Call of France

A Trilogy by Barry A. Whittingham

Category: French Foods

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 Frogs and Frogs


The Frenchie in us has never quite been able to comprehend why
the thought of eating the legs of such inoffensive little creatures as frogs should inspire such unmitigated horror in the majority of you English; nor, given the fact that the legs of this same amphibian are enjoyed by other nations of our planet, why only Gallics are considered so intimately associated with it that the name should have come to be so cruelly synonymous (the French attempt at vengeance with ‘les rosbifs’ is mild by comparison) with them. Our Anglo, on the other hand, has always been at a loss to understand how the rear members of so viscous, unsightly a creature as a frog could have come to be considered such a refined delicacy of French cuisine.
Though the consumption of frogs’ legs is a well-established, organized and widespread enough tradition to justify it being termed an institution, the French are not daily consumers (in spite of what some English people might think), and eating them is considered a special treat, usually taking place in a restaurant and limited to the early days of Spring. And it is not, in fact, the legs, but their fleshy upper part, les cuisses, the thighs, which are consumed, though it’s not unknown for some to extract additional pleasure by sucking and munching the bones. In the past, frogs were collected in millions – in daytime by means of a red rag (for some inexplicable reason frogs are fatally drawn to red), and at night they were mesmerized by the light of a torch. In view of the rapidly declining numbers, however, it has now been made illegal to harvest them commercially, and frogs may only be taken for personal consumption. So, most frogs’ legs eaten in the Hexagon today were attached to the bodies of foreign-spawned aquatics flown in live.
It goes without saying, however, that a certain amount of poaching still goes on. An indication of how seriously this is taken was provided by an article which appeared recently in our local newspaper. Two men, a father and his son, it related, had been caught red-handed collecting a total of 417 frogs encaged in 11 lobster-type pots, surreptitiously deposited in a neighbour’s mere. Not only did these considerable numbers suggest that their antics had a commercial outlet (the wholesale price of a kilo is around 30 euros), but the offences took place during the reproduction period at the beginning of March when frogs are especially easy to capture. Apparently, this was not their first attempt, and it was estimated they had poached at least 1,000 batrachians annually over a number of years. Though the accused pleaded that the frogs were solely for personal consumption, the magistrate thought otherwise: for the father was fined 2,000 euros (he didn’t bother to turn up in court), while the son was made to fork out 1,000.
Restaurant owners usually obtain their provisions at the airport, take the frogs back home, where they are kept alive in special tanks before enduring, on, of course, a far greater scale (as many as 4,000 tons are consumed each year), a fate very similar to the one we have described above. As far as the eating is concerned, it’s difficult to understand what all the fuss is about: the taste is a relatively bland cross between chicken and fish, and one of the native russet species (rana temporaria) is said to have a noticeable hazelnut flavour. Though sophisticated gourmet variations do exist, normal cooking is extremely straightforward, and when fried in butter with a sprinkling of parsley, together with a few crushed cloves of garlic, they go down a treat. Not only does French table etiquette permit the use of fingers when eating, but they are expected to be licked in audible appreciation. Usually frogs’ legs are consumed in dozens and, incredible as it may sound to some, many restaurants now follow the Anglo-Saxon all-you-can-eat fashion by offering, for an all-inclusive price, as many as can be got down.

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

Barry’s Frenglish Folies is available as a free Ebook download at :

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/691726

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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 :

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/691726

Picking Wild Mushrooms in France

Wild mushroomsIf you’ve been enticed across the Channel by the prospect of living a rural idyll, picking wild mushrooms in France will probably be high on your list of activities . Literally hundreds of varieties of cèpes grow in the forests and fields. Here are ten tips which I hope will help to make it a rewarding experience.

1. The exact quantity of mushrooms you’re legally allowed to pick depends on the region but is usually limited to around two kilos per day. Recently there have been problems with some East Europeans who actually camp in the forests, remove commercial quantities, literally pillaging certain parts. As a result, mushroom picking in certain areas has now been restricted to the locals. Be aware that officers of the ONF (Office national des forêts) are now on the prowl, and offenders could find themselves facing a maximum fine of 750 euros. So play the game and only pick for your personal consumption.

Propriété privée2. The rules of elementary politeness require you to ask the owner’s permission when you envisage picking wild mushrooms in private fields and forests.

