Sunday, February 27, 2011

More musings on food ...

It's after midnight, we've just got back from a nice dinner out with Joc & Hervé (and the look on her face when she finally got the joke about Monica Lewinsky and not talking with your mouth full was totally priceless) and it's absolutely pissing down with rain outside.

Not to worry, I just read David Lebovitz's post on bread, Picard, frozen foods and other topics, and not only did it inspire me to do something I very rarely do ie post a comment, it made me realise that I'd rather strangle myself with my own intestines (or preferably someone elses, if anyone's offering: let's face it, if you strangle yourself with your own intestines you're definitely going to die of one thing or another, whereas if they belong to someone else there's always the chance of a slip-up, and at least the undertaker will have a lot less work to do to make you look pretty) than buy and eat a frozen ready-made "meal".

Now don't get me wrong, we have frozen food: there's always a sachet of frozen peas in the freezer (except the other night, when I really wanted some), and I will buy frozen fish fillets if what I'm going to cook won't suffer too much from the inevitable loss of texture, and because I'm a cheapskate I buy frozen coquilles St-Jacques at €5 for 400gm rather than undeniably more luscious fresh ones at €25/kg. Nor am I kitted out to make ice-cream, so that too we buy and stick in the freezer.

There's also cherries in there, waiting to find heaven in a clafouti, and leftover pork that needs mincing and turning into steamed pork bun filling, and berries from the garden and other places, and bits of left-over curry or soup ... and usually some bread, just in case, some grated cheese, a tub marked "5-spice simmering stock; chicken" and a rather scary ice-cream tub with "Do NOT open" scrawled on it. And a popsicle lobster or two, some puréed stone fruit for a spring-time bavarois au fromage frais and maybe a leg of lamb for the next barbecue.

A ziploc bag of parsley too, because when I buy an enormous bunch at the market for 1€ there is absolutely no way I can use it all up over the next few days, and I'm not going to chuck it, am I? And little pots of duck fat from the last confit, a couple of muffins waiting for the right occasion, some hampe for a curry, and a big icy blob at the back that I'm honestly a bit too frightened to risk disturbing.

But I cannot understand how people can cold-bloodedly go out and buy a frozen pizza, or a poelée des legumes chinoises, or a boeuf bourguignon with a picture of a smiling Bocuse on the packet, then sit down, reheat it, and pretend to enjoy it.

Not that it's necessarily foul to the point of sticking your fingers discreetly down your throat at the table, but you can be certain that it won't be great, and I just cannot see the point. When for half the price you can buy the bits (frozen if you must) and put them together yourself.

Unless of course you belong to the Attila the Nun school of cookery - that's the same one that invented the barbecue when he accidentally set fire to a convent from which he'd absentmindedly forgotten to evacuate the nuns beforehand. An unfortunate incident, I admit, and gave him rather a bad press. (Although all things considered, it may have turned out for the best. Even if, given their age, boiling would have been better - from a strictly culinary point of view.)

And while we're on the topic of meat, only the weak, the elderly, mentally handicapped or oppressively poor seem to go to the butchers these days. Most people stock up on meat when they go to the supermarket: I admit that I buy pork there, because there's not much point looking for it at a hallal butcher's, but everything else comes from Mr B. Who does a roaring trade, amongst those of the quartier and a few interlopers like myself (but after 16 years of custom I think I'm accepted): but I suspect that many independent butchers will die off with their customers, who mostly seem to average about 93.

Getting back to the subject of prepared food, you can also buy the stuff in tins, which is hardly better. Although I must admit that if you're willing to pay the money for a good one, a tinned choucroute royale from a good brand is better than no choucroute at all. But I can still remember our first - and only - experience 20 years ago with tinned ravioli, which were so absolutely disgusting that, between fits of dry retching, we forced them at gunpoint back into the tin and carted it down 5 flights of stairs from the apartment (weren't going to take the risk of being stuck in the lift with the things) to hide them in the rubbish skip.

