The Art of Eating. (Or, what living with a French boy has taught me about food.) Part One.

Well, the garden is giving grandly of it’s bounty, the terrace kitchen is up and running and we’ve got a bit of a gap before preserving season really kicks in. So I thought it might be the moment to play the grasshopper for just a little longer, and begin what I hope will be an intermittent series about the French and their passionate relationship with oral satisfaction – Yup, grub.

I focus on the mouth because unlike us Brits, I’ve never, ever seen a french person rubbing their belly whilst talking about food. And though I’m not suggesting a full tum is anything but a good thing whatever language you happen to be using, the French seem to view it as more of a happy byproduct of eating than principal aim. For the average Français, picking up a fork can be the overture to a potential taste symphony.

Last night, as I slid a dish into the oven, (quietly congratulating myself on it’s unusually timely completion.) Lilla my nine year old and her pal Zora appeared on the terrace asking if they could make the dinner. To waylay disappointment and encourage the initiative I suggested they prepare the entrée. Sold ! During the next hour pottering and tidying, I was privy to snatches of ardent debate that had me silly grinning at the sink. These kids were discussing which mustard to use ! Just think, a whole lifetime of gustative joy before them !

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There’s a little bit more than motherly pride prompting the sharing of this stuff. Those two French kids, wandering around the garden with their baskets, choosing and picking ingredients, sharing ideas and taste experiences, preparing and presenting beautiful plates, serve as a perfect illustration to the first thing I wrote when making a list of ‘things I have learnt..’ So keep them in mind.

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From the first meals eaten with Christophe’s family I became aware of what I reckon could be one of the cornerstones of the french attitude to food. Watching the adults quietly selecting the choicest morsels on their plates to pop ( without fanfare or tribulation) into the mouth of my then two year old nephew had me open mouthed . Initial reaction – what a waste ! ( we grew up with the idea that only adults could appreciate so many things no?) But as I watched the toddler try, like, try , spit – the conversation, wine, platters, whirling above his head – it all began to make perfect sense.

We do our best to educate our kids. Right from the very beginning, encouraging first smiles, first words, first steps. We’re so proud of that newly gained vocabulary, the concepts and physical capacities that we don’t even notice ourselves skating right past a whole sense.

I understood very little of what was going on at those early French family get togethers, but sometimes not speaking the language can give a certain distance. And it was with growing wonder that I witnessed the early learning being given by this family to their newest member.

We like to entertain here, and have buckets of Brit pals, but there really aren’t that many with whom we can share the whole table experience. A prevalent fear seems to have underscored so many evenings. ‘Try this !’ we’ll say, only to be met with the oh so pat rejoinder, ‘I like what I know, and I know what I like !’ Would you want to listen exclusively to your fave teenage tunes for the rest of your life ? Just a bit limiting. And I know I’m a particularly greedy type, but surely that’s a pretty depressing thought whichever way you come at it ?

Oh and I’m on a ranting roll now, but how many times have I heard a British parent baldly state that their little ray of sunshine ‘doesn’t like that !’ and wanted to scream, ‘But they could!!!’ The palette, like everything else needs an early education that no amount of after school activities will set to rights. Looking at Lilla and Zora, I know they’re not special or unusual, they’re just lucky to have grown up here. To have been given the gift of yet another way to appreciate beauty. And that really can’t be a bad thing can it ?

Chatting with Zoras folks about what I’m writing, Charles laughed looking down at his youngest, ‘and all that’s got to stop’ he said. Yeah right, like we believe that.

So the next time you hear a sprog telling you they don’t like something, take a leaf out of the French book – tell them that although they didn’t like it last time, they may well now – that tastes grow up. Last week they couldn’t ride a bicycle – so it is with taste. Look at your plate, what bit would you like to eat most ? Cut it up and give half to the toddler at the table. Yup, share it and share the moment. Cool eh ?!

And if you want to get totally cynical about it, when you’re old and doddery, think about it, would you rather your visiting progeny brought you a pot noodle or a banquet ?

Gotta hand it to ’em, those funky French have most definately got an extra string to their bow, so why are we denying ourselves all that potential pleasure ?

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Have a great week,

mandy x

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