As anyone that knows me will know, I love certain types of French food. I have never yet met a cheese too strong or too smelly, I would happily eat nothing but bread all day, and I adore any kind of cake, as long as there’s no meringue lurking in it. Living here for five months has also taught me to appreciate red wine and black coffee (although not in the same glass!), although my intern’s salary tends to mean I prefer to partake of the former when someone else is paying. But let’s be honest, there’s a fair bit of French cuisine that’s pretty closed to me: no snails, no frog’s legs, no boeuf bourguignon or confit duck, no steak tartare (no steak at all!)… I could go on. Thus, of course, my cake odyssey. But girl cannot (sadly) live on cake alone. So what am I to do?
Having a tendency to discover obscure local events and turn up as the only person without a family who’s lived in the town for twelve generations, I had somehow found out that there was a ‘Salon du Terroir’ in Auvers-sur-Oise this weekend. As dedicated followers will know, a few weeks ago I set out for said Auvers and ended up stuck in Pontoise with a millefeuille: maybe today was ripe for a second attempt! After a narrow miss with Pontoisian train disaster for a second time (is there ever not a problem with that station?), when the shiny new train that had promised Auvers suddenly made us get off and drove off, leaving us withe prospect of a wait for over an hour for the next one, before they changed their minds and let us onto a manky old graffiti-covered thing instead, I arrived in a rather sleepy town at the same time as a group of Japanese girls obviously here for Van Gogh’s grave. Obligatory photo of Vincent and Théo out of the way (and yes, on the signs pointing to the cemetery they’re just referred to as Vincent and Théo: no surname specification needed!), I proceeded to ignore the bright red signs pointing me to a series of tourist attractions that were shut for the winter (not sure how I feel about visiting the room Van Gogh died in anyway, whether or not the downstairs is now a fairly pricey restaurant: the fact that it hasn’t been lived in or basically touched since makes the idea of going and gawping at his bed a bit weird) and found my way to one ‘Salon du Terroir’.
Now, I’ll be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure what I expected it to be. I had a vague idea that it had something to do with this whole Beaujolais nouveau thing that was on Thursday (and trust me, that’s big: I’ve even seen boulangeries selling wine that they’ve acquired somewhere, along with suggestions of bread to eat with it, of course!), and there was promise of ‘dégustation’: always an excellent reason to do anything. What it actually involved was a slightly random assortment of tents and rooms in the equivalent of the civic hall with various producers selling various foods. There was a lot of wine, ranging from the wildly expensive to the fairly reasonable, all with nice little stories about their wee rows of grapes harvested by monks or in the grounds of a Medieval château or part of a wholesome community project to help Egyptian children… (Slight exaggeration on the last one, but there was a stall selling crafts to raise funds for an Egyptian orphanage!) And it wasn’t, of course, a case of grabbing a plastic thimbleful and glugging it: these guys had rows of carefully washed glasses, and were doing all of that swirling and sniffing palaver (although not spitting, I noticed!) whilst having in depth conversations about notes of spinach and fried eggs in this one, versus hints of overboiled cabbage and ripe Camembert in that one (you know what I mean!)
Now I’ll be honest, I have neither the confidence nor the money for indulging in all of this, and I’m not sure they’d let me if I tried. So I went for the samples of cheese, the chocolate, the mysterious jam that was impossible to eat (they gave you a little wooden coffee stirring thing, and it had whole fruits in it!), the Breton salted caramel and the gluten-free vegan cookies (but what’s in them in that case?), whilst steering well clear of anything that looked like it might once have been alive (I’m looking at you, terrine man!) Oh, and I spent a fair bit of time hovering around the tea and spices stand, because it smelt amazing. Terroir may have been pushing it a bit when there was Iranian saffron and Italian tapenades on offer, as well as a couple of German guys doing pretzels (which the French call ‘bretzels’, just to be odd), although they looked like they might have a bit better idea of what they were doing than the crepe man making omelette-thick pancakes and spilling batter everywhere, but it was pretty fun.