(You can, on the specialty - read expensive - shelves at the supermarket, buy enormous glass jars full of what claims to be le cassoulet authentique de Castelnaudary, or some such. It is true that there are definitely beans in there, and for all I know, some duck. Given the price of the stuff, I am unable to inform you further.)

The French also have le fast-food, which is almost invariably a burger. Or a kebab. There is not, to my knowledge, a nationwide chain of kebab joints, so as a general rule you can be assured of a relatively decent experience if you buy one of those (certainly if you go into the Arab quartiers, but I have been horribly disappointed at Marseilles where they insist on stuffing the things with frites and some will even use baguettes): with a few honorable exceptions, the only burgers you can get will be at Flunch or Quick or M*D*nalds, and bear about the same relationship to food as a snuff flick to sex.

The gilded ICBVM of Myans
Actually, there I do exaggerate a little. In the bigger cities you can usually find an ephemeral sandwich bar or some such which will do something strikingly good, but just don't expect them to be there the next month. Mind you, "Adelaide Cookies" has been around in Grenoble for years ...

I still think the three best burger joints I have ever known would have to be the old Regent Theatre in Palmerston, the National Park burger place (fond memories of the Yeti-burger), or the dump at Taihape where the Newmans coach stopped en route from Wellington to points north. Mind you, that could be just nostalgia cutting in. Must step up the meds.

Do you recall the fuss, many years ago, when that pipe-smoking prat José Bové trashed a McDonalds as a symbolic act against American globo-corporatism (or something like that)? Never mind that all the "food" was locally sourced, and the employees were all locals ... so where is he now, when Kentucky Fucked Duck has started to open outlets in France? OK, I admit that we did once go to a McDo's in Hong Kong because Malyon wanted food that was recognisable as such and didn't have to be interrogated as to its antecedents (she was only four, cut her some slack), but I swear that if the only alternative had been KFC we'd have eaten something scrumptious from the gutter instead.

Stumbled across a place the other day - to be totally honest it wasn't quite as accidental as all that, for Sophie pointed me in its direction: a sort of discount barn that stocks end of runs and unshifted stock and suchlike, and amongst all the crud they have an excellent wine selection. Apparently they have deals with vignerons to take the last few palettes of whatever it may be that the wholesalers didn't want, stuff like that ... as a result they have a good selection of decently-old wine at remarkable prices.

I am a cat, and I enjoy my life. You?
And there it was that I found a whole lot of Australian stuff: 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon (Limestone Coast, I think) which was alarmingly drinkable, and a swag of others which I really must go back and try Real Soon Now. At only 4€ the bottle, it's a steal.

In other news, the February school holidays have started, which means two things and neither of them good: Jerry's moved back in for two weeks before heading off on his stage, and holiday-makers are either coming or going, searching for the fabled snow. Which means that the autoroute is absolutely ghastly (three lanes of turds in molasses) and the nationale is merely vile. Not helped by the fact that apparently every doddery old sod on the planet has decided to escape from his retirement home and spend his childrens' inheritance on an enormous camping car. Which he will then drive, in a sort of flock with others of his kind, at about 70k - so that the airspeed doesn't peel the paint off, I suppose.

All of which meant that my usual trip into Chambéry took about twice as long as usual, for even the doddery old farts are not stupid enough to take the autoroute under such conditions, and some sort of low animal cunning leads them to take the teeny departmentales which I have the habit of frequenting in these circumstances.

Breakfast of champions
So I was kind of pissed off when I finally did arrive, and my mood was not improved on finding out that the wine shop had closed five minutes before I arrived to stock up for the week.

Whatever, Cardinal's  is still there, and a glass of blanc de Gascogne does a lot to cheer one up.


  1. Stop holding back and tell us how you really feel about frozen pre-cooked meals.

  2. That would be pre²pared food, and my thoughts are pretty unwholesome, truth to tell