15 February 2013

Où est le boeuf?

Lately I've been having some fun collecting creative food names in French, particularly in the sweets department.  The highly descriptive millefeuille (thousand leaves or sheets) is what the French call a Napoleon, and langues du chat (cat's tongues) are lovely shortbread-like biscuits. Last week I discovered les lunettes de Romans (the Romans' glasses) at the grocery store, and then there are the hilarious pets de nonnes which are currently available at several local bakeries in Aix (these 'nuns' farts' are just doughnut holes to you and me).  I can enjoy all of the above with a noisette, which is an espresso shot with just enough milk to turn the color of a hazelnut for which it is named.  The French aren't all that unusual, as I can think of creative names for foods in other places I've lived; in the U.S. we eat elephant ears, or pigs in a blanket, and for a simple meal I really enjoy köyhät ritarit (poor knights) as they are named in Finnish, which are French toast in English and pain perdu (lost bread) in French!  How's that for creative?

In Europe, some overly creative naming of food is very much in the news right now, after the discovery that horsemeat has been packaged and labeled as ground beef, and manufactured into packaged meals and sold to European consumers.  The scandal implicates a French company and reveals a convoluted European food supply chain.  Indeed, où est le boeuf (where's the beef)On the one hand, it seems that the French are generally less scandalized by the creative advertising of horsemeat, and this is in part because horsemeat is consumed here.  Apparently there is a stand at the market in Aix where la viande de cheval (horsemeat) is available, and in Paris too there are boucheries (butchers) that specialize in it.  The outrage is apparently particularly great among the Brits for whom horses are dearly beloved pets and not meant to be consumed as food. (See The French Observatory blog post Why are the British so fussy about horsemeat? 2/13/2013).

For the French, their real beef more likely lies in the implications of the story of la viande (meat).  French factory-processed, Romanian horsemeat lasagne just is not consistent with the hallowed French traditions surrounding food, knowing where it comes from, buying it specially selected, preparing it with elaborate techniques, and then, serving it and eating it slowly with great pleasure and with great wine.  Revering locally produced food is a big part of these traditions.  We have a great deal of local produce available to us in the south, but even so, many food items are expensive here, especially meat and poultry.  Our family consumes much less meat here for that reason.  We've made a few exceptions, for example, we bought an 8 kilo (about 18 lbs) Thanksgiving turkey at the neighborhood boucherie (butcher/meat shop) to prepare for a belated Thanksgiving with our French friends.  This French bird cost us 66 euros or 88 U.S. dollars!  Even sweets can be expensive.  In early January we had some school and sports families over for an epiphany party where I served epiphany cakes from two local shops.  The bill for the brioche-style  gateaux (cakes) for 20 people from the best patisserie (pastry shop) in town, was..., ahem, over 100 euros !  Okay, the line was out the door when I went to get my special red boxes from the shop, the gateaux were really, really delicious, and they contained real santons (figurines) for the lucky recipients, but they sure were pricey!  Certainly, these were special foods for special occasions, but even the weekly meat purchases and our Sunday afternoon cakes add up.  I have adolescent boys who are always hungry, so I resort to buying multipacks of meat, big bags of produce, room-temperature milk and sometimes, les plats préparés (prepared meals) at the local supermarkets, hoping I'm getting good quality, much like many, many French families do.  I'd love to buy more food in bulk, and meat from a farm, like we do in Seattle, buying from relatives who grow happy beef, (and there are sources here, even grass-fed beef raised by a former Seattle family in SW France: http://bratlikeme.com/), but where would I store this food in my French apartment and how often do I have time to prepare it well, working as I am?  The freezer in our tall but skinny French refrigerator is always jammed full, and I am always in a jam trying to squeeze in decent meals on the days I try to both work and schlep children to activities.  Perhaps this is the most scandalous thing about 'le faux boeuf' (the fake beef); it brings to light the fact that even though the French famously love their food, to be able to buy the best quality from local sources, to have the time and resources to prepare it and enjoy it slowly and lovingly, this all requires far more money, time, and creativity than many people can muster.

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