Last month I went for my first cooking lesson in France.
I consider that this a some kind of a record: to live in France for twenty odd years without being compelled to learn, officially, more about the main preoccupation of Life here, which is food and its preparation.
The reason for the lesson was that Marlene was asked to attend the course as part of a "better preparation" for dealing with the culinary requisites for people suffering from diabetes.
And of course, as "co-preparer" of family food, I was expected to attend as well.
I was a little anxious, because in a previous lifetime I had discovered a dictionary in a library that dealt with "The Most Common French Gastronomic Vocabulary Terms". The book was large enough to be an effective Wheel Chock for a 747. How were we going to cope with the amount of information and instructions that was going to be presented?
As it was, the other attendees were also slightly nervous, but after a description of what we were going to attempt to do, by a qualified Nutritional Expert, we settled in with enthusiasm.
We had to prepare a luncheon of several courses, all of which were designed to be beneficial for people of the wrinkly brigade, who were supposed to be suffering from Diabetes, Heart Conditions, Gout and other unmentionable ailments.
I volunteered to do the entrée, simply because I thought it would be the easiest. And it was. I was required to "top" and "disembowel" a dozen beautiful fresh tomatoes and fill them with a concoction of "Crème Frais" with a mixture of spices and herbs, all presented on a bed of lettuce with sliced carrots for decoration. This was well within my limited capabilities as a BBQ chef, as I can be guaranteed to either burn or underdo almost anything.
I volunteered to make the entrée because no cooking was involved in its preparation.
I was rather pleased with my contribution after listening to the complicated and varied bits of advice that my fellow recruits were offering to each other. At last the meal was ready and we sat and enjoyed and discussed the merits of each course. The only negative aspect was one septuagenarian who was upset that there was no wine with the meal. We explained to him that he could have brought some wine with him, but he said that he couldn't be expected to give us all wine, and for him not to offer some wine to all of us would have been rude.
"It is the first midday meal that I have had since I left school, with which I have had no wine," he declared sadly.
We assured him that, for the next lesson, he could bring his wine and that we would all refuse, politely, to have any.
Fast forward two weeks…. We were in Strasbourg as guests of one of my sons who introduced us to his favourite restaurant which is a three minute walk from the colossal Cathedral in the centre of the town.
After my cooking course I felt that I almost knew something about food preparation, and so I felt that I would be able to examine this restaurant with a quasi professional air.
Well… on entering this establishment I felt rather the same way, I imagine, that a penny whistle player from Soweto would feel if he entered the Barbican to listen to the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
Out of my depth.
The décor, which the owner changes every three months, was period English. It sounds awful to say that there were collectors' teapots and English prints on display, but they were and the result was harmonious and interesting.
Signed letters of gratitude were on modest display from past gourmands, which included a USA President and a famous couture designer.
The owner himself is one of those people dedicated to the Art of Cuisine. To this end he has only eight tables that can seat four people each. He does this so that he can give personal attention to each of his clients. He is always fully booked, but refuses to expand because that would mean a diminution of service and standards.
He recites the menu in beautiful picturesque French, describing the purpose of each course, the choices and the variations available within each course. On this day we had a gastronomic "Tour de France". Each course had a choice representing four regions of the country from which he had selected his version of what represented that area in the best way.
The "Midi" was presented on a light green plate with a decoration of herbs and salads that created an artistic verdant whole, within which a strout lurked.
"Bretagne" was rosy and had hints of warmer colours and vegetables to depict his recollection of summer there.
"Alsace" was adjusted to give his version of his home département, but with reduced content for those who have not mastered the ability to consume a vast calorie count suitable for a ploughman.
"Côte d'Azur" was lighter and had a presentation of "fruits de mer" decorated with herbs and sauces from the south.
The meal took over three hours to enjoy, and the restaurant is the sort of place that you would be happy to take anyone that you want to impress. A remarkable thing about French people in good French Restaurants is that their noise level of conversation is below the audible range of the next table. This as a stark contrast to a meal that I remember in an 'Oyster Bar' in Orlando, Florida where the conversational volume was shouting, the presentation was a bucket piled full of oysters, shelled by a lady with arms the size rugby prop forward's legs and the entertainment was throwing darts at electronic dart boards with disembodied verbal scoring.
Perhaps variety is a necessary part of the appreciation of life.
After we left the restaurant I remembered that I had another cooking course scheduled in four months and that in order to attain the kind of level of preparation and presentation that I had just witnessed, I reckoned that I will be ready in about another four hundred years.
Perhaps I will stick to burned offerings of the "cordon noire" and leave the trained professionals to carry the torch of culinary artistic merit forward by themselves.