3. That forest you go picking wild mushrooms in is probably vast (some forests in France are more than 300 square kilometres in area), so don’t get too carried away. If you stray too far from the beaten track you could lose your sense of orientation and find yourself hopelessly lost. So don’t forget your mobile so you can call the police.

Pharmacie4.  Some wild mushrooms and fungi are poisonous, and the visual difference between edible or not can be minimal. Eating the wrong ‘uns can cause great discomfort, even death (each year approximately 30 people never live to pick again) – so choose only those you know. If in doubt get your local pharmacist to give it the once over. As part of his studies he’s been trained to identify the dangerous ones. But it’s probably even better to ask a local.

Cueillir des champignons5. Like many things in France picking wild mushrooms is subject to a myriad of rules and regulations as to how, when and where. For more detailed information consult your local mairie. The most important rules are that they can only be picked when a certain size, and you’ve got to cut (and never uproot) the stalk at the bottom using a knife only. And you’re also supposed to carry them in a wicker basket so that the spores can fall out. This helps propagation.

Hunter6. You might think that the most dangerous part of picking wild mushrooms in France is the risk of eating a poisonous one. This is not necessarily the case. Always remember that in the Autumn months you’ll be sharing the forest with hunters – so you could be mistaken for a deer or a wild pig. The French chasseur is short-sighted enough (or such 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. Roughly 20 of these accidents involve non-hunters while the remaining 150 stay in the family.  So be wary when you venture into the forest – even if it’s just for a post-prandial stroll. It might be a good idea to wear a fluorescent jacket.

Morel mushrooms7. If you live more in the south you might be tempted to go looking for the distinctive honeycombed and uniquely-flavoured morille (morel) mushroom. They’re expensive to buy in shops (350 euros a kilo), and prized by gourmet cooks, many of whom consider them equal to truffles. Don’t go after them in Autumn, though, for the simple reason that they only grow at the beginning of Spring. They pop up mainly in forests when the snow begins to melt. They tend to grow around pine trees in the mountains, and near elm and ash elsewhere. And they often hide among dead leaves. It can be like looking for a needle in a haystack but don’t get discouraged. You’ll gradually acquire a sixth sense and it’ll all be worth it.

8. You can dry them by piercing the stalk with a needle and thread and hanging them upside down in a dry room.

9. Don’t expect even your French pals to tell you where the best morille spots are. They’re jealously guarded secrets. One of my friends finds hundreds  every year but the only information I’ve been able to drag out of him as to their whereabouts is ‘South from here.’ In the Jura where I live the best spots are only passed on from father (usually on his deathbed) to son.

10. Uncooked wild mushrooms freeze badly but dry well, and can be stored in airtight containers. However, they’re best consumed the day they’re picked. Don’t put them in a plastic bag as this will cause them to sweat.

The French Breakfast

It has always been an enigma to me that the English, so universally condemned for the uninspired nature of their cooking, could have managed to impose on our planet such a varied, copious and delicious meal as the cooked breakfast; or how their French neighbours, 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 butter, or a solitary croissant, and a bowl of watery coffee or hot chocolate by which to start the day.

English breakfastThis is not to say, however, that the French fail to appreciate the qualities of a full English breakfast. But there exists, perhaps, no other country in the world where so many people unreservedly admit that 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 or during the holidays. This was confirmed to me during a recent trip to Portugal in the company of a group of 20 or so French people. Not only was I the only person hungry enough to indulge in egg, bacon, sausage, fried bread and tomatoes, mushrooms and baked beans, but a great deal of surprise (and in one case horror) was expressed at my stomach’s ability to cope with such copious and varied quantities of food at that early hour of day.

And according to a recent survey conducted by the Credoc (Centre de recherche pour l’étude et l’observation des conditions de vie) on Gallic eating habits the French breakfast has suffered such a severe decline over the past ten years that now only one person in five is willing to devote an average of 14 minutes per day to eating it.  And they don’t necessarily do this every day. Is this a sign that the meal is on the point of disappearing in France? Whatever the case may be the danger is present enough for producers of breakfast foods and drinks to launch a campaign designed to convince their compatriots that going to work or school on an empty stomach is not the best of ways to start the day.

