During my visit to La Pitchoune this past spring, Kathie and I had many conversations about French culture and their love affair with food. It was delightful to hear that children in France are able to name the various varieties of, say, strawberries and know the difference, for example, between an early season Gariguette or a mid-season Ciflorette. And, they can tell the difference by taste. Unfortunately, here in the States, kids oftentimes are barely taught the difference between a raspberry and a strawberry, much less different varieties of the same fruit or vegetable.
Kathie also mentioned that one year, she was a judge for a cooking competition for elementary school children where the winner was awarded a dinner with their parents at a one-star Michelin restaurant. Has anyone ever heard of such a competition anywhere in the United States? If so, please let me and our compatriots know.
Then there was the afternoon where Kevin and I were enjoying a late lunch in the salon of the Ephrussi de Rothschild Villa near Nice. What a pleasant surprise to see a 10 year old young lady enjoying lunch with her family and eating a salad with a fork and knife with a napkin in her lap. Here at home, all I hear is, “Kids don’t like…,” “Parents don’t have time…,” “It’s too much trouble to teach….,” etc. Then we wonder why we have issues with childhood obesity. Or we spend hundreds of dollars taking etiquette classes as adults.
I know this one may be a little extreme, but I’d like to get my hands on the DVD about which Kathie spoke on the “proper” way to eat bread in France. Yes, an hour long documentary not on how to make a baguette, but how bread, in the estimation of a French person, should be eaten. For example, if there is no bread plate, your piece of bread is set on the table. One reason is to see how the “crumb” is for the particular bread in hand. Also, one doesn’t tear off a hunk of bread with their teeth, that is considered boorish. One takes a portion only as big as will fit in one’s mouth.
Additionally, there’s the whole ritual surrounding the cheese course. This takes place after the salad course and before dessert. Generally, 3 or 4 different cheeses are served on a platter, each with their own flavor components ranging from mild to pungent. The choices may include a fresh and aged chèvre, a camembert, and maybe a blue. One is welcome to taste one or all, but there are two important things to remember. If the cheese is served as a wheel, it is important to cut a wedge, much like you would cut into a pie. Also, only take as much as you will enjoy.
Cheese is expensive and not to be wasted. If the offering on the platter is a wedge, cut your piece all the way down the side and always cut your serving from the same side as what has already been cut. Under no circumstances should you cut the tip off the wedge. This is a no-no and a surefire way to get glares from the other guests. The reason for this is that cheese ages from the outside (rind) to the middle. Therefore, there are different flavor components throughout the wheel. If you cut off the “nose,” you have just taken what some would consider the best part of the cheese. The reason to continue cutting from where the first cut was made is that the entire wheel, wedge, or pyramid of frommage is rarely eaten during one meal. Therefore, you want to keep it looking as pristine as possible to serve at tomorrow night’s meal.
Etiquette and rituals are not for their own sake (now I’m sounding like a liturgist). In these cases, they are in place to show respect to the person who grew the food, prepared, and served the meal. Rituals surrounding the table also show respect for the food itself. So whether you are raising a glass of wine or an aperitif, look the person in the eye as you clink your glass and offer a “Santé.” Oh, and don’t cross arms when toasting, as that is considered bad luck.