Monday, December 31, 2012

All Things French

When I was a kid and first came to America with my mother and father, they quickly discovered that the Washington area, though provincial, had:

  • Two French doctors (one male from the South of France, one female, from the North)
  • A French dentist
  • Three French real estate ladies
  • Two French lawyers
  • One French accountant
  • One French-language book store
  • One French butcher
  • Two French handyman (though one was really Algerian)
  • Several young French women who worked as maids, housekeepers and nannies
  • A French lycée
  • A French music teacher who played several instruments, none particularly well
  • Two very ancient ladies of indeterminate nationality who spoke elegant French and had a curio shop in Georgetown.
Further search found a Hungarian surgeon who spoke French and dispensed prescription drugs with a certain abandon; a deposed French Premier and his wife (parents of the French dentist and one of the French real estate ladies); a gay restaurateur and his equally gay girlfriend who were ‘married’ for propriety’s sake; another doctor (ear nose and throat); a French-speaking Brazilian veterinarian who when invited came to dinner with her pet boa constrictor;  and a French Auto mechanic who refused to work on anything but Peugeot and Renault cars.

This was above and beyond the complement of French reporters, military men and diplomats that any capital city would harbor.

Food- and drink-wise, there was wine, of course, though rarely in the liquor stores. These carried a red alcoholic liquid so sugary it ran thick when poured, and the French families drinking such an abomination did so secretly. Good wine was shipped in, or purchased from diplomats who got their monthly allotment duty-free via the eagerly awaited diplomatic pouch. Twelve times a year, my father would visit a friend who worked at the French consulate and return with five or six cases of scotch, brandy, and assorted liqueurs, as well as a dozen bottles of decent Beaujolais and Medocs.

What was not to be found anywhere was bread, and this was a serious concern. There were rumkors that a bakery in faraway New York knew how to make croissants, but no baguette, batard or ficelle  existed within hundreds of miles of Washington, and the feeble attempts to make such a staple at home always failed. There were no cheeses, either, save the noxious Velveeta which my mother once mistook for a block of furniture wax, nor were there patés,  rillettes, escargots, saucissons, boudins, smoked salmon, quiches, nor even the makings of a decent cassoulet.  

I thought of this yesterday as I gazed at the cheese counter of a local food store, where for admittedly outrageous prices, one can purchase European goods once unheard of in this country. I spied a tiny wedge of Roquefort going for $17 and possibly worth it if it was real, since true Roquefort is of limited production and aged only in the French caves of Cobalou in Roquefort-sur-Soulzon. Even more surprising was a smidgeon of Epoisses from the Côtes d’Or at $23. I am gratified that it took only a half century for Americans to discover the delights of truly stinky cheese.

Even more surprising is the wealth of baguette-like breads now on sale. Little ones, big ones, ones made of rye and whole wheat and even sourdough, which to the best of my knowledge is still unknown in France.  Add to this patisseries, the Napoléons and éclairs and choux á  la crème.

I have still to find a pet de none, precisely translated as a nun’s fart, a very light fried beignet that for decades has inspired guffaws from French schoolchildren. Perhaps some things are best left in France.

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