And not only has the number of French people who eat a breakfast progressively declined over the last ten years but the tendency seemed to have accelerated last year. Is it because people are in more and more of a hurry in the morning? Or is it just one more manifestation of the present economic crisis? It’s still too early to say – even if the common ingredients of the French breakfast are not outrageously expensive. This 2013 tendency  does, however, confirm recent concern shown not only at the drop in consumption of bread, dairy products, cereals and fruit juices, but the impact not eating breakfast may have on our ability to concentrate later in the morning – especially when it comes to schoolchildren, 29% of whom go without breakfast at least once a week compared to only 11% ten years ago.

The decline of the French breakfast is all the more paradoxical as the meal enjoys a generally favourable image in France where 93% of people consider it vital for a good dietary equilibrium. Among those who spend an average of 14 minutes eating breakfast, nine out of ten consider it to be an enjoyable way of starting the day. 95% eat the meal at home (and not in a café), and 88% of these sit at table. However, almost half of them eat alone.

French breakfastJust what does the French breakfast usually consist of these days? Ingredients tend to be varied. It goes without saying that bread is indispensable for 75% of them. Bread is followed by coffee (78%), butter (57%), fruit juice (51%), plain milk (38%), yoghourt and pastries (22%), fresh fruit (15%), honey (14%), while the various types of breakfast spreads available on supermarket shelves come last at 10%.

Wining and Dining in France

The recently arrived Anglophone expat might find the following do’s and don’t’s useful when wining and dining in France – both at a restaurant or a French friend’s home . They’re the result of my own observations, experiences (and mistakes) during more than 40 years of mainly peaceful co-habitation with the French.

Man under shower1. Don’t arrive at a dinner party too early, or even dead on time. Try to organize things so that you turn up five or ten minutes later than the agreed time – otherwise your hostess might still have her apron on, and her husband rinsing himself under the shower.

Chrsyanthèmes au cimetière2. If you’re invited to a meal by a French family in Autumn and you decide to offer your hostess a nice bouquet of flowers, for heaven’s sake don’t go for a bunch of chrysanthemums. Though she’ll do her best not to show it, this could give her the impression you’re wishing her an early demise. Even though in England the chrysanthemum is a hobby plant, and no-one would think twice about brightening up their living room with a nice vase of Japs, in France this flower is inextricably associated with the cemetery and death. Traditionally, they’re placed on the graves of relatives on 1st November (All Saints’ Day).

3.  Wining and dining in France also involves not putting your hands on your knees under the table. For some obscure reason (perhaps some Frenchmen have wandering palms), it’s considered to be the height of bad manners. When not eating, keep them above board: rest your forearms (but not your elbows) on the table where everybody can see them.

Loo4. If you’re wining and dining in France at the home of French friends don’t ask to use the loo (especially during the meal) unless you’re absolutely bursting. Going to the toilet in someone else’s house can be considered to be an impolite invasion of their privacy. So try to bottle it all up until you get back home.

Mopping up sauce5. Always remember that the pleasure of eating was a French invention, and that it was the English who invented the rules. My mother, who always insisted on good table manners when I was a child, would have been horrified, for example, by the French dunk – that widespread habit the Gallics have of systematically using a piece of bread digitally, in much the same way as a sponge, to mop up their soup or the sauce remaining on their dinner plate during the final stages of the main course. Even though it’s not done in the very best of circles (though, apparently, it is tolerated when bread is impaled on fork) the practice is extremely common. In addition, the same technique is frequently resorted to at breakfast time when bread is plunged into a bowl of coffee or hot chocolate until it has imbibed as much liquid as the laws of physics will allow.

Basket of bread6. Unlike in England where it is not systematically provided at meals, bread in France is considered to be an integral part of the pleasure of eating, so don’t be afraid to ask the waiter to fill up the bread basket when it’s getting low.

7. The French are not in the habit of using a side plate on which to place their bread. So don’t be afraid of plonking it on the table cloth on the left side of your plate.

Elbows on table8. My mother always taught me that a meal was eaten using both a knife and fork. In addition, she always insisted that a knife belonged exclusively to the right hand while a fork always stayed in the left. The French have a more liberal view of things. So don’t be surprised when you see them take the earliest opportunity to abandon the knife (unless there’s a piece of steak to be cut up first), transfer fork to right hand and then use it as the sole eating tool for the rest of the meal. What’s more, on a popular TV programme where participants take turns to invite one another to come dine with them at home I’ve even seen contestants unashamedly commit what for my mother was the unpardonable sin of placing their knife in their mouth.

