Dining in France

Published 12:29 pm Wednesday, May 31, 2023

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I’m really not much of a jet-setter, and the recent travels which have sent me to both England and last week, to France, were quick turnarounds. 

And, as ever, horse-related.

Having said that, I was both looking forward to, and a touch intimidated by, traveling to France for the first time. You’ve heard the stereotypes: “The French are so snooty. If you don’t speak the language, they don’t even try to help you…”

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Conneries! (You’re going to have to look that one up.)

For sure the odds are that a tourist might meet a weary Frenchman, or woman, who isn’t having their best day, but in general, I’ve found that if one makes the effort to learn even the most rudimentary of phrases people will be more than happy to help you. Especially if you smile. 

My first experience was in the Gare Montparnasse (rail station) outside Paris. Having rushed from the airport (which translates to sitting in Paris traffic for 90 minutes), desperate to make the train to Laval, I stood, defeated, staring at a board of incoming and departing trains. I didn’t know the word for ‘platform’ and as I used the translate app on my phone, I realized my battery was nearly dead. 

Not normally a big deal, however, the pre-purchased tickets were on the train app. If my battery died, I would be unable to use my digital ticket to board. 

My despair must have been apparent to the woman who stood next to me, for not only did she offer to show me the platform I needed but used her own phone to take a photo of the ticket on my phone, so that should my phone die, she could show a photo of the digital ticket to the conductor. Not only brilliant but an incredibly kind gesture to a complete stranger. 

I made it easily to Laval where my horse connection picked me up and drove me to the stable. Afterward, I was taken to the B&B I had booked in Sainte Suzanne, voted as ’The Most Beautiful Village’ in all of France. I couldn’t wait to explore the ancient castle walls and twisting lanes through this 15th-century medieval village.

In this very short trip, I observed an awful lot. And I ate a lot. But here’s the deal: Never did a piece of any processed food touch my plate. Morning breakfast consisted of a small glass pot (never plastic) of plain yoghurt, a bowl of finely chopped melon and strawberries, a selection of freshly baked croissants, locally produced fig jam, honey, and a steaming cappuccino. Heaven. 

After visiting the stable, I sauntered through the village until I came to a charming bistro. With a little polite gesticulating, I managed to get across that I desired a vegetarian lunch, if possible. “Oui, Oui, madam,” said the waiter, disappearing into a cubical of a kitchen only to re-emerge 5 minutes later with a large plate that included caprese salad: thick slices of locally grown heirloom tomatoes paired with sliced buffalo mozzarella. Next to it was a helping of thinly sliced potatoes al gratin, served cold, with the most delicate cheese sauce dribbled over, next to slices of cantaloup drizzled with balsamic. An attractive, dark leafy green salad was placed at the top of the plate and at the bottom, a helping of couscous with bits of pepper and spices mixed in. Each mouthful was sublime. And unbelievably cheap.

As I sat at my little table, overlooking the lush Mayenne area of the Loire Valley, a horde of school children, around 12 or 13 years of age came surging past, running and laughing. I was asked if I had seen any blue clothespins as they had been assigned a lesson on the village’s history by taking part in a sort of scavenger hunt. This was explained to me by one of the boys in very good English. Off they ran on lean legs and I later learned that in French schools, dining etiquette begins early. Children are seated for their lunch at tables clad with linen cloths and there is often a vase of flowers on the table. Meals are, as I enjoyed, simple, delicious and fresh. Snacking in-between meals is uncommon and because of the quality of nutrition in their meals, stomachs remain satisfied until dinner. I do not exaggerate when I say that I did not see a single overweight child or adult in the countryside and very rarely in Paris.

“What’s crazy to me is that every restaurant I stop in—even some little hole in the wall—has such amazing food,” I marveled to one French woman. “How do they manage it?” 

“They do it because they will go out of business if they don’t,” was the reply. “The French know what good, fresh food tastes like and they expect it. They simply won’t eat anything else. Why would they?”

I looked at the sugary Starbucks pastry on the napkin in my lap at Heathrow, changing planes and attitudes but with enough time to grab something for breakfast. My mind flitted to the bistro in Sainte Suzanne and I promptly tossed the pastry into the trash and bought a cup of fresh fruit instead. 

Why would anyone?