Where Does French Food Come From?
Don't think a little thing like a pandemic will keep you from eating well in France. Pas de tout!
What I miss most in pandemic France are cafés. Or, more accurately, eating outside under an umbrella on the terrasse, be it a coffee and croissant in the morning, or lunch with a pichet of cold rosé of unimportant lineage, or an apéro before heading home, or a long leisurely dinner. I don’t know if it’s my chilled and overcast Michigan roots, but every bite tastes better to me if it is consumed in sunshine.
Since October, restaurants have been closed for both inside and outdoor dining. Thrillingly, President Macron announced recently that terrasses could begin reopening as early as May 17th. Now as I walk the shuttered streets of the old quarter of Montpellier where I live, I look at all these dark restaurant windows with a surge of lust. I have no idea what lies beyond each door, since they have been closed the whole time I have been here. I feel like a little kid assessing a stack of wrapped presents: what might be inside? Did they close when Covid hit, or had they been shut down for years?
In the many beach towns that aren’t far from here, it is eerily evident when time stopped. Menus posted on the walls outside bistros are yellowed and peeling. Signboards are still propped up in front of some restaurants, promising meals that haven’t been served for seven months. Café tables and chairs are neatly stacked outdoors, as though they will be set out any minute for a lunch rush that never comes. It feels like Sleeping Beauty’s castle.
Legally, French restaurants can be open, for takeout and delivery. Here’s where it gets interesting: most don’t bother. At the beach in March, all the restaurants for blocks would be closed, while one (or two, or three in larger communities) had lines stretching around the block.
Loath to miss ALL tastes of restaurant food, we experimented several times with carry-out and delivery (via the omnipresent UberEats). In spite of the professionalism of all the delivery staff—who show up on bikes and sometimes scooters—we didn’t rate France’s experiments with non-restaurant dining a success. Even when we picked it up ourselves and rushed it two blocks home, the food was frequently chilly. A dish that worked brilliantly when it traveled on a plate directly from kitchen to your table, arriving glistening with garnishes and sauces, proved, on finding it in a carboard box, to have mutated into a bit of slimy, congealed mush.
Another problem: many restaurants only provide carry-out between noon and 1:30. I’m not sure if you’re supposed to have your main meal at lunch, or if you are supposed to save it until dinner. While we have embraced the tradition of a big weekend lunch on Saturday and Sunday, the food plus the required wine means the afternoons are best suited to reading, or taking a walk in the Jardin des Plantes. In other words: our productivity is shot to hell after a big lunch. We want our good carry-out at dinner.
We tried once—at Valentine’s Day—to get delivery from a fine restaurant. Our orders each came with two pages of instructions on how to get it from the delivery man’s hands onto our plates. Some things had to be heated—sous-vide—in plastic pouches. Other parts went into the oven—at different temperatures. That was a stumper. The elements that got heated up in the microwave were a breeze. There were packets of things to be crumbled onto the final dish, leaves to be laid fetchingly astride part of the plate but not the other, squirts of coulis to be squirted, well, somewhere. There was a complexity of warming and assembly that our Thai carry-out at home hadn’t prepared us for. We decided that the whole point of getting food from a restaurant—that you don’t do the work yourself—was being nullified with the intricate demands of these carry-out options and abandoned further experimentation. French restaurant food is meant to be consumed in French restaurants. Taking your food home in a box is antithetical—socially, gastronomically—to what a French restaurant meal is meant to be.
But fear not, worried gourmand! This doesn’t mean that D and I were actually cooking everything we were putting in our mouths. Welcome to the lavish choices at France’s all-day, ready-to-go traiteurs. Within ½ kilometer of our apartment are multiple excellent traiteurs, including the surprisingly great spread at the chain Monoprix. This is what the hot tables at Whole Foods promise….but never deliver.
Want some potatoes to go with a main course? Take your pick of scalloped potatoes, roasted potatoes, mashed potatoes, mashed potatoes sitting on top of a bed of duck confit, pommes dauphines (mashed potatoes mixed with pâte à choux dough….aka a heavenly death by carbohydrates), or, if you really want to keep your cardiologist employed, aligot: equal parts mashed potatoes and fat (cheese, cream, butter). It has the consistency of oobleck and has replaced spaghetti carbonara as my ultimate comfort food. It should be served garnished with baby aspirin.
Faced with this cornucopia, who would ever make their own spuds again?
The traiteur can help you fill in the gaps in your menu—eggplant in a rich tomato sauce is delicious but can take more time than you want to spend cooking—or you can just wander from traiteur to traiteur, assembling a complete meal (my preferred approach). An appetizer of brandade (reconstituted salt cod meets potatoes) in a pastry crust: check. Any species of meat, poultry, fish, or sausage you can imagine (and plenty that you probably haven’t), cooked and ready in its sauce: check. The best lima beans I’ve ever eaten, with another side of stuffed tomatoes; and maybe some carrot salad (better double-down on the veggies since I know what’s coming in the carb department): check. And then not just aligot, but the truffled version of aligot. Red wine to work its magic and protect me from a coronary: I can often get it at the traiteur, too. And if not…that bottle of wine is no more than a few steps away.
Add cheese, and a baguette, and either some fruit or some chocolate or a pastry—or, hell, all three—and you’ve got yourself a meal. What does this excess cost? Well, I’m both greedy and inept at figuring out quantities in this crazy metric system that they seem to use here, so I’m undoubtedly spending more than I should. But there’s an excellent traiteur who promises a 3-course meal for 10E per person. I’ve quite enjoyed her coquilles Saint-Jacques (scallops and other shellfish in a cream sauce) and stuffed artichoke hearts. She gets extra points for complimenting my French after I’ve spun out a particularly energetic string of gibberish.
I have already written about marchés, but they are the gift that keeps on giving. What we now appreciate was actually the rather anemic winter marché here in Montpellier has flowered into a brightly-colored explosion of raw and finished food. Because everything comes from France (including green and yellow kiwis—who knew they grew here?) our plates follow the farmers’ fields. We’re in strawberry, asparagus, and artichoke season right now. We eat asparagus—white, green, and purple—practically every day. There are five different varieties of strawberries available now, and I had to buy--and eat—all of them this past weekend. A very cute little piglet that has been brought to the market the last two weeks must be traumatized by seeing what the future probably holds: in addition to stall after stall of uncountable varieties of hams and sausages, there are several traiteur stands that display giant cooking pans of beans and pork. Less carnivorous options can be easily found, including the stand that offers dozens of iterations of tabbouleh, falafel, and hummus.
Finally, if one is seeking the provenance of the food that appears on French tables….one must mention Picard. It’s a store that sells nothing but frozen food. Sure, there are chicken nuggets and lasagna. You’ll also find frozen foie gras, frozen escargots, and pretty much everything that couldn’t move fast enough is available wrapped in puff pastry and frozen. Several working mothers I know swear by it. D and I walked to the nearest one last month to check it out, and came home with frozen fruit for smoothies (yummy), some kind of frozen stuffed chicken breast (meh), and paella. Report to come.
Apart from not getting to eat outside, we haven’t missed restos. More rewardingly, the pandemic has taught us what the French have known and enjoyed for years: you don’t have to spend all day in the kitchen to eat as though you did.
I'm Wendy, and I've been given the incredible gift of accompanying my husband on his university sabbatical in Montpellier, France. After 35 years in print and digital publishing, I have no deadlines to meet, no "stakeholders" to satisfy, no "deliverables" to, well, deliver.
Some days, my most pressing problem is whether to spread salted or unsalted fresh butter on my baguette. At the end of August 2021, I turn back into a pumpkin. Join me until then to see what we can make of this altered France!