Pouring wine to taste9. When the waiter pours a drop of wine for you to taste don’t give the glass a good swirl and then go into raptures about its focused bouquet, or try to show off by vaunting its complex wild black fruit flavour mixed in with subtle overtones of black pepper spice. It’s simply to know that it hasn’t been corked (i.e. contaminated with a cork taint which makes it smell and taste of damp, soggy wet or rotten cardboard).

Cheese board10. Wining and dining in France means you’ll  be presented with the cheeseboard before the dessert. Even if there’s a huge selection it’s not considered polite to choose more than two. If you do decide to go simply for that nice, mature-looking Camembert, don’t cut yourself too large a wedge by way of compensation. It could give the impression you’re pig greedy. And don’t expect to be provided with crispy cheese biscuits and butter. The French eat their cheese with plain, unbuttered bread.

More about French Eating and Drinking Places

The newly-landed Anglophone expat might also find the following tips of help when it comes to understanding the differences between the various French eating and drinking places:

1. Unlike an English pub, you don’t even need to ask yourself whether that most common of French eating and drinking places will be open. French cafés stay open all day long. Opening hours can, however, vary according to the region in which they’re located and can also depend on the time of year. In Paris and large towns it can be as early as six o’clock in the morning to the early hours of the next (and sometimes all night). In smaller provincial towns they tend to open a bit later and close a little earlier (say 11 o’clock), and are sometimes closed one day a week.

2. In France you don’t go up to the bar, order your drink, pay for it and then take it with you and sit down. There’s always someone to serve you. So you’re not required to do anything more complicated than choose a table, either inside or out, and sit yourself down. Normally someone will quickly come and take your order – though in a busy café you might have to wait. If you choose a table on an empty terrace you might have to pop inside and let them know you’re there – even though they usually check from time to time.

3. If you’re alone and want to see the barman in action (French barmen often have a certain je ne sais quoi) or even have a chat, you can, of course, sit yourself down on a stool at the bar. And sometimes there’s an added bonus – it’s a bit cheaper!

4. All French eating and drinking places are legally obliged to display their official price-list where it can easily be seen. So if you think they’re trying to fleece you, you can always check.

5. If you order a beer it can be either a 25cl or 33cl bottle, or ‘une demi-pression’, or simply ‘un demi’ (literally a half of draught). Strangely, ‘un demi’ doesn’t really mean a half, but a quarter of a litre (25cl). In addition, there’s a line on the glass it’s served in to guide you. So don’t go away with the impression you’ve been under-measured.

6. The French have only the vaguest of notions on how to make a nice ‘cuppa’ so, if you’re British, you’ll probably be sorely disappointed if you order one in a café. Be prepared for just a tea bag dangled in a cup of tepid water.

7. If you order your tea à l’anglaise (i.e. in a teapot with milk) your milk could come pre-heated in a small jug. So if you want something a little nearer the real McCoy you’ll have to specify ‘avec du lait froid, s’il vous plaît!’ when you order. If you want my advice I wouldn’t bother. It’s much simpler to order a beer if you’re a man.  And the wife can always have a ‘une tisane’ (a herb tea) if she wants something warm.

8. If the service is included you’ll find the words ‘service compris’ indicated on your receipt. If it’s ‘service non compris’, or there’s no receipt forthcoming, and you found the service pleasant and efficient, you might consider leaving a tip. Don’t give more than 10% of the total amount.

9. In French eating and drinking places you’re not usually required to pay immediately after being served. In the larger type especially, a receipt may be placed on your table when your drinks are served. You can pay just before leaving. However, it might be more practical and less confusing to pay when he serves you – especially if two or three of you each buy a round. If not you’ll have to catch his eye and call him over. He’ll make a tear in the receipt to show you’ve paid.

10. Though you may come across examples proving the opposite, as a general rule the French tend to value person to person politeness (though this can go by the (dash)board when they get a steering wheel in their hands). So give a cheery ‘bonjour’ when he or she comes to serve you. And don’t be afraid of saying ‘au revoir’ when you leave.

11. Some waiters (especially the Parisian version) can be extremely touchy, even ill-mannered.  So you won’t get off to a good start if you shout ‘garçon’ when you want to attract his attention. It could be considered demeaning and cause him to go into a huff. It’s better to use ‘monsieur’ or ‘madame’, or simply ‘s’il vous plaît’.

12. You must order something when you sit at a table. When you’ve drunk up (even if it’s just a cup of coffee) you’re under no obligation to re-order. And nobody minds (within reason) how long you stay.

