Call of France

A Trilogy by Barry A. Whittingham

Author: auteurfranglais (page 1 of 4)

The Doggy Bag

When you eat in a restaurant in the U.K. or the U.S. you probably wouldn’t think twice about asking the waiter for a doggy bag or box so you can take that nice piece of steak you couldn’t quite finish home for Rover, or even for yourself. In France, however, the doggy bag is still not quite the done thing – so much so that if you asked for one in a restaurant you might come in for some strange looks from the person serving you, and a good deal of mockery (behind your back) from other diners. But, as a result of the present European year of fight against waste, all this could be about to change.

For while most French still tend to make fun of the doggy bag, in a world where resources are increasingly limited some restaurants, companies and internet sites are now doing their best to promote this Anglo-Saxon invention as a means of combating waste. And in France where, according to a study conducted in 2011, each person throws away on average 21% of food bought (that’s 90 kg of food per year), 8% of which hasn’t even been removed from its packaging, this kind of waste is coming in for more and more criticism. And it’s the restaurants which seem to be taking the lead. According to a recent survey which questioned 2,700 restaurants in the Rhône-Alpes region restaurant owners’ greatest fear is that their customers will become ill after eating left-overs which have not been kept in the best of conditions at home. In this respect, however, they can rest assured as, legally speaking, restaurants can no longer be held responsible for a dish which was started in their restaurant and then taken away in a doggy bag. A total of 31% of the establishments questioned already offer or are thinking of offering a box or bag which customers can use to take uneaten food home. And 86% of them feel that, since the customer has paid for the entire meal, he’s entitled to take the left-overs away. It’s also a good preparation for 2016 when restaurants will be legally obliged to limit organic waste.

What’s more, some young entrepreneurs see this as a market opening, and are doing their best to make the doggy bag or box more attractive. This is certainly the case with the Trop bon pour gaspiller (Too Good to Waste) project launched by Laurent and Rabaïa Calvayrac. ‘We’ve lived in North America where the practice is very common,’ says Rabaïa. ‘When we came back to France we decided to try to make it more popular by improving the quality of the box. We think this is very important.’ As a result they’ve produced a luxury doggy bag – a rigid, recyclable, bio-degradable box suitable for both microwave and normal ovens (up to 180°C), and made in France. The problem is that, in spite of its qualities, only small quantities (5,000) will be produced to begin with. And the cost price will be around 1€, a bit too expensive to hope for massive success, even though those restaurants who have shown interest say they’re willing to make an effort as far as the price is concerned. In addition, Rest-o-Resto, a Grenoble-based company, is compiling an online directory of restaurants which offer a doggy bag or box. At present it has 130 addresses from 11 towns. And the numbers are expanding. ‘The reactions we get vary from one restaurant to another,’ admits Alexandre Teodosio. ‘Some owners are very enthusiastic, while for others it’s unthinkable that a meal should end up in a bag or box.’ The company is in the process of developing a box which will be less upmarket than the Trop bon pour gaspiller one. France’s Belgian neighbours, on the other hand, have adopted a different approach to making the doggy bag more acceptable. This involves finding not only a suitable French name but – since most left-overs are taken home for human consumption – one less associated with a canine. It doesn’t seem to be an easy task, however, as their site has just launched a Facebook consultation page inviting people to come up with their suggestions. Among these can be found RestopackRestrobon (Restes trop bons pour être jetés = left-overs too good to be thrown away), or even Gaspipa.

The Sad Tale of English Sauces and Condiments


It is a matter of the deepest sadness to the Englishman in me that vulgar mint and horseradish sauce, not forgetting copious quantities of runny gravy, are more or less the only traditional English options open to a cook wishing to complement the flavour of meat and vegetables, and render them succulently moist. And surely the grounds for my Bulldog’s denigration of le French Dunk are considerably weakened by the more than dubious nature of these native English sauces which, let’s be honest, present little inducement to being mopped up.  After all, does the thought of bringing bread into absorbable contact with such a cold, unappealing mixture as vinegar, chopped mint and sugar present a prospect any normal eater could find appetizing? And can dunking such a dubiously-coloured liquid as gravy (so watery that most of it would probably run down your chin) be seriously envisaged?

