Thursday 25 October 2012

My Life in France

Rouen is famous for its duck dishes, but after consulting the waiter Paul had decided to order sole meuniere.  It arrived whole: a large, flat Dover sole that was perfectly browned in a sputtering butter sauce with a sprinkling of chopped parsley on top.  The waiter carefully placed the platter in front of us, stepped back, and said: ‘Bon appetit!’

I closed my eyes and inhaled the rising perfume.  Then I lifted a forkful of fish to my mouth, took a bite, and chewed slowly.  The flesh of the sole was delicate, with a light but distinct taste of the ocean that blended marvelously with the browned butter.  I chewed slowly and swallowed.  It was a morsel of perfection. [From ‘My Life in France’ by Julia Child, with Alex Prud’homme]

Today’s Lady Traveller is Julia Child: immortalised (in the US at least) as co-author of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and one of the earliest TV chefs – immortalised most recently by Meryl Streep in Julie and Julia.  Now, you might say that Julia Child is not a travel writer and you’d be mostly correct – she did however write a memoir of her time living in Europe called My Life in France. 

Julia Child arrived in France in 1948 with her husband Paul, the love of her life.  While in France, she discovered her vocation: learning to eat, cook and share the food of France.

My absolute favourite part of My Life in France is Mrs Child’s description of her first meal in France: it becomes a metaphor for her delight at the pleasures in store as she sets about discovering France.

The sole meuniere might have been the highlight, but I dare you to read this full account without feeling hungry:

We began our lunch [at the Restaurant La Couronne in Rouen] with a half-dozen oysters on the half shell.  I was used to bland oysters from Washington and Massachusetts, which I had never cared much for.  But this platter of portugaises had a sensational briny flavor and a smooth texture that was entirely new and surprising.  The oysters were served with rounds of pain de seigle, a pale rye bread, with a spread of unsalted butter.

[Then came the never-to-be-forgotten, life-changing, life-enhancing sole meuniere.  But there was even more...]

Along with our meal, we happily downed a whole bottle of Pouilly-Fume, a wonderfully crisp white wine from the Loire Valley.  Another revelation!

Then came salade verte laced with a lightly acidic vinaigrette.  And I tasted my first real baguette – a crisp brown crust giving way to a slightly chewy, rather loosely textured pale-yellow interior, with a faint reminder of wheat and yeast in the odor and taste.  Yum!
We followed our meal with a leisurely dessert of fromage blanc, and ended with a strong, dark café filtre. […]

‘Mairci, monsoor,’ I said, with a flash of courage and an accent that sounded bad even to my own ear.  The waiter nodded as if it were nothing, and moved off to greet some new customers.
Paul and I floated out the door into the brilliant sunshine and cool air.  Our first lunch together in France had been absolute perfection.  It was the most exciting meal of my life.

Food is – even now when McDonalds circle the globe – one of the quickest ways of evoking place.  That’s why Mexican and Chinese and Korean restaurants exist in six continents; that’s why homesick travellers seek out familiar food; that’s why newly-returned travellers try to recreate meals they’ve eaten abroad; that’s why we seek out interesting markets and restaurants when we travel.  Food transports us elsewhere – and is so much more appealing as a vehicle than, say, an Airbus 380.  

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