cider, brut or sweet, the list of galettes and crêpes combinations is endless, well almost! I tend to remain a traditionalist!

The blé noir or sarrasin dates back to the twelfth century when the Crusades brought the plant to Europe. It is quickly acknowledged that this type of wheat, which isn’t wheat but a seed, is not easily cultivated. It wasn’t until it was planted in Brittany, where the soil is favourable and the climate id humid and mild, that the crop yielded results.  Voilà, un peu d’histoire – a little bit of history!

The Bretons usually make their biscuits and pastries with salted butter. One such pastry is thekouign amann – gâteau au beurre – butter cake – which is made from a rather unusual bread dough recipe and large quantities of butter and sugar. History tells us that the kouign amann was made for the first time in 1860 by the baker Yves-René Scordia. That particular year there was a shortage of flour but an abundance of butter and while his bread dough was a complete failure, he baked it all the same to satisfy his customers. This crispy cake with such a delicious taste of butter and caramel turned out to be a huge success. I must admit that it is rather heavy and very buttery but on a damp afternoon with a strong coffee it’s scrumptious; a great way of immersing myself into Breton daily life.

Food reflects our identity; it shapes who we are and is an important part of our everyday lives. When you consider the story of the kouign amann with its taste of salted butter, or the blé noir that is inherently linked to a damp and mild climate so typical of Brittany, you can begin to understand the distinctiveness of this authentic region and its people. I think that’s why I feel so at home there; the people have similar character traits and its climate is very much like that of Ireland’s. Both places are worth the visit.

Food for Thought: Food as an Important Part of Our Cultural Identity

There are many ‘things’ that connect people to their sense of identity. Personally, I think food establishes a strong link to identity as it is part of one’s culture. If you ask any French or Italian person they will wholeheartedly agree. Food is where memories are made; smells floating in the air, sizzling and chopping sounds, touch of different produce, sight of a delightful plate, and finally the taste… need I say more! Well, as a matter of fact I will…  

When I travel it is not just about escaping the often damp and wet Irish weather, but rather exploring new places and the people that bring meaning to these very places. For me food is an integral part of the voyage. I am passionate about food as it is part of our identity. I appreciate the awakening of my taste buds with new flavours and sharing such sensorial experiences with others, especially my husband who is also passionate about food.

So next time you decide to indulge in a trip to Paris, endeavour to sip your espresso at a ‘real’ Parisian cafe rather than at one of the globally standardised coffee shops! In Italy, bite into an authentic pizza – Margherita is basic but best! – the typical Neapolitan pizza. If you enjoy a great feed of fresh fish especially cod then off to Portugal where they prepare cod in a thousand ways.

Embrace the local culinary identity. Travelling is an adventure that should encompass the taste buds so bring the experience into your plate.

But let’s not forget we have great quality produce in Ireland and especially here in Cork! Both city and county have interesting food markets where local excellence is a trade mark. Yet, despite these resources, Ireland is not recognised for its culinary identity; and consequently, we, Irish, tend to belittle the food distinctiveness of our country. However have you ever asked yourself why we export so much of our produce; why so many foreigners appreciate our Milleens Cheese, produced in Eyeries, West Cork, or Union Hall Smoked Fish, or Clonakilty Black pudding, or our dairy products such as our best butter produced from grass-fed cows… the list is endless. I’m not talking about intensive farming; I’m encouraging you to think about local food at its best. We are fortunate enough to have a rich natural food resource on our doorstep, that is, seafood. Seafood was appreciated by our ancestors, by coastal and inland dwellers alike and would have been a regular part of their diet.  So next time someone makes a comment about our lack of culinary identity, think about our salted ling traditionally eaten on Christmas Eve or our infamous Bacon & Cabbage, and all the new ways in which we can use our local quality produce to embrace traditional food with a contemporary twist. Our senses of identity are created and shaped through our engagement in practices that connect us to particular places. So what are ye waiting for? Go shopping, get your pots and pans out and start experimenting…

I’ve attached a link to an article in the Irish Times; enjoy the read: https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/food-and-drink/bastille-day-the-french-mostly-know-nothing-about-irish-food-and-cooking-1.3946642