     Nevertheless, the more resolutely anglophile of our French readers, still interested in preparing these typically English sauces, will be pleased to learn that their questionable nature may be somewhat compensated for by their simplicity of preparation. As indicated above, one of those typically English sauces, mint sauce, an essential accompaniment to roast lamb, is made from just a few spoonfuls of chopped, fresh mint, a dash of vinegar, along with a sprinkling of sugar. Horseradish sauce, traditionally eaten with roast beef, boasts a tangy, mustard-like flavour, and is composed of nothing more complex than vinegar, sour cream, and the grated roots of the plant whose name it bears. And another of those very English sauces, gravy, in its basic form, is simply the juices which run naturally from meat during cooking. These may be further coloured, flavoured and thickened by adding gravy salt (a simple mix of salt and caramel) or gravy browning (gravy salt dissolved in water), and more consistency can be obtained by using an agent such as corn flour. Strangely, the dispensing recipient goes under the name of ‘gravy boat.’ Is it the nautical appellation, along with the hull-like shape which prompts this nation of sea-farers to douse their food with such floodwater quantities of liquid that dinner plates are not without resembling Brighton beach at high tide? But what is even more regrettable is the fact that, though successful preparation of any of these sauces would not tax the culinary skills of an averagely-intelligent eight year-old, few English household cooks are now willing to consent the effort: for concentrated cubes and powders, to which hot water is simply added, are now commonly used to make gravy; and ready-prepared bottled mint and horse-radish sauce, where the only inconvenience is the exertion involved in unscrewing the cap, are usually preferred to home-made versions made from fresh ingredients.

     Whether it is the effect or the cause, an industry has now developed which has made ready-prepared, artificially-coloured and preserved, standardized bottled-sauce concoctions an inseparable part of Anglo-Saxon eating culture. Indisputable proof of this is provided by the shelves of English supermarkets which display an awesome variety of pre-made condiments: sauces, pickles, creams and dressings of every description, the vast proportion of which are totally unknown in France. Many of these condiments, or their ingredients at least, saw light of day in the distant colonies of an Empire bathed in a never-setting sun, and began life in Blighty as an attempt to sweeten the pill at a time when English cooking was an unimaginative, insipid ‘boiled beef and carrots’ affair, and swallowing it was simply something to be got through in order to survive. But, like Dutch elm disease, the bottled-condiment blight, has now gained such an invasive hold that nothing can prevent it from spreading rampantly on; and far too often – unlike home-made, naturally-constituted, often regionally-inspired French sauces, considered to be an intrinsic, complement to a specific dish (and as such containing the same ingredients) – these industrially-produced seasonings represent a standardized, interchangeable accompaniment to almost any dish.

 Hélas, the Gallic in me has to admit that even traditional French sauces are now being threatened by the ubiquitous spread of this type of convenience food: for determined efforts are now having to be made to persuade the French housewife not to succumb to the spurious charms of Anglo-Saxon style, ready-prepared cubed, powdered and bottled pretenders. Needless to say, my Frenchman has every confidence that his compatriotes will resist this mass culinary invasion with the same heroic fortitude as that shown by Joan of Arc and her followers in raising the siege of Orléans, and booting those damned English invaders out of France for good and for all.

    

More French Eating and Drinking Places

Le Bistrot (sometimes spelled ‘bistro’). Though the word is more or less interchangeable with café (especially when it’s not very big), a bistro is a small, informal type of restaurant (originating in Paris but now common in the provinces) serving drinks but, above all, moderately-priced home cooking in a relatively modest setting and available at most times of the day.

Le Bar. In the past the bar was a place (often located in a railway station, hôtel, airport or on a train) where you could have a quick drink, either standing or seated on a stool at the counter from where it was possible to observe the barman at work, or even engage him in conversation. Nowadays a bar usually means a small café with a terrace of some description. And you can usually get some kind of snack there, nowadays frequently in the form of standardized fast food. In this case it can be called a snack-bar or simply un snack. In large towns especially they frequently serve take-away food. A bar can even have a small restaurant attached to it, in which case it goes under the name of ‘bar-restaurant’.

