Do The French Do It Better?
It can be wonderful, exciting and sometimes messy. We all do it, it’s pleasurable, it’s instinctive and it can satisfy both our needs and desires. And in my experience, the French do it really, really well.
I am talking, of course, about eating.
“How do you say bon appetit in English?”
I have had this question posed to me countless times by curious French people. The answer is always disappointing.
“Er… we don’t really. Sometime we say ‘enjoy your meal’? And sometimes we say bon appetit… with a really bad accent. But mostly we just… start eating.”
Their faces are a charming mixture of disbelief, bemusement and disapproval.
In France, it’s customary to say bon appetit before somebody starts eating. If the other person is eating too, you say it back, if not, you just say merci. This caused me no end of trouble when I first starting eating in the staff rooms of the schools I work in. As soon as I’d stuffed the first forkful of food in my mouth, someone would invariably walk into the room and a chorus of “bon appetit!” would strike up. I would turn to try and see who had spoken, frantically thinking: Are they talking to me? Are they carrying food? Are they eating it now? Oh no, my mouth is full… by which point the moment had passed and I was just the rude anglophone in the corner again. I’m much better at it now!
I found this French quirk bizarre at first, but now I realise it’s part of their deeply ingrained respect for food. French mealtimes are not to be rushed. In primary schools, lunch breaks often go for two hours, to allow each child to sit down and enjoy a proper meal. A “proper meal” by French standards generally includes: some kind of entrée or salad; a hot main dish, probably meat-based; bread (always bread); yoghurt or cheese (veganism really has not gone mainstream here); and fruit to finish. Lunch is very much the main meal of the day and dinner is often a lighter meal – I think this is great, I wish we did it more!
Now don’t get me wrong, the whole of France is not sitting down to honey-roasted duck fillet and fresh spring vegetables every day. They love their Macdo as much as we do – there’s a Maccas on every second street in Paris. But their overall approach to food is quite different to that of the English-speaking world. Eating on the run is very frowned upon, snacking is not really done. Eating is something that takes time and concentration, food punctuates the day. It’s when families come together, when friends meet, it drives and enlivens many conversations. I love the French attitude to eating almost as I love French food!!
France has a very low obesity rate. According to the World Obesity Federation, approximately 18% of French adults are obese compared to Australia’s very worrying 29%. My (very inexpert) theory, based purely on my observations in both countries, is that it’s mainly because of how they eat – good food, smaller portions, main meal in the middle of the day, and no snacking. There are of course other factors – Parisians walk everywhere, and their attitude to drinking is very different – but that’s an article for another time. But this country is full of pastry and cheese and wine and chocolate and things cooked in butter and garlic and it’s all delicious, proving that you can live a life that’s all about food and not end up like Mr Creosote from Monty Python.
Alright, enough talking, let’s get cooking. I’ve just spent all that time harping on about lunch, but I’m giving you two simple French-themed recipes that we usually associate with breakfast. Having said that, like any true Parks and Rec fan, I don’t believe there’s any wrong time of day to eat breakfast food. These recipes are not vegan-friendly, sorry, but traditionally neither is France, so we’re keeping to theme.
Truly French French Toast
Fun fact: the French call french toast Lost Bread (pain perdu). Apparently, this is because this was a way of salvaging stale (“lost”) bread. The French family I live with don’t buy sliced bread, they buy fresh baguettes every evening. And while it’s true that French bread is the best in the world (don’t even try and argue with that one) it really does not last more than two days. After that, it could be used quite effectively as a weapon in close-range combat, but try and eat it and you’ll break a tooth. BUT if you soak it in eggs and milk then pan-fry it in butter… it becomes the food of kings.
1 x stale baguette (but really, whatever bread you’ve got handy. Brioche is very good too.)
2 x eggs
1/2 cup milk (preferable whole milk)
knob of butter (teehee, knob)
tiny splash of olive oil/vegetable oil
optional: vanilla, cinnamon, caster sugar, maple syrup, sea salt flakes
- Whisk the eggs with the milk in a shallow dish. If you intend to eat your French Toast sweet, I suggest adding a little vanilla to the mixture.
- Slice the baguette in half, as though you were going to make a sandwich, and cut it to reasonable sized pieces. I’m not going to specify a size, because I believe in you to make these small decisions by yourself.
- Soak the bread in the eggs. The staler the bread, the longer it will require. Depending on how much bread you have, you may find yourself needing more egg mixture.
- Put a splash of olive oil in a frying pan and turn it up to a medium heat. Drop the knob of butter into the oil – this is a nifty way of stopping your butter from burning! Oil burns at a higher heat than butter (or something). I don’t really get the science, but it is a very good trick to have up your sleeve.
- Pop your delicious eggy bread into the pan and fry until golden brown, flipping after a minute or two to get both sides.
- You can choose whether you eat your French Toast salé or sucré – I personally like it with just a few sea salt flakes sprinkled on top. But you could dust it with cinnamon and sugar, or even eat it café-style with maple syrup and berries – up to you!
Crêpes Like My Mum Makes
My mum is the queen of crêpes. I have childhood memories of “pancake mornings”, where my mum would work with two or even THREE frying pans at a time, flipping crêpes like nobody’s business and depositing them, piping hot and delicious, onto our plates. She would make triple batches of mixture and keep the crêpes coming until we literally could not eat anymore. I think my brother’s record was 15 pancakes in one sitting. Important crêpe tips: it is vital that your frying pan is flat-bottomed!! (I’ve been trying to think of a suggestive joke to go with that one, but I’ve got nothing. Sorry.)
3 x eggs
1 cup flour
2 tbsp melted butter
(makes 8 – 10 crêpes)
TOPPINGS – see below for suggestions
- Blend all of the above ingredients in a blender. Notice I say blender, not food processor. The same one you use for your milkshakes and soups – this batter should be very liquid! That’s how you get them so thin. (You could also use a jug and a stick blender, or, at a stretch, a wooden spoon).
- Splash some oil into a hot pan, just enough to coat the bottom. You could also use butter – just don’t burn it!
- Pour a small amount of batter into the centre of the pan (about the size of the palm of your hand. Well, the palm of my hand. You could have freakishly large or small hands… I don’t know). Stop reading my bad jokes and SWIRL IT AROUND IMMEDIATELY. You want to coat the whole bottom of the pan.
- As soon as the edges begin crisping up, it’s ready to flip. If you’re my mum, you can do this one-handed whilst simultaneously setting the table, answering the phone and learning a German concerto. If you’re literally anybody else, me included, you’ll probably need to use a spatula. About thirty seconds after you’ve flipped it, it will be ready to slide onto a plate. Don’t worry if the first one is a complete c*ck-up. This is known as the First Pancake Rule. Try again!
- The fun bit! Toppings! My personal favourite is classic, but quite boring – caster sugar and fresh lemon juice. The French get very excited about dessert crêpes – standard toppings include nutella, caramel, literally every flavour of jam, ice cream, chantilly cream, chestnut cream, dark chocolate sauce, white chocolate sauce, banana, apple compote, berries, nuts, biscuits and any combination of the above. Go wild! Life is short!