Stop two on gastronomic journey day: l’Isle Adam. I had no idea what was there, but it was two stops on the train and I had time to kill. Answer: not a lot there, although it is very pretty and has a ‘beach’, which is basically a load of sand dumped on the riverbank and a funny shelf contraption that turns part of the river into a sort of pool. Sadly, but entirely unsurprisingly, angry red flags were flying as O passed. What I did see, however, was a sign for a ‘Marché européenne’ for Christmas. And we all know I love a good Christmas market… Once again to a civic hall, where I had the strange impression that a) they hadn’t finished setting up yet and b) I was the first and only customer so far. Evidence of European-ness was slim, but hidden amongst the crappy Christmas presents (yes, you can feel reassured, the French make, buy and sell tat as well) was a rather shy looking couple from the town’s twin in Germany (their fruit and nut bread was delicious) and a group from Stratford selling tea and things covered in union flags. And then, as I made my escape, a moment of excitement. A plastic plate with a heap of mince pies. Well, I thought they were mince pies, although they were labelled as ‘gâteaux “maison” à “l’anglaise”‘. More scepticism in written form it is not possible to express: the Adamois clearly weren’t buying that English people actually eat these things. First look at scrappy piece of paper price list: 3€ for a mince pie?! Second look: 0.30€ for a homemade mince pie? The look of amazement I got when I requested one was hilarious, but let me tell you, it tasted pretty good. Pastry a little thicker than I would have liked, maybe, but it was a mince pie! My first and probably last until the 23rd December, so it certainly did the trick.
And then on to part three. Ages ago I had found out about an evening race in a town called Tournan-en-Brie (no, I didn’t just spot it because of the cheese, honest!), which sounded a lot of fun: 11km (or a 19km option, but I wasn’t quite up for that!) of running across fields and forest trails, starting at 8pm in November (so it’s pitch dark), with a head torch and one of those glow sticks you get for UV club nights. Entry price? A bag of food to be donated to a homeless shelter. Reward for finishing? Onion soup. So, to cut a long story short, I did it and enjoyed it, was 1st woman (having been cheered on by several marshals as ‘Allez les garç… Allez Madame!’, getting annoyed with walkers clogging the drink station as they were having a bit of a chat, being directed to turn right just next to a large swampy puddle-y bog (then quickly being corrected, since in fact it was straight on, then right: so why say ‘turn right?’) and getting to use my best grumpy runner French when two marshals were stood by a crossroads in a completely ambiguous way), and got the usual question of where I was from, and amazement that a Mancunian had found her way to their race… Oh, and they gave me quite a handy bag as a prize.
The important bit, however, was the post-race tea, or, since it was nearly 9pm by now, supper. There was onion soup, as advertised, complete with croutons and cheese (sadly not brie, but you know, beggars can’t be choosers, and hungry runners will eat anything!). There was fruit and pain d’épices, which I love in all its forms (homemade with only honey, flour, bicarb and spices by Alain the boulanger I stayed with in Liomer, or supermarket-bought, spread with butter and dunked in tea when Hermine wasn’t looking at the Château de Sacy). And most excitingly, there were freshly-made churros (or as the French call them, chi-chis, which I think sounds rather daft…), dusted in sugar and with a little pot of proper chocolate sauce like they do in Spain for dunking. Now that makes running 11km worth it!
And my point? Firstly, that I’m not missing out by not eating meat, it just means that my food delights are a little different. And secondly that food is one of those amazing things that crosses borders so easily that we don’t even notice half of the time. For me, Christmas needs stollen and mince pies (and I love a bit of panettone as well), a camembert sandwich can always use a little old-fashioned English chutney, and one of the nicest things I’ve eaten for ages was a pitta bread filled with grilled cauliflower and Middle Eastern sauces and spices. It’s not any kind of ‘fusion food’ or concept, it’s just eating what we like and being open to trying new things. Now I just need to get the French onto custard…