This is the story of the beginning of a love affair – the kind that lasts, that is. Yes, I’m talking about food. French food, to be exact. Most people who love French food can trace the exact moment when their love affair with it began. For Julia Childs, it was her first meal on French soil, at a renowned restaurant in a provincial town in Normandy, and it was the sole that stole her heart. A simple dish, perfectly prepared and expertly served, was her Road to Damascus: ‘Sole, sole, why delightest thou me?’ She had never tasted anything so delicious. The experience is similar to a sexual awakening. Parts of one’s body and yes, soul, are touched for the first time, making one suddenly aware that they exist, and that life is not worth living without them. There is no going back. One embarks on a culinary adolescence dotted with passions, each surely the pinnacle of ecstasy, yet quickly succeeded by another, even more sublime. The years pass and adolescent passions mature into a contented, and deep-rooted, lifelong relationship, yet one not devoid of its own surprises and moments of bliss. At least, this is what happened to her. This did not happen to me the moment I arrived in France on my first trip abroad. I was thirteen years old, with no idea about the world, and had already been there for over a month. I was unimpressed with my host family’s diet, which seemed to consist of a rice dish with capsicum, tasting – or at least smelling – of garlic, that they seemed to serve every evening without fail. When we moved to Nice for their annual summer vacation, this was alternated with ‘les spaghettis au beurre’ which, surprising as it may seem, is exactly as named – Spaghetti with butter. Yes, butter, period. Sometimes ketchup was offered instead of butter. So considering the great reputation of French cooking, I was rather disappointed.
On the Cote d’Azur, on the beach at St. Jean-Cap Ferrat to be exact, I discovered the Nice speciality, pain bagna, a kind of coarse sandwich with bitter-tasting olives and other salad ingredients that did not particularly appeal to my childish palate.
(I would, however, certainly enjoy it now.) We had this on the beach for lunch every day without exception. Sea air and hunger made it palatable enough, but my awakening was still some weeks away. One day at a seafood restaurant I ordered crevettes, which sounded delicious, though I had no idea what they were. I eagerly awaited the dish. Finally, there they were in front of me. The large prawns were served whole and grilled, with a glisten of olive oil, on a small salver. I was fascinated by their little black globes of eyes, literally out on stalks, that perused me, looking even more surprised by me than I was by them. As I made an attempt on them with my knife and fork. I was told to pull off their heads and eat them with my hands. Their little eyes dared me to try it. I conceded defeat, vowing in future to know exactly what I was ordering before I ordered it. We took the overnight train to Paris at the end of our two weeks in Nice, and it was fun to sleep for the first time in a couchette as the train passed through many cities on its route through France. I remember seeing the station sign for Marseilles through a haze of sleep and then knowing nothing more until we pulled into the Gare de Lyon in Paris. An unexpected treat was breakfast at the station – I had no idea how different this breakfast was going to be from any I had previously known. The waiter brought everyone their coffee and a basket of croissants for the table. This was 1969 and, living in Ireland, croissants were something I had never seen before. Now that they are freely available in plastic bags of a dozen at every supermarket and petrol station, many people might not be aware that those petrol station croissants bear as little relation to a true croissant as a frozen burger does to a rare steak. They are an insult to the proud name of croissant. I was innocent of either kind and had no idea what awaited me as I helped myself to one from the basket
French people will walk several streets away to patronise the boulangerie that has a better croissant than the place nearest to them.
It is a kind of religion. One willingly makes the pilgrimage to the shrine of the perfect croissant, which is a miraculous incarnation of puffy lightness, dense chewiness and golden featherlight flakes of pastry that are crispy at the edges but like a cloud of patisserie heaven in the middle. It cannot be adequately described, it can only really be experienced if you want to understand what a pinnacle of civilization the croissant represents. One story has it that the when the Turks were defeated by the Austrians at the gates of Vienna in 1683, the Viennese bakers celebrated by making a pastry in the crescent shape seen on the Turkish flag, but this, alas, is apocryphal and vies with many other fanciful stories. Of course I knew nothing of all this when I took my first bite of croissant. As soon as I did, my culinary G-spot sent messages of ecstasy to my brain, and a whole new world of physical sensation opened up before me: the world of fine dining. It’s curious that puberty and this revelation of a new world coincided, give or take a few months. The family watched in amazement, their mouths wide open as I finished whatever remained in the basket, and the waiter was dispatched to bring another, which to their amusement I also demolished with little help from anyone. When I finished and looked around, everyone was silent and looking at me. Suddenly I was the prodigy croissant-eater, at only thirteen years old. Slightly ashamed of my gluttony, but not regretting a second of it, I pondered this new discovery on the journey back to the house… such deliciousness existed in the world, and only today had I discovered it! Could France be hiding other delights, yet undiscovered, I wondered? Could Life be more than I had hitherto dreamed? I was soon to have my answer. A few days later, Madame Guibert – my host mother – produced a Nice speciality called pissaladiere. This is a tart of short crust pastry filled with onions and a little olive oil, dotted with black olives and baked in the oven until the onions partly caramelise and enter the realms of culinary heaven. Anchovies are optional. Their salty bitterness might not have agreed with my youthful taste buds, so it’s just as well that they were left out when I first tasted this delicacy from the South of France. It was so simple, and yet the flavours and textures combined so perfectly that the result was much greater than the sum of its parts – a particular trick of French cookery, as I was beginning to discover.
Yet this magic kingdom seemed somehow beyond my reach, independent of a French intermediary who could wave a Gallic wand and somehow make it happen.
One day I was entrusted with a task of great responsibility: buying the daily bread for the family, despite my French being almost non-existent. I could say please and thank you, and ‘the cat has fallen into the milk – poor little cat!’ and that was pretty much the sum of my French after six months of a weekly French lesson. So the errand was in the nature of a reality-based French linguistic-cum-culinary experiment. Repeating the name of the loaf I was supposed to buy – and which Madame would cleverly use in several ways for a certain number of people over the next twenty-four hours – all the way to the baker’s, I entered the boulangerie and stared at the myriad loaves of every shape and size that were arrayed before me. I mumbled what I thought might be the name of the loaf to the baker, who looked puzzled. Did I mean such and such a loaf, he asked, or did I perhaps want this one here? Was it a Napoleon I required, or maybe a pain de campagne? Or a simple baguette de Paris? Pain integral? A ficelle? A batard? This was now pure guesswork, as the name I had given him bore little relation to any loaf known to a French baker. I nodded helplessly as he pointed at one of them, and the purchase was made. The disappointment on Madame’s face when I returned with completely the wrong bread made me burn with embarrassment. Clearly the kind of loaf one bought was a matter of much greater importance in France than it was back home, where in any case the options were few and humble. It appeared that some of the family were going to be on short rations. Oh well, what could you expect from a raw kid who hardly spoke a word of French? Another attempt to master a French secret ended in frustration when I asked Madame how she made the wonderful pissaladiere. ‘Oh, it’s very easy!’ she said encouragingly, taking me into her large and plainly-appointed, but supremely practical French kitchen to show me how to do it. She then wrote out the recipe for me. I looked at it expectantly – and sighed. The measurements were all metric. We were still using imperial measurements back home, and would for some years to come, so grams and kilos meant nothing to us. The secrets of French cuisine were not to be had that easily, it seemed. But of one thing I was sure – I would be back for more of this amazing thing that had changed my life, and one day, I vowed, I would make those secrets mine.