Call of France

A Trilogy by Barry A. Whittingham

Category: French Culture

Thoughts on the French Dunk


The English and French Breakfast

It has always been an enigma to the French part of our Frenglish self that you English, so universally condemned for the uninspired nature of your cooking, could have managed to impose on our planet such a varied, copious and delicious meal as the cooked breakfast; and our English half is no less mystified that the French, who have elevated cooking to no less than a creative art, could have come up with nothing more imaginative than a miserable slice of bread and a bowl of watery coffee by which to start the day. Nevertheless, this is not to say that the Gallics do not appreciate the qualities of a full English breakfast. But there exists perhaps no other country in the world where so many people unreservedly admit there’s nothing like a substantial meal to get the day off to a flying start, and where so few actually find it possible to believe that anyone can have either the time or the stomach to  take it – even at the weekend.

A Soggy Mass

What our Englishman finds far more regrettable than the insipid, insufficient nature of the French breakfast is the manner in which it is frequently ingested: for a widespread Gallic practice (as rampant as queue-jumping, street demonstrations, strikes and le Système D) consists in plunging bread or croissant into a breakfast bowl of coffee (or hot chocolate) until the former has imbibed as much of the latter as the laws of physics will allow. The soggily unappetizing mass thereby produced is then popped into mouth, munched with relish before finally being allowed to slide down throat.

 An Ancient Ritual?

Does the practice (hereinafter referred to as ‘the French dunk’) draw its origins from some ancient Gallic ritual which required food to be dipped into a recipient containing the still warm blood of a vanquished foe? Is it now considered to be a pre-masticatory phase essential to a digestive system not yet in full working order at this early time of day? Or does it simply provide a means of adding a modicum of taste to a meal more suited to a prison punishment diet? Whatever the case may be, the habit is endemic enough to constitute an infallible sign of French presence in the breakfast room of any foreign holiday hotel.

A Breach of Table Etiquette

Beyond the doubtful gustatory merits of the French dunk and the nauseous spectacle it presents, what shocks the Englishman in us even more is that this use of bread to perform a function more commonly associated with that of a sponge represents a gross breach of table etiquette: for an elementary rule of good table manners states that solids and liquids may only  be united after being despatched separately down throat.

Other Meals

Our Englishman might have been prepared to grant some attenuating circumstances, had the French dunk been restricted to breakfast alone, which, considering the early hour this usually takes place, would have enabled it to go unnoticed by those non-dunkers still under the influence of their recent dormant state. Regrettably, the same technique is unashamedly presented to fully-awakened public gaze during meals consumed at other times of the day, particularly (though not limited to) ther final stages when most solid matter has been transferred from plate to stomach, and little else remains but the sauce. In this respect, moreover, such is the assiduity with which bread is used to wipe the plate clean that subsequent washing is rendered entirely superfluous.

The Pronged Derivative

The rules of French table etiquette, though making no mention of breakfast dunking, do, in fact, condemn the main-meal habit of using bread digitally to mop up sauce. It would, however, appear to be tolerated when bread is impaled on fork. But even our Frenchman has rarely witnessed this pronged derivative in action, and personal experience would lead us to believe that, like most rules in France, it tends to be ignored. It might also be thought that in this land of rampant individualism, daily strikes and general protestation the nation would have counted an equal number of anti-dunkers. In reality, this is not at all the case. For on this point, at least, the country is resolutely united. Indeed, so much a part of the national heritage is the custom that not only has the verb ‘saucer’ been derived to describe it, but it is systematically inculcated in progeny barely weened from their mothers’ milk.

Attenuating Circumstances?

Though our Englishman remains stubbornly hostile to the French dunk, the Froggie in us recommends that a far more tolerant stand should be taken. For who can say whether even the most well-mannered of English diners would not succumb to the temptation to dunk, were he presented with that rich variety of deliciously-fresh, good-quality, easily-prepared, natural and inexpensive sauces which the French have elaborated to accompany food?  And would it not be something akin to profanation that they should suffer the same cruel fate as their crude, often bottled English and American counterparts whose un-dunked remains are so frequently laid to rest down the kitchen-sink plughole?


This blog is based on an article from the author’s latest book Barry’s Frenglish Folies, ‘a potpourri of serious, humorous and seriously humorous reflections on the French and English viewed through the eyes of a split-identity and occasionally demented Frenglishman’.

You can download the free Kindle, Ebook or PDF edition of Barry’s Frenglish Folies by following the link below :

The French and the Doggy Bag

Doggy bag 3If you’re eating in a restaurant in the U.K. or America you probably wouldn’t think twice about asking the waiter for a bag or box so you can take that nice bit of filet 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. If you asked for one  in a restaurant here 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 recent study 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 another 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.

