Making fun of the French is all too easy. It has become a bad habit that I wear as easily as my shapeless duffel coat. What can I say? Their typically closed-off rule-following ways make for good anecdotes.
There was the time I went to the department store BHV and needed to ask five (famously snooty) shop assistants before one would deign to point me in the right direction for a cake stand. There are the continual awkward encounters with neighbours, who have made small talk about the weather with me for two years, who have all accepted free cakes from my bakery – but will never introduce themselves. I know that the couple on the 6th floor has a cat named Carlos. They have given me flowers to thank me for said cake. But they still don’t feel obliged to share their names.
Then there is the insistence on correct grammar, a reverence for words that I totally understand but still find amusing when upside in a hot yoga class and a student takes the time and breath to correct the American instructor: it’s la cheville not le.
My first year in Paris, my year abroad, I wanted to integrate. I actively avoided anglophones. However this led to living and working with only Italians, a pleasant and unexpected consequence. I learned how to salt pasta water (heavily) and that una forchettata (a forkful) means a good 150g portion. I practiced some French, tangentially, with friends of friends or as a stilted common language with the rare German or Polish colleague, all confused and a little annoyed to find themselves in the crossfire of Italian chatter in that most French of institutions in the very heart of the city, in the Louvre.
The second time around, a year later, I tried again. Granted, I was living with another Italian girl, the charming flatmate. But we made an effort to meet Frenchies, joined capoeira class, made small talk at soirees. Slowly slowly though, I started meeting English-speaking friends, an American, a couple of nice Canadians. Several girls from my tiny hometown of Hereford, all escaped to France in search of adventure. And I got to be myself a little more – my voice is squeakier and much more prissy in French, whereas in English (I hope) I am funnier, more relaxed.
Maybe my frog-mocking is just self-protection: it’s hard to fit in with the French. To break the ice without asking what someone does for a living, to slip in the subjunctive like it’s no big deal, to know how the latest thoughtful and depressing movie fits into the director’s back catalogue. It’s a little like tagging along with a sophisticated older sibling, trying to keep up. Just like brothers and sisters, the French and the English seem to be endlessly in competition, always making fun of each other more or less affectionately. That’s my excuse anyway, for pandering to stereotypes, which do nonetheless have a small grain of truth in them. And they do it too; how many times have I admitted to being English only to hear an often misinformed diatribe about how terrible our food/weather/national character is. (Oh dear, I am being a bratty little sister: ‘He does it too! He started it!’)
In the end though, the fact that I am still here has to count for something. I like all of the other cliched ideas about France, that its people take art and aesthetics, fine food and wine so seriously. I have become the Parisian who wouldn’t live anywhere else, wouldn’t give up all the city’s expos and vernissages, its street theatre, but still relishes a weekend in the French countryside with its rustic charm and simple meals. I love going to market and peering at the heaping mounds of produce, asking for that one to be ripe for tonight’s supper and another for three days time. Their care and attention when it comes to food is a kind of open-house hospitality, welcoming you in for the best they have to offer. You taste the cassoulet and mi-cuit foie gras from the farm next door and you notice immediately their pride in their culinary heritage.
All the eating is part of a larger whole, the expectation that having followed those rules, paid one’s dues – the reward is rest and relaxation. Though the two hour wine-soaked lunch is becoming less common, the French have three bank holidays in May alone (in the sunshine of course) and still make the most of their five weeks holiday a year, preferably for a long August vacation. The state is very generous with unemployment benefits – which includes free entry into museums and cultural institutions – with health insurance and with help towards paying the rent for students and those on a low wage, even for foreigners like me. Provided you fill in all the forms of course, that is the classic stumbling block. Once you have cleared that hurdle, you are free to wander the streets and markets, pretending to be French, hoping that your charming accent will go unnoticed for two more minutes.
On the subject of fresh ripe fruit from the market, the gariguette strawberries are finally in season. I rather bossily ordered a friend coming to dinner to pick me up a punnet or two for dessert “and definitely not any of those Spanish monstrosities.” Gariguettes are small and delicate and sweet, a more translucent red than the aggresively farmed ruby berries from Spain that are available all year around. These ones come out around March to June, and are extremely sensitive. They must be handled with care for they bruise easily. (Here I could make an unflattering parallel with a prissy Parisian, but I won’t.) They collapse in a puddle of juice when bitten into, releasing a sweet perfumed flavour that I had forgotten over the winter. Like having Italian sun-ripened tomatoes after months of those tough supermarket orbs, you remember when eating gariguettes what strawberries are supposed to taste like.
Though I was planned to make a fancy mousse cake with a jelly middle, iced and beribboned, in the end I left the strawberries whole and fresh in all their glory. We ate the shortbread base plain with some icing sugar, perfectly crumbly from the subtle addition of rice flour. The fruit was dipped in melted chocolate and honeyed cream. I should be promoting the extravagant cake, but really there is nothing nicer after a big meal than sharing big bowls of fruit, reaching across the table to grab at chocolate, making a pile of strawberry, shortbread and mascarpone for each bite. It was very companionable. In fact, this improvised pudding has the best of France, England and even Italy in all its basic ingredients.
Strawberries and shortbread
technically feeds six polite people at a dinner party, but I like the shortbread so much I can eat most of it in one sitting (full disclosure, it comes from my mother’s book Seasonal Secrets)
125g butter, room temperature
50g caster sugar
125g plain flour
50g rice flour
1/2 tsp salt
zest of 1 lemon
500g fresh ripe gariguette strawberries
more sliced fruit – kiwis or mangoes are good for colour contrast
200g dark chocolate, melted
250g mascarpone (or clotted cream)
3 tbs milk
1 tbs honey
Heat oven to 175C. Cream the butter and sugar, stir in flours, zest and salt until it just starts to come together. Line a tin with baking paper – I used a 22cm ring on a baking sheet to make it easy to emove when baked – and press the dough firmly into it. Bake for 15-18 minutes until golden and just brown around the edges. Let cool.
When ready to eat, melt the chocolate gently over a pan of simmering water. Mix the mascarpone with the milk and honey to make a smooth dipping consistency. Cut the shortbread into diamonds and dust with icing sugar. Slice any other fruit neatly, serve the strawberries as they are. Plonk everything in the middle of the table and hand your guests skewers or fondue forks, let them help themselves.