La Brasserie. Larger than a bistrot and mostly located in large towns, a brasserie was originally a place where beer was brewed and consumed (the word also means ‘brewery’). An increasing number are now owned by chain companies. Though they serve all types of alcohol and non-alcoholic beverages, many brasseries still pride themselves on offering a good selection of draught and bottled beers. Their main speciality, however, is food. At one extreme some just serve basic, single dishes (onion soup, cooked meat assortments, seafood, choucroute, etc.) at any time of the day, while the more upmarket brasseries, especially in Paris, can provide quite elaborate, extensive, full-course (and relatively expensive) meals. And in certain cases they can serve both. Advance booking is not normally required.

L’Estaminet. An estaminet is a small, rustic, working-class eating and drinking place, halfway between a bar and a restaurant, serving mainly locally brewed beer and where you can eat simple but copious regional specialities. They’re to be found in Belgium and Northern France and were originally places where men of the same working corps – miners, textile workers, metal workers, sailors (and even smugglers) would go to have a drink, a smoke, play billiards and skittles as well as hold meetings to discuss matters of professional concern. It’s said that trade unionism and the right to strike were born in the estaminet.

Le Bouchon Lyonnais. A small, cosily informal restaurant specific to Lyon and the surrounding region (though you can find the odd one in other large towns), serving regional specialities. On the menu you’ll usually find quenelles de brochet (a kind of pike dumpling served with a sauce) and, above all, pork and tripe specialities such as boudin (black pudding), different types of saucisson (a pork-based salami) pigs’ trotters and les andouillettes (a tripe sausage). Traditionally the food is washed down with the local Beaujolais or Côtes du Rhône wines which can be purchased by the glass.

Le Salon de Thé. Often known under the English name ‘Tea Room’ the salon de thé is an ideal place for the shopper to rest her weary legs (they’re mainly frequented by women) over a cup of tea, coffee or hot chocolate or, if she prefers, a cold soft drink (a tea room is not licensed to sell alcohol). It’s also a golden opportunity to sample some of the cakes and sweets from the huge range of delightful French confectionary. The salon de thé can be an establishment in its own right, especially in large towns, but can also consist of just a few tables and chairs in the corner of the larger confectioner’s shops.

 

 

 

French Eating and Drinking Establishments: le Café

Apart from the restaurant which performs a similar function throughout the world (though the French gastronomic version enjoys a unique and deserved international reputation for excellence), France has a plethora of eating and drinking establishments whose various names could create confusion in the mind of the foreign tourist or recently arrived expat as to the purpose they serve and the differences between them – even though distinctions of this kind are becoming increasingly blurred and in many cases the names now used mean more or less the same thing. Let’s start with  le café.

The café is, of course, the best-known of French drinking (and eating) establishments. Its size is extremely variable and can range from the large Parisian café-restaurant, employing several kitchen, service and bar staff, to the small village café, usually owned and run by a local who is head cook, bottle-washer and waiter (or waitress) all rolled into one. But they all provide a place where shoppers, strollers and tourists can have a bite to eat and slake their thirst, and where regulars can meet to share gossip and a joke over an apéro or two. What’s more, a small-town or village café is an ideal place for the expat to meet and make friends with the locals. There may be a certain amount of suspicion at first, but they’ll gradually acknowledge your presence and begin to warm to you. You’ll have to be patient, however, as this can take time. And in many cases – especially in the provinces – cafés are frequently the headquarters for a local association or sporting club. And it’s rare to come across a French café which doesn’t have some kind of terrace where you can relax and simply watch the world go by. The larger ones are capable of accommodating scores, while in small villages they are often limited to just a couple of tables with chairs on the pavement outside.
Most French cafés are licensed to open without interruption from early morning until late at night and serve a wide range of alcoholic, non-alcoholic and hot drinks. And you can always get something to eat at any time of the day. They will serve you with at least a café au lait and croissants for breakfast, and at any other time you can get a snack (at minimum a choice of sandwiches). And even in small towns and villages this can be a more elaborate hot or cold dish and, when there’s a demand, some even serve a full plat du jour (usually at lunchtime), eaten inside the café, on the terrace in summer, or in the small restaurant which is sometimes attached.