Doggy bag 2What’s more, some young entrepreneurs see this as a market opening, and are doing their best to make the 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 Restopack, Restrobon (Restes trop bons pour être jetés), or even Gaspipa.

Intercultural Relationships

Newly married coupleThe recently-landed Anglo-Saxon expat might find the following tips and observations food for thought when addressing some of those problems which intercultural relationships with the  French can bring. They’re based on my own experiences during more than 40 years of co-habitation with the same French partner.


Newly wed couple1. As far as marriage is concerned the basic principles which govern intercultural relationships are not very different from those which go to make a happy and successful union between a couple of the same nationality living in their home country. It’s just that the sources of possible disputes are greater, can run more deeply and have, therefore, a higher risk of leading to argument, recurrent conflict and, in extreme cases, final separation. Religious, social, political and cultural variations can raise their potentially divisive heads, codes of behaviour can be at variance, language can be a formidable barrier, and even relatively trivial matters like eating habits or food preferences can pose problems. And if you have children, your views could diverge on how to bring them up. All the more reason why a big effort must be made to be open-minded, tolerant, patient, understanding and willing to seek a compromise, while not neglecting those values of mutual respect, honesty and sincerity which are essential to all healthy relationships. It also helps to have a sense of humour.

2. Even though hitching up with one of the natives is not necessarily a bed of roses, it’s the quickest and most effective way of integrating a foreign country as it will give you instant access to your partner’s friends and relations.

3. Though you might be convinced that love conquers all, be aware of the sobering thought that the friends, and especially the relatives of your beloved can make or break an international relationship. For reasons I won’t go into here, your French girl/boy friend’s maman and/or papa might be hostile towards you as a foreigner.  At heart they might prefer their daughter/son to settle down with a native. She/he could be influenced by them.

4. Communication is an essential though difficult aspect of every relationship, whether cross cultural or not. Depending on your level as a non-native speaker, language can be an even greater barrier as it can prevent you from expressing in any great detail or with the required nuances what you really think or feel, or understanding what your partner thinks or feels. My only advice here is patience, patience, patience. Be aware, however, that even though patience is generally considered to be a virtue, it’s one which some French people don’t seem to have.

5. Being obliged to evolve in a foreign language can also be a source of conflict from a social point of view. For even though you can take a leading part in social life back home where you can express yourself in your mother tongue, you might find yourself in the frustrating position of having to play second, or even third fiddle when confronted with the same situations in a foreign language. And even if your French is well up to par the fact that the subject of conversation could be something or someone you yourself have never known could seriously reduce the the extent to which you can participate in it. So when your partner is a native speaker, at some time or other as an expat Anglophone you’re going to have to cope with the disagreeable feeling of being left out, or even ignored in the conversation your beloved is having with friends and relatives. This can be a source of exasperation and could put a strain on relations. It’s something you should talk about together.

6. You’ll also have to decide, of course, which language you’re going to use between you at home. This will depend very much on circumstances, your motivation and degree of fluency. In my own case French was a natural choice since I was a French schoolmaster in England and already spoke the language well on arriving in France. Not only did it correspond to my own desire to embrace the country, its language and culture to the full, but it suited my French partner who had neither the need nor the desire to speak or write English beyond the commercial requirements imposed by her job. If your French partner’s English is better than your French you might be tempted to speak English at home. This is the easy way out. If speaking French all the time would be too wearing for you both, why not schedule regular French-speaking sessions as part of your domestic routine? And if you have children, be aware that bringing them up in a bi-lingual context is an excellent way of giving them a head start in life. Discuss this between you, decide on certain rules, and stick to them.

7. Though it’s not really the subject of this article, when the person you’re sharing your life with is of the same nationality as yourself, living in a foreign culture and maintaining happy relations within a marital or live-in partnership can still be a challenging prospect. After all, it’s not because you’re really enjoying renovating that old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere that she necessarily feels the same. I mean, that cock which insists on crowing at the crack of dawn each day could be getting on her nerves, she could be fed up with not being able to find an interesting job, and missing friends and family back home much more than you think. Make sure your channels of communication are wide open.

8. In France great progress has been made over the last three decades in the name of male and female equality, and now most Frenchmen don’t consider it beneath them to help with the dusting or change baby’s nappy. Remember, however, that you’re living in a culture which only gave women the vote in 1945, and which as late as 1963 didn’t allow a female to open a bank account without her husband’s or father’s permission. Just be aware that the gallant Frenchie you’re so madly in love with may reveal he has a more traditional perception of gender roles once you bed down together.

9. A common Anglo Saxon misconception about the French male is that he’s always on the look-out for extra-marital gratification. While this was a little true in the past, especially among the bourgeoisie, where it was relatively common for the master of the household to seduce their naive, country-raised maid who feared that not letting him have his way would mean her losing her job, this would rarely be tolerated today.

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