I gave up long ago trying to penetrate to the heart of the French breakfast. At one time it seemed to me that if you crossed the Rubicon, burned your boats and came to live in France full-time, then you might as well go the whole hog with the French experience. Total immersion in French life would of course include breakfast.
It came as a bitter disappointment to discover that while the French have developed midday and evening meals into an art-form rarely exceeded anywhere else in the world, their breakfasts do them no credit. In any league table of national excellence in breakfasting, they flounder at the bottom. Few French drool at the prospect of breakfast. French breakfasts are the least interesting and inspiring in the world. They are demonic in their dullness.
How do I know? I don't really. Breakfast is such a private meal. To get to grips with what the French eat for breakfast you would have to be a fly on the wall in so many French homes. My information comes from what people tell me and from what you see in supermarket trolleys, always a sure guide to popular eating habits. I took a short anecdotal survey among acquaintances once, several years ago, which confirmed my worst fears:
Joseph Brolly, retired smallholder: Un bol (a bowl large enough to take three good cupfuls) of hot chocolate, with the previous days' bread, slightly stake but not rock-hard, dunked into it.
Lionel Azéma, former bank clerk: Un bol of chocolate, like Joseph, but with un toast (pre-toasted bread, like a baby's rusk) dunked into it.
Jean-Michel Roumegous, architect: A café militaire (strong black coffee with a shot of brandy in it) and the other half of the cigar he'd started in bed the night before.
Eric Benoist, insurance broker and committed anglophile: Un bol of unmilked tea, with bread spread with orange jam dunked in it, followed by a fried egg. H'm.
César Desjoyeaux, estate agent: Un bol of coffee, with un pain au chocolat (something like a rectangular croissant with nuggets of dark chocolate inside) dunked in it.
(If you think you may have seen this before somewhere, I'm flattered. Thank you. I've reproduced it from my little book French Leaves: Letters from the Languedoc.
Two of these chaps are now at the Great Breakfast Bar in the Sky. And no, Jean-Michel Roumegous is not among them. The cigars and cafés militaires have kept him going. Or maybe it's his name, which translates as John-Michael Grumbler. Roumegous is a Languedoc name, deriving from the Occitan romegar, to cut brambles, and by extension to grumble, for one who cuts brambles for a living is one who has much to grumble about. It's well-known that grumblers live longer.)
So all this has gone to confirm that among the many excellent things French civilisation has offered to a willing world, breakfast isn't one of them. At least, judged by British standards. But are things changing?
I ask this in the light of an extraordinary experience a few weeks ago, when we were on our way to the UK. Our preferred route from where we live in the Deep South to Calais, the Channel Tunnel and Blighty takes us from here to Clermont Ferrand and then to Orléans, where, as at our advanced age we don't like to drive for longer than about 6 hours a day, we hole up for the night. The breakfast offered by our usual hotel is as paltry as it's expensive, so usually we do without hotel breakfast and stop at the first autoroute services we come to. A few kilometres north of Orléans there's a services called Orléans-Gidy (or Orléans-Saran if you're coming south). We pulled off the autoroute, parked, made our way across the bridge over the carriageway to the restaurant and there...
...dear reader, you will excuse me while I shift into lyrical gear for a moment, won't you? There rich scents played lightly on the early spring air, scents so good the senses trembled, urgent snifflets at the promise of delectable things propelled me unresisting forward, appetite honed and buffed to sharpness; happy expectation, shivering like a greyhound in the slips, a-smile at the prospect of an untold benison, hitherto denied to this humble expat: they were frying bacon and eggs.
And it wasn't for catering for coachloads of Brits in search of all-day breakfast. Of course, hunger makes the best sauce, but that bacon was primely cured and streaked, a triumph of the charcutier's art, and lay crisp, bronzed and curling on my plate, nestling up against sunny-side-up eggs that had clearly been laid by hens with nothing to romegar about. It was wonderful. And what's more, Josephine and I were the only Brits there, as far as we could make out, and the queue of French at the cooked breakfast counter stretched a long way back. Is it possible that some French, at least, are becoming convinced of the benefits of a traditional English breakfast?
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I wonder how long it will be before the UK becomes convinced of the benefits of a traditional French breakfast TV programme? While we were in the UK recently a fortnight's worth of BBC Breakfast left us saddened by its terminal, mind-numbing dullness, stodgy as porridge, a metaphor for the unadventurous, going-nowhere Britain we observe with some distress from across the Channel. The earnest but pedestrian Bill Turnbull, the frumpy and insipid Sian Williams, never mind the dire regional presenters . . . where was the sparkle, the edge, the champagne energy, the zest to send you off to work in a good mood?
At home here in France, barely a breakfast-time passes without Télématin. This is a breakfast news and magazine programme which has been running since 1985.
Its anchor man is William Leymergie, a broadcaster who started off in telesales, not something that interests me much but I suppose not a bad medium to cut your broadcasting teeth on. In addition to linking half-hourly news reports and weather forecasts, William has gathered a regular team of television journalists about him, all outgoing, spirited, energetic and well-prepared reporters that I find absolutely captivating: Fred Gersal the historian, Isabelle Martinet for consumer affairs, the deliciously-named Olivia de Laremberterie for books, Fred Zeitoun for music, the gorgeous Charlotte Bouteloup for film, Laurence Ostolaza for health and well-being, Philippe Collignon (nicknamed 'Chlorophil') for gardening, Laura Tenoudji who spends most of her Télématin time in front of her computer endlessly searching the internet for sites to complement whatever's being discussed . . . they even have a Télématin dog, a golden retriever that wanders about the studio. You could try matching the names to the photos, if you've nothing better to do.
I don't know where this takes us. Full marks for British breakfasts, zéro points for the French equivalent (except at Orléans-Gidy). Vingt sur vingt (i.e. 20 out of 20) for French breakfast television, bottom of the class for BBC Breakfast. In the best of both worlds William and his Télématin cohorts would accompany the full English: they're good eggs and they surely know how to bring home the bacon.