Sometimes the café is a bar tabac presse : the premises include a small tobacconist’s and newsagent’s shop which, like the café, is open all day long, and where you can buy, apart from newspapers and magazines, sweets, chocolate, postcards, stamps and nick-nacks of all kinds – and sometimes even bread. Many are licensed to sell scratch cards and National Lottery tickets. And the larger ones are usually licensed by the PMU (le Pari Mutuel Urbain), a state-controlled betting organization mainly centred on horse-racing.

Real Camembert?

In a land internationally reputed for both the quality and uniqueness of its traditional food and wine, it’s hardly surprising that the French state should have gone to considerable pains to guarantee that the words printed on the bottle, box or package accurately describe the products contained within by instigating a system of norms, labels and ‘appellations’ which require a producer to respect a certain number of rules and criteria in order to have the right to use a given name. And when it comes to traditional food what could be considered more typically French than such a distinctly flavoured, world-renowned cheese as Camembert?
Now, as all gourmets certainly know, Camembert is a soft cheese with a slightly salted, flowered crust, made using raw, unpasteurized milk drawn exclusively from the udder of a Normandy breed of cow grazing in Normandy pastures, and which has been moulded by the traditional ‘à la loupe’ (using a ladle) method, with a minimum fat content of 45%, and a maturing process lasting at least 21 days in one of the five Normandy départements. These same gourmets might also be aware that the cheese owes its name to the small village of Camembert near Vimoutiers in the region of Argentan in Normandy where it was first produced around the time of the1789 Revolution, and that the beginning of its national and international reputation can be traced back to 1863 when the Päris-Granville railway line was inaugurated, and the Emperor Napoléon III tried it (and found it very much to his taste) during a halt at a station along this line.
As a result we might be excused for thinking that the box labelled ‘Camembert de Normandie’ lying on our local supermarket’s cheese shelf contains a real Camembert – that’s to say one which has been made and matured in strict accordance with the description provided above. Well, we’re sorry to have to inform you that you’d be horribly wrong! For the label ‘Camembert from Normandy’ simply means what it says: that it’s been produced in the geographical region of Normandy with a minimum fat content of 45% – and nothing more! Not only can the milk be either raw or pasteurized, but it can be drawn from the udder of a non-Norman cow which has been grazing in non-Norman pastures in the Jura, in Lorraine, in the Haute-Saône, or anywhere else for that matter. As for the production and ripening process, well, there are simply no requirements at all! Mind you, it’s still reassuring to know that today’s biggest French producer of Camembert cheese is located in the Normandy département of the Orne. What’s less reassuring, however, are the methods of production which have got nothing to do with the original process.
The milk (which, we repeat, can come from anywhere) is first heated to 72° for 20 seconds in order to kill all the pathogenic micro-organisms, and especially the active bacterial flora. This results in what is called a ‘lait mort’ – a dead milk, to which a modicum of life (and taste) is restored by the addition of laboratory-cultivated ‘aromatic’ ferments (yeast, bacteria fungi). The milk is then curdled by injecting an enzyme found in the stomach of young calves, after which everything is immersed in a solution of brine, and finally sprayed with mould! Even though a Camembert produced in this way offers all necessary hygiene guarantees (at least, let’s hope this is the case), can it be guaranteed that the average consumer is fully aware that when he buys a box labelled ‘Camembert fabriqué en Normandie’ he’s buying a cheese which has been made in such a radically different way to that which he’s being led to believe, and that if he wants to have the guarantee he’s buying the real McCoy, the label on the cheese box should read ‘Camembert AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôléé) de Normandie?’ We’re not so sure. And it’s perhaps significant that the production of real Camembert represents just 4.2% of the total quantity of French-produced Camembert.