13. If it’s around midday and they’re putting table clothes on some of the tables, don’t plonk yourself down there if all you want is a drink. They’re getting ready for lunch. So try to find another.

14. In most cafés you can order a croissant or pain au chocolat to munch with your breakfast café au lait. In the very rare cases they don’t have any (it could happen in a small village café) you could nip off and buy some at the nearest baker’s shop (or they might even offer to do so). Usually, they won”t mind if you consume them with your coffee – though it’s probably better to ask if it’ll be all right.

15. Be aware that under normal circumstances the toilets in French eating and drinking places are not intended for public use – so you’ll be pushing your luck if you treat them in this way. If you want to use them you’ll be expected to buy something to drink. If you’re really bursting you could go to the bar, order something and then inform them you’ll be back, but right now you’re off to’ les toilettes’.

16. If you’re suddenly hit by a bout of acute homesickness you might be tempted to have a drink in one of the many English (or Irish) pubs scattered throughout regions of high-tourist frequentation. Personally I’ve found that, though great pains may have been take to reproduce the real thing (even down to the landlord and bar staff), by some strange phenomenon (it’s the same with tea) I’ve never really been able to fathom, it’s just not quite that. As one Irishman once pointed out to me, ‘Guinness never tastes like Guinness outside Dublin!’

17. Even though a woman could venture alone into a Parisian or large town-centre café (especially if she sits on the terrace), without anybody batting an eyelid, I wouldn’t advise her to do so in a small town or village establishment. These tend to be male oriented and her lone presence might give rise to misinterpretation, if you see what I mean. Mind you, it’s pretty much the same with an English pub. Even though this may have my feminist readers up in arms, I’m afraid it’s harsh reality.

18. Please note that a ‘salon de thé’ (sometimes the English term ‘Tea Room’ is used) is a small café (similar to the English unlicensed one), specializing in cakes, pastries, ice-cream, and serving only hot and cold non-alcoholic drinks to a mainly feminine clientèle. You’ll often find a salon de thé in some of the larger cake shops whose opening hours they more or less follow. So if you want to rest those aching feet and enjoy a refreshment during that Saturday shopping spree they’re really just the thing.

About French Eating and Drinking Places

The newly-landed Anglophone expat might be interested to learn that the distinction between  French eating and drinking places (cafés, bistrots, bars, brasseries and  restaurants) is becoming increasingly blurred and in many cases these words can be used to mean more or less the same thing.

The Café

Terrasse de caféThe most common of French eating and drinking places is, of course, the  café. 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 one, usually owned and run by a local (unlike the frequently brewery-owned British ‘tied’ pub run by a manager having no previous connections with the village) who is head cook, bottle-washer and waiter (or waitress) all rolled into one. And in many cases – especially in the provinces – cafés are frequently the headquarters for a local association or sporting club. One thing all French cafés have without exception, however, is some kind of terrace – the larger ones being 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 and non-alcoholic drinks, both hot and cold. And you can always get something to eat. They will serve you with at least a café au lait and croissants for breakfast, and at any other time of day you can get a snack (at minimum a choice of sandwiches). And even in small towns this can be a more elaborate hot or cold dish and, when there’s a demand, some 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. They all provide a place where shoppers, strollers or tourists can have a bite to eat, slake their thirst or relax on the terrace and simply watch the world go by, and where regulars can meet to share gossip and a joke over an apéro or two. A small-town or village café is, therefore, 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.

Bar tabacSometimes a café is a bar-tabac: the premises include a small tobacconist’s and newsagents shop which, like the café, is open all day long, and where you can buy sweets, chocolate, postcards, stamps and nick-nacks of all kinds. Some are even licensed to sell scratch cards and National Lottery tickets. And the larger ones are sometimes PMU (Pari Mutuel Urbain) licensed. The PMU is a sort of State-controlled betting organization, mainly centred on horse-racing.

The Bistrot

BistrotThough the word is more or less interchangeable with café (especially when it’s not very big), a bistrot 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.

The Bar

BarIn the past the bar was a place (often located in a railway station, hôtel, airport or even on a train) where you could have a quick drink, either standing up 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 has a terrace of some description – even when it’s located inside.  And you can usually get some kind of snack there, too.

The Brasserie

BrasserieLarger 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 you can get 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, Sauerkraut, 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, however, is not normally required.

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