It’s noon on the dot — although there’s no watch weighing down my wrist, I know this because the town’s belle tower is emitting a vibration that fills the air, and shakes the streets. It’s the sound that signifies so many things. Time for repose, time for a warm tarte, time for the farmer’s market to pack up and return to their own family’s table. I’m reminded that it seems the only thing I ever do in this country is eat, sleep, repeat. It’s appropriate to have a glass of rosé at this hour, and so my siesta is heavy and often lasts well into the late afternoon. I hardly feel guilty, I’m on vacation, and plus the streets are practically barren during these hours anyways. Back home I don’t prepare meals other than the random dinner. I throw things on a cutting board, wolf them down, get back to my keyboard. Here there are days when we prepare extensive salads of fresh produce, burrata, thick with balsamic. Others we purchase fresh ravioli from the Italian’s at the market. When boiled they become much larger than we ever could have anticipated but we gorge ourselves silly on them. And then there’s bread, there’s always the warm bread from the baker just down the street. We plan to get there early so we can snatch up the best baguettes before the working crowd. I’ve stayed so many days in this town that I begin to recognize faces. Not just the vibrant blonde girl that serves our morning cappuccinos, but during these mid-day hours as people flood from their offices on to the cobble stones. It almost makes me think I live here. There’s more than a handful of reasons why I come back here every summer. One being for now it’s easier than the paperwork for a work visa. But truly it’s because there’s a lifestyle here that reminds one what the core of joy itself is in such a tumultuous time: our loved ones, delicious dishes, and moments of meditation on beauty.
In the second installment of our Lessons in Becoming French we dive into the Ritual of Food.
I have had the opportunity of experiencing two vastly different ways the French take on food. Let me regain my place as expert here, while I may hold some ignorance towards fashion, I am a foodie. I enjoy expanding my skills in the kitchen and trying new things, learning the benefits of food, but what I enjoy most of all, is simply the ritual itself. Living in the gastronomical capital of the world is a place I am quite at home.
Exploring the vibrancy of the Sunday market and being drawn toward its vendors by simply following one’s nose is an experience I can’t fathom living without. Bulbs of garlic the size of oranges, rayed with purple stripes, the aromas of olives that make your mouth water before you’ve even spotted them five stands down the busy pathway, the unusual shapes and sizes of the tomatoes — all signs of their pure freshness. A freshness that the French hold to a standard.
My time in Lyon was spent experimenting foods of the freshest and highest quality. I was introduced to flavors, preparations and combinations that both shocked and satisfied my taste buds.
On the complete contrary, only a short hour train ride away a very different eating ritual with many of the same sensibilities — I spent the next three months eating carbs (usually plain pasta or rice) in bulk, accompanied by some type of protein, yet rarely by a vegetable. A side of lettuce greens and salad dressing (known to the french as salade,) is added along side now and then if someone took it upon themselves to quickly wash the greens. One similarity that’s always apparent at the dinner table is the freshness of produce. Grocery stores are simply there for the basics, everything else is found scouring the market — farm to table.
Although I still spend most of my Saturdays’ wandering the eclectic market stroll observing the hard working vendors and pushy customers to take in the overflowing fragrances, my taste buds have taken a slight vacation at the absence of spice, zest or tang in my recent locale.
However, despite the differences between the simplicity of the countryside meals and the gastronomical creations of Lyon, the French do not see mealtime as a time of gluttony, but rather a time to share.
A Frenchman once told me ‘wine is a gift from nature that is meant to be shared’.
Although he said this in regards to wine, his explanation and meaning — after much observation of their approach to meals — can be considered for food in general.
Food and the ritual of eating, is about the social tradition. This is a tip that the rest of the world should indulge in.
In the modern day, it has become habit for families to sit around the table and enjoy a meal without having to say a word to each other, often texting beneath the table. Pointed out as the outsider at the dinner table, consulting my phone, a dynamic flow of conversation surrounded me. I now know that mealtime is a sacred time that the cell phones are left hidden.
That same Frenchman went on to describe that when you taste a good wine, you realize the long hours of hard work that were put into cultivate and produce such splendor. It is the ceremony of the french to come together over their specialties between family and friends.
My time spent à la table has compelled me toward a bias for lunch-time, more commonly known to me now as le midi. This could be one of the greatest and most largely obeyed French ritual known to man. What I enjoy most about it, is that at the strike of noon, the country of France closes shop to take a two hours lunch break. Although I have experienced its inconvenience first hand as a tourist myself, being on the receiving side is all too luxurious. Quickly breaking to shovel prepacked nibbles to hold one over for a few hours is as unimaginable a concept as life without gluten.
Whether you are finding a table at a cafe with your colleagues or preparing a meal from scratch, le midi is a time to share a drink and a laugh.
My favorite experiences would take place around the lunch table. My colleagues and I would each prepare a dish to share. Their intrinsic custom to share introduced so many new recipes and flavors to my repertoire that awakened my taste buds after a night of plain pasta and buttered green beans.
Le midi is a time to get to know your acquaintances. Even when sitting at a table of strangers, never do the French find themselves suspended by a dull moment or awkward silence. In fact, the French spend more time chatting during the meal then they do actually eating. We would often have to remind ourselves to take bites during the steady flow of jokes and conversation. After all, we only had two hours.
Which in theory, explains why the French are able to stay so thin. Considering eating slower makes you fuller faster, ergo, requiring you to eat less.
The concept of sharing does not end with stories of how everyone spent their weekend, but goes deeper in reciprocating respect. Not only the respect of others ideas or time to speak, it is shown by sharing the duties of enjoying a meal. Not only do they share good conversation, the French share: preparing the table, serving the meal, clearing and doing the dishes. They share and cherish the time that is set aside specifically to appreciate the company of others.
After spending each day participating in the sacred rituals that food gifts us with, it seems to me that we North Americans have forgotten the importance of it. If we could have it our way, we would sit alone, noses deep in the our far more important cyber lives, quickly wolfing down whichever prepacked or ordered meal we could find at the nearest grocery store or restaurant. On a daily basis, we eat because we have too, as quickly and as independently as possible. Not because we want to. And most certainly not to share or enjoy the company of our acquaintances. It appears we could brush up on the brilliance and pleasure of social interaction that accompanies meal time, something that comes so naturally to the French.