The French chasseur

Not only does the French chasseur seriously deplete the ranks of our furry and feathery friends, and is not averse to using the odd road sign, stray cat or dog as target practice, but he also represents a considerable danger for some 15 million of his outdoor-loving compatriotes: walkers, ramblers, joggers, mushroom and blackberry-seekers, horse-riders, mountain-bikers, photographers, and general wild-life observers. In his favour, however, he does seem to be conscious of this: my Englishman has just reminded me of one occasion when, while strolling through a public forest one Sunday afternoon, I myself was the object of a peremptory warning (to the indignation even of the Frenchman in me), from a group of chasseurs that: ‘Vous vous promenez ici à vos risques et périls!’ – ‘Here, you’re walking at your own risk!’ For the French chasseur is enough of a bad shot to be the cause of around 170 accidents per year – more than a score of which are fatal, and three score of which are considered extremely serious. Though 150 of these accidents stay in the family, roughly 20 involve non-shooters – even the most innocent of these.
Evidence of this was provided by a short article which appeared recently in my local weekly newspaper evoking a scenario worthy of the gun-toting Wild West. Last Saturday afternoon, it related, a young boy was playing in a junior football match with his local team when the ball happened to be kicked over onto the nearby road. As he was retrieving it, he was struck in the leg by some sort of projectile. He was immediately rushed to hospital where, after examination, a bullet was extracted from his knee. The article went on to reassure us that the boy’s life was not, however, in danger, and the following morning the gendarmes in charge of the investigation reported that a hunter had presented himself at the gendarmerie, along with rifle and cartridges. It was probably, they explained, a stray bullet which had ricocheted on a rock. It goes without saying that no French government has the political courage to ruffle the feathers of this powerful lobby counting more than 1.4 million voters who dictate their law of the gun.

English Versus French Angling Ethics

Perhaps the biggest difference between French and  English in matters of angling ethics is that the Englishman is far less obsessed with that notion of return on effort which permanently haunts the back of the French hunter, shooter or angler’s mind. So, not only is the Englishman left with enough peace of mind to be able to consider a much larger part of the activity as pleasurable in itself, but he also enjoys a far greater scope to concentrate on the ethics of the sport. Nowhere is this more evident than in angling. It would, for example, be unthinkably improper for the true English trout angler to extract his adversary from its liquid element simply by standing on the bank, and dangling his line in the water with a vulgar worm or tiddler wriggling on the end. Attempting to catch a trout in this way would show a total lack of respect for a noble adversary. Since, for the Englishman, angling is far more a challenging sporting contest between equals, where he pits his skill, patience and experience against a mistrustful, home-based fish, the only fair way of enticing it to bite is by standing up to his thighs in water with an artificial fly on his hook. And usually when the fish has been successfully extracted, the contest is deemed to be over: it will be weighed, perhaps photographed, and then placed lovingly back. It is, nevertheless, true that if the English angler caught the biggest trout or pike of his life, he might be tempted to have it stuffed, encased and placed on public display. But this would be as much, even more, a tribute to the fighting qualities of his adversary than to his own angling prowess.
The English angler could, therefore, remain from dawn to dusk at a lake or riverside, catch nothing and go home in rapturous bliss. Not so with a Frenchman. The French angler who caught the biggest pike in his life would be driven not only by the constant fear of ridicule which gnaws permanently at his soul, but by this same obsessive notion that everything must serve a practical purpose. He would, therefore, have it weighed, have himself photographed with it, then take it home and (what is more natural in a land where cooking has the status of a religion?) seek consecration in the eating. An article which appeared in my local newspaper provides a perfect example of this.  Now, throughout the summer months my local newspaper regularly publishes photos, supplied by the anglers themselves, exhibiting the monstrous specimens of trout, carp, catfish and pike they have extracted, after prolonged and heroic struggle, from the depths of the region’s numerous lakes, étangs and rivers. It even offers an end-of-season prize for the largest capture in each category. My Englishman remembers, in particular, one photo showing an angler proudly displaying a gigantic pike. Such were its monstrous proportions (dwarfing his ten-year-old son purposely placed by its side) that considerable concern was expressed as to the cooking which was far beyond the capacity of an ordinary kitchen oven. In a reassuring attempt at dissipating readers’ fears that the fish’s very size might be an insurmountable obstacle to gastronomic consecration, it was explained that the local baker had kindly offered his assistance by placing at the disposal of the angler’s wife his professionally-sized oven. This, it was emphasized, would have no problem in accommodating the inordinate proportions of the beast. For the true English angler, such shamefully unsporting disrespect for a noble adversary would be considered akin to cannibalism.

