A week after I first arrived in France to live permanently, I was walking down the road in the little village that was to be our home in the Alsace, for four years. This village is called Leyman and it is on the Swiss border, which was very convenient as I was operating out of Basel Airport at that time.
A week after I first arrived in France to live permanently, I was walking down the road in the little village that was to be our home in the Alsace, for four years.
This village is called Leyman and it is on the Swiss border, which was very convenient as I was operating out of Basel Airport at that time. The village lies in a picturesque valley surrounded by Swiss mountains and undulating French forests and farming land.
It was ten minutes to noon.
A huge articulated truck hissed and squealed to a halt beside me. These large trucks are a hazard on the twisting scenic roads here.
The driver glared down from the cab, as the engine rumbled threateningly.
"Do you live here?" he demanded.
"Err, Yes!" I answered.
"What is that restaurant like?" he asked, pointing across the road at the 'Three Crowns'.
"I don't know… I have not eaten there."
He looked at me with incredulity, then disdain. "You DON'T live here!"
He engaged gears and, with a pneumatic hiss, growled his way to the next village.
There were two important lessons that I learned from this brief conversation with the truck driver.
The first was that in order to consider myself a member of this community, I had to familiarise myself with the local restaurants in a similar way that rural English people in their countryside know about their local pubs (or used to!).
The second was that there is a great sense of urgency that afflicts Frenchmen in the last few minutes before lunch.
This gastronomic ceremony takes place in France, starting at noon everyday. It lasts for at least two hours on a working day, but can go on for several hours during the weekend or on a festival day.
New settlers in France can find this delay in the working day very frustrating when they first arrive, but their integration into French Life is measured by the degree of their enthusiasm that this ritual is embraced with time.
Appreciation of food in France starts at a young age. Our children had already started their education in the French School System where school lunches are three course meals that teach them all about quality.
Jamie Oliver, the young TV chef, would not have had the same impact in the French School food programme as he did in the UK. Our children refuse to go to MacDonald's anymore, after only one visit.
The restaurants in France come in many levels and it is not difficult to find some that will happily divest you of several hundred euros for a slap up meal with top-notch wine that can only be afforded on an expense account. However, many families need to exercise caution with regard to price, and so the best way to do this is to look for restaurants run by a family.
Normally these establishments have a husband who is the chef, his wife does the 'waiting' and they may have a daughter or a helper for the peak periods. There are many of them scattered throughout France and there are lots of books and magazines that give grades, stars and assessments of their quality.
One of the pleasant pastimes during a summer visit to Central France is searching out these oases in a rural countryside with low traffic density. In summer, most of the 'urgent' people have 'gone south' leaving Burgundy for the more tranquil souls.
A favourite topic of conversation in France is the quality of restaurants. Recently I listened to two French friends of mine discuss a nearby establishment. They discussed it for an hour, and not once did they mention the price. A Frenchman may say that a restaurant is 'dear' or 'reasonable', but that is all. English visitors to France will often say "That was a good twelve euro meal, and with wine too!"
My friends' discussion ranged from the food to the attitude of the owners, the décor and the little 'tasters' that punctuate the courses, to 'set up' the palate for the next course.
With the pound fluctuating in relation to the euro, British visitors to France may be concerned about price of eating out. In the Bourgogne, we have found that it is easy to find a good three-course lunchtime meal for 9 to 12 euros, sometimes with a carafe of wine included. If you are staying in a Gîte, you then have the option to 'eat in' in the evenings.
A couple of our favourite lunch spots are in Villars Fontaine, near Nuits St Georges and another one near the Abby of Citeaux called 'Auberge de Citeaux', where they both cater with a tourist menu and where they have more sophisticated menus for special occasions.
However, after eating out in France for more than thirty five years with great enjoyment, recently I had the worst meal I have ever had here. This unworthy restaurant is situated on 'Canal du Centre' and we were guests aboard a luxury barge cruising near St Leger sur Dehune. It was the crew's night off, so we booked a table for the evening.
The meal consisted of burnt snails, road-kill meat and a forgettable dessert.
The twelve year-old wine was corked and the proprietor disappeared before I could register my discontent.
It is sad to relate that the owner is an English woman with whom the French authorities have carried out a "control" five times in the last three years. This is a procedure during which 'the book' is thrown at the unfortunate entrepreneur, in an effort to depress them into resignation. This is when the French exercise their love of bureaucracy.
It is a way of trying to put someone out of business, following complaints.
If a restaurant is no good, it has little hope of surviving because it will get no support during the off-season.
You need to be cautious of tourist traps that do not rely on the support of locals.
The locals (and the truck drivers) know.
As I could not register my complaints in person that day, I wrote a poem instead:
Is where, we're taught
The British beat the French
Is somewhat skewed
And helped to 'minds' entrench
That 'Brits' are best
At every test
And always win at wars
But think awhile
Perhaps this style
Of thought is wrong because
There are some things
The French man brings
That show he has advanced
To breed and raise
The cows that graze
Which have the 'steaks' enhanced
The grape that sates
Our appetite for wine
He's learned to squeeze
The milk to cheese
That's better than "just fine"
You tour through France
To get the chance
To savour these aromas
Chefs take their plants
With which they earned diplomas
And turn them to
Some thing to woo
The Gourmands gathered there
The soups and satés,
Crepes and patés
Will keep you in your chair
But danger lurks
With one who shirks
And cheats these race relations
Deceives and lies
And then defies
The rules and regulations
She plies her trade
Below the grade
Acceptable in France
Because her greed
Proves to exceed
The worst I've had by chance
And so 'my Dears'
For thirty years
I've never had such sh*t
Placed on a plate,
I must now state
Served by a female Brit
Do not get caught
With trap that's fraught
"Being Done" is what I hate
This spider's lair
Does not trade fair
By she who is called Kate