 

 

 

English and French Sporting Ethics – Playing Away

A not negligible factor in the English sense of fair play involves a feeling of sympathy for the underdog. Not only is this type of adversary generally expected to be the loser because of his inferior sporting skills, but the circumstances surrounding the impending contest may also be to his disadvantage: the fact that he is operating away from home can have a significant part to play. In these conditions, giving the away-player(s) a sporting chance means going some way towards redressing this acknowledged handicap.
In England, this is usually echoed by a round of warm applause when the visiting team runs onto the pitch, by an acceptance of the referee’s decisions when these go against the home side and, above all, by the cathedral-like silence observed when penalties are being taken by the visitors. In contrast, for the Gallics, performing before your own supporters is an advantage which must be pushed firmly home. As a result, any self-respecting French supporter will use all means at his disposal to make the time spent on the playing field as much of an ordeal for away-team players and supporters (together with linesmen and the referee) as that suffered by General Gordon and his besieged forces on it becoming clear they were hopelessly outnumbered by the Dervish hordes, and that in the impending assault not the slightest quarter would be shown.
And this same notion of being on home or away ground has an equally important part to play in the sporting ethics of hunting and shooting, too. In this respect, my English half remembers a conversation I had during a dinner party in England a few years ago. As venison was on the menu, talk turned to hunting and shooting. On learning there was a French side to me, the elderly, distinguished-looking English gentleman sitting opposite immediately related an experience he’d had in the nineteen fifties while on holiday in the South of France. Hearing there was a ‘pigeon shooting competition’ in a neighbouring village, and being a clay-pigeon shooter himself, he decided to go along to watch. The same horror-struck indignation which had certainly seized him at the time was repeated when he informed us that the ‘clay’ pigeons released were, in fact, made of bone, flesh and feathers!
‘What a shameful transgression of sporting fair-play!’ he went on to add. ‘It was like shooting a sitting duck!’
‘I fail to see the difference, monsieur, between shooting live pigeons and live grouse!’ my  Frenchman countered.
Though the gentleman confessed to being a keen grouse-shooter himself, he adamantly denied infringing any sporting ethics. For him, what distinguished shooting grouse from live pigeons boiled down to a question of playing at home or away. Since grouse shooting takes place on their natural moorland habitat, it was the birds which had the advantage of playing on home ground. This was enough to make them fair game. With live pigeon shooting it was not the case. Releasing them from the away territory of man-made cages made them the defenceless victims of a shameful massacre: for what can be more disgracefully unsporting than to remove this last small chance an adversary has of escaping?
Moreover, this no doubt aristocratically-rooted English attachment to sporting ethics is still in evidence today: for an Englishman can come home at the end of a day’s shooting empty-handed but, as long as he has respected sporting ethics, rapturously happy and satisfied with time spent. The French chasseur, on the other hand, is of le peuple.  He is, above all, a predator. Far be it for my Englishman to imply by this that the chasseur is not insensitive to the profound communion with nature which his sport provides, nor to the warm camaraderie the pursuit of a commonly-shared passion procures; nor, at the limit, is he ignorant of the more rudimentary rules of sporting fair-play. But this notion of playing at home or away leaves him cold. For the French chasseur takes a far more pragmatic view: his primary aim is to avoid the humiliating ridicule involved in not obtaining tangible results, and any shame he might feel would be caused less by shooting a sitting duck than coming home with an empty game bag.
And it is certainly this point which goes somewhere towards explaining why in France at the beginning of each shooting season thousands of human-friendly partridges and pheasants are released from the farms where they were reared, and which they certainly considered as home, to be pitilessly massacred in less than half the time it takes to reload. In a good season’s shooting some 30 million of our feathery and furry friends (15 million of which are farm-raised ‘sitting-ducks’ – pheasants, partridges, mallards, rabbits, etc., released as gun fodder) meet a premature and gory end.

 

French Sporting Involvement – a Question of Passion?

You know, after giving the matter much thought, when it comes to sporting involvement I’m tempted to conclude that most of the difference in attitude between French and English boils down to a question of passion. As a general rule the flames of strong emotion leave the English cold. Is this part of their Victorian heritage? To what extent is it due to the Puritan factor? Can it be the result of a philosophy of education which placed strong emphasis on the systematic inculcation of phlegmatic restraint? Or could it simply be attributed to the sobering effects of a damp climate?
Credibility would seem to be lent to this thesis by the fact that an English judge would certainly not hesitate to sentence a compatriot to life imprisonment in the unlikely event that he emptied a gun on his wife and her lover after finding them in bed together. The French, on the other hand, warm much more to the idea that the fires of intense feeling may destroy rational behaviour. As a result, le crime passionnel would be much more liable to provide a plausible argument for extenuating circumstances, and hence be treated with far greater leniency than a crime of this nature perpetrated in cold blood.
Similarly, in the world of sport, an Englishman tends to show a much greater inclination to accept adversity with the same undemonstrative equanimity as he would show on discovering his spouse in bed with the window-cleaner. As a result he’s inclined to take the relatively dispassionate view that the opposition could actually prove itself equal or even superior. And so, when his team has the misfortune to lose, though some disappointment is naturally felt, that is usually the end of that. The Frenchman, on the other hand, takes a more committed stance – so much so that the Englishman in me cannot help but think that competitive sport for the Gallic is based on a fundamental principle which states that the triumph of the French sporting person or team is inscribed as much in the immutable order of things as the rising of the sun in the east each day. When harsh reality proves the opposite and they have the misfortune to lose, considerable imaginative prowess is shown in invoking reasons which might lead one to believe that defeat was due more to unfavourable circumstance than their own intrinsic inferiority. So frequently is this view encountered, especially in the media, that my own Englishman, has had no difficulty in compiling the following examples of some of the explanations used to absolve the non-performance of his French alter’s sporting countrymen:

‘For some reason we played badly.’
This penetrating analysis was advanced by a French international rugby player to explain defeat at the hands of the hereditary enemy at a Six Nations’ Tournament rugby match. Perhaps the reason he seems to have had so much difficulty in finding was simply the fact that the English played better. Oddly enough, when victory is on the French side it has yet to be heard suggested that the opposition played badly.

‘They were more realistic than us.’
The word ‘realism,’ or rather the lack of it, often crops up to explain French defeat, and my Englishman is not 100% sure what is really meant – perhaps that the opposition got their heads down, took their chances, and generally adapted their game to the conditions they were actually operating in: unplayable pitch, foul weather, hostile opposition supporters, incompetent referee, etc. In an ideal world, of course, where opponents are determined to let the French win, and playing conditions couldn’t be better (pitch like a bowling green, holiday weather, opposition supporters and referee entirely devoted to their cause) there can be only one winner.

‘The pitch was so uneven it stopped us taking advantage of our superior technique.’
The French B Soccer Team Manager offering his explanation as to why his prodigies managed only a disappointing away draw against a lowly African team by doing his best to convince us that bumps can be great levellers.

‘He was the victim of a boxing accident.’
A French T.V. commentator attempting to get us to swallow the fact that a French boxer being knocked out in the first round of a World Championship contest after two minutes flat was due more to the disastrous effects of his chin finding itself in the wrong place at the wrong time than the effectiveness of his opponent’s left hook.

‘They didn’t win. We lost.’
Yet another attempt to retrieve a semblance of superiority from
humiliating defeat. Curiously, when victory is French, we have yet to hear ‘We didn’t win. They lost.’

‘His game was just stifled by the incredible heat.’
One journalist’s explanation as to why a French tennis champion lost a five-set marathon during the Australian Open against a lesser ranked opponent. Things must have been much cooler on the other side of the net.

‘Everything was against us.’
The weather and/or pitch conditions, physical and/or mental state of the French player(s), the referee, the opposing team and/or their supporters, fate, etc. can all unite to cause a catastrophic accident of nature.

‘We were unnerved by the deafening silence.’
So accustomed are French rugby players and footballers to converting tries or taking penalty kicks to an ear-shattering accompaniment of hooting, howling, whistling, drum-beating and horn-blowing on the part of opposing supporters that these have become a sine qua non for their successful accomplishment. This the perfidiously hypocritical English have long since understood and, consequently, providing the very opposite type of environment, i.e. where a pin can be heard to drop, is a nigh-on infallible way of putting off the most accurate of Gallic kickers.

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Golf à la Française – The Case of the Rotten Stake

While some historians maintain that the first golf ball was lofted in the Low Countries (the Dutch word kolf meaning ‘club’), and others point out that the Romans played a sport using a bent piece of wood and a ball made of feathers, it’s generally agreed that it was the Scots who defined the rules, and obtained official recognition for the game in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. And, as my Frenchman has just chipped in to say, the course of history shows that the game of golf is not devoid of Gallic influence too; for not only do links exist between golf and Mary Stuart, future queen of Scotland who, in the sixteenth century, introduced the game to France, but the word ‘caddie’, he maintains, is a derivation of the French word cadet (junior) used to designate the young men who helped players carry their clubs at that time.
Our Anglo-Saxon golf-playing readers might be tempted to think that The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of Saint Andrews’ multitudinous rules and regulations leave golfers no option but to be a model of correctness on the fairways and greens of our planet. Regrettably, this is not always the case. For this nit-picking complexity provides the French golfer with an infinite number of opportunities to torture them into complying with what he wants them to say. Take an experience I recently had.
Now, my Englishman’s inborn modesty does not prevent him from encouraging in me the belief that I am a considerably better golfer than my neighbour, Monsieur Martin. Yet, whenever we play together he usually manages to win. Just how does he do it? The case of the rotten stake says it all.
The other day Monsieur Martin and I played a round of golf together. Now, honesty compels me to admit that, on this occasion, Monsieur Martin played well enough to merit our scores being level as we teed off at the eighteenth. Now the eighteenth hole of our local course is a relatively straightforward par three of around 160 yards, the only hazard being a small, deepish bunker placed just in front of the green with two thick bushes along its right side. Even though  Monsieur Martin and myself hit reasonably straight drives, neither of our balls were to be seen when we walked up to the green. After some searching, we finally located mine which had rolled so far beneath the low-hanging branches of one of these bushes as to render any form of club-based extraction impossible. I had, therefore, to resign myself to declaring my ball unplayable, picking it up and dropping it with a one-point penalty. My initial dismay was, however, somewhat attenuated by the fact that Monsieur Martin’s ball had suffered a similar fate, as it was reposing beneath the other bush.
‘Ah, a penalty for you also, mon cher Martin!’ I exclaimed.
‘Mais pas du tout, mon vieux!’ Monsieur Martin retorted, after bending down and lifting up the overhanging branches of the bush to reveal an old, rotting, barely-visible wooden stake still attached to its trunk.
‘Vous voyez,’ he triumphantly declared, ‘my bush is still staked. I can drop my ball without a penalty point!’ *
Whereupon Monsieur Martin proceeded to drop his ball and finished on a par – thereby winning the round by one stroke. Afterwards, over a drink in the clubhouse, it was certainly my Englishman who prompted me to ask whether he would have informed me of the stake’s presence, had it been my ball which he’d found under that bush.
Who knows?’ he replied with an enigmatic smile.

* My environmentalist readers will be pleased to learn that, in order to protect young staked trees, bushes and shrubs from the risk of collateral damage when a golfer attempts to strike a ball lying in close proximity, The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of Saint Andrew’s rules stipulate that it may be dropped at a distance (in accordance with a strictly defined procedure), with no penalty point. It goes without saying that in the above case, though technically-speaking the rule still applied, the tree had attained a degree of maturity which had long since caused the stake, and consequently the rule to have lost all raison d’être.

 

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