Cheese, Wine, and a few other French Reflections.

It’s probably only natural that when, after a lovely holiday in France, thoughts often linger on those now gone idyllic days sipping wine and relaxing with a crusty french loaf and some fromage.

Tea.
I do love my tea. It is one of the great British contributions to world culture. What sort of a world would it be without a tea break? Dear me, I shudder to think. Naturally, Liz had us well stocked with PG Tips for our french trip. The French are a nation of coffee drinkers but they do also drink tea. In fact, you can find bottles of tea in the chilled area of every french supermarket. Chilled tea? Yes, chilled bottles of tea! Still, what can you expect from the nation that gave us frogs legs . .?

As I settle back into work, those long lazy days out in the french countryside seem as if they happened years ago.  Five o’clock was a nice part of the day. A final swim in the pool then Liz would start preparing the salad while I cranked up the barbecue and topped up the decanter with some nice french red.

dining

Wine, salad, bread, just waiting for the barbeque!

Wine.
I do love the cheap french red from supermarkets like Intermarché. A nice quaffable smooth red like a merlot is perfect for an evening.  In the supermarkets here, as you can probably imagine, there is an excellent selection and it comes in all shapes and sizes. There are wine boxes, bottles, cartons and even plastic bottles of the cheap rough table wine. I like an after dinner glass of port and there is a good choice of ports in the shops too. In France this year I picked up quite a few bottles for transportation back to the UK and I also discovered a nice white port. One interesting thing I have noticed whilst scouring the shelves of French supermarkets, there is a huge whisky collection in every french supermarket I have visited. All imported from the UK of course but brandy, a product of France, seems to be very scarce indeed and, when finally found, rather expensive.
After the kebabs and burgers, or whatever meat we have grilled over the coals, a short intermission is in order before the arrival of the cheese.

Cheese.
I do like my french cheese and the usual fromage course after a meal here is always a delight. Cheese is a different experience in France. In the warm evening the cheese softens and is spread easily on a slice of crusty french bread. The french themselves prefer to tear their bread but we English of course are more civilised and slice it before buttering.
Here are three of my favourite French cheeses;

    Rondelé
Not something I’ve ever seen in the UK, Rondelé is a sort of light cheese which comes in various varieties but the one I favour is Rondelé Bleu. A light almost whipped cheese with a not too powerful blue cheese flavour. Lovely on some crusty french bread or on a cracker.

    Cœur De Lion Coulommiers.
Not sure if I’ve seen this in the UK. This is a lovely, creamy soft cheese, perfect when it has melted slightly in the warmth of a summer evening. Not as strong as camembert but not as mild as a brie. Lovely.

    Chaume.
A very tasty cheese, rather like Saint Paulin which I have seen in supermarkets in the UK. It has a firm, pliable texture but is much creamier than the aforementioned Saint Paulin.

MicrolightI’m not a great fruit eater but in France I do like a small pear or something after a meal. Then it’s time to just sit back and enjoy the evening as the sun begins to go down. At about six thirty to seven o’clock the local microlight drones pass overhead. I can sort of imagine him looking down and thinking ‘there’s that English couple again, still supping wine!’

Bonsoir monsieur, until next year! À l’année prochaine!


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Fast food, slow food, and French food

macweblogoIn the late 1930s a fellow called Patrick McDonald opened a fast food stand in California selling mainly hot dogs. Later, his sons took the business over and realising hamburgers were their top selling item they decided to revamp the entire operation, focusing on quick service and snack food that was served literally ‘fast’.

They reopened with their new concept in 1948 calling their fast food establishment simply ‘McDonalds.’ They franchised their operation and other ‘McDonalds’ started springing up over California and Arizona. In 1954 a man called Ray Kroc bought up the franchise for the rest of the United States and in 1961 he bought out the McDonald brothers for 2.7 million dollars. He then went on to build the McDonalds Corporation bigger and bigger and to export the McDonald restaurants all over the world. Even to France.

Plat du jour

Plat du jour

Now, as a great lover of France and the french way of life, well, some of the french ways of life that is, it’s always been a great source of interest to me to see how the french would accept the fast food concept. As much as I love the french way of eating, the entree, plat, dessert et fromage, and plenty of bread, I do feel that french cusine is a little over rated. The fact of the matter is, some of the things that the french like to eat, well, they are just a little bit odd.

If you think about it, you can perhaps imagine ancient man many thousands of years ago. Picture him now, taking a good look at something like a cow for instance and thinking, “you know, bet there’s some tasty meat on that animal. I could slaughter it, cut a thick wedge of meat off, slap it on a griddle over the fire, some salt and pepper and bet it would taste lovely!” Yes, that’s thinking that I can understand, especially later when that same ancient man refined his original idea by adding a baked potato or a few chips to the meal and maybe even a side salad.

The ancestors of today’s frenchmen must have thought in a different way, well different to us anglo saxons that is. Just imagine some ancient frenchman in the same situation but instead of checking out the cow he has his eyes on a frog, hopping merrily about and croaking, as they do, and he begins to think like this: “Hey, wonder if I killed that frog, chopped its legs off and cooked them in a little garlic, what would they be like?” A thought that would never occur to any right minded Englishman in a million years! Imagine another frenchman, coming out of his cave on a damp morning and noticing a lot of snails wandering about in his back garden: “Hey, why don’t I cook those with some shallots and garlic?” he thinks. “What a great idea!” Wrong! Crazy idea! Take another look at that cow Monsieur!

Anyway, getting back to McDonalds. In Saumur, one of my favourite french towns, Liz and I dropped in to the local McDonalds  for a quick snack before making our way up north towards Calais. I think we ordered something from the breakfast menu like a bacon and egg McMuffin. Well, the trays behind the counter that are usually stacked with hot food were not stacked with anything so the staff asked us to settle down in a booth and take advantage of the free wi-fi and that they would bring our food over in a moment.

After a while, one of the staff came over, there was some sort of further delay so did we want another tea anglais on the house while we waited? OK. Eventually, after I had checked all my e-mails, started off a couple of blog posts and re written part of ‘Floating in Space‘ (ok, slight exaggeration) our food eventually arrived. After visiting McDonalds Saumur a few times I have found that this occurance is not unusual. In fact, it’s quite normal but the french seem happy with the situation and I think I know why: They do not understand the concept of fast food at all!

It’s the same in a french restaurant. They leave you for ages reading the menu as if it was ‘War and Peace.’ It’s not! Anyone can read the menu and decide what to have within five minutes. Oh and what about a drinks order while we wait? Oh no. The french waiter likes to give you plenty of time to choose. When you finally give the waiter your order, things go at a pace reasonably similar to that of a UK restaurant but then at the end when you are waiting and waiting for the bill, don’t they realise you have finished and actually want to leave?

The french like to savour the whole eating experience, even the reading of the menu and while I do agree with that initial concept, the french sometimes take it a little too far. No, the french food experience is not fast food, it’s slow food!


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Restaurants I have Known and one or two Memorable Meals!

 

Restaurants I have known and one or twoGoing out for a meal has to be one of the great pleasures in life. It’s certainly one of my favourite things to do. There are many things that make for a great dining experience. The food of course is the important factor but it’s not just that. The restaurant and the atmosphere play a big part. The location too, is important and the table, but after the food the most important thing is service.

St Annes and Lytham have some wonderful restaurants embracing various food cultures. There is Anatolia serving Turkish food, The Greek Flame serving, not unsurprisingly, Greek food. The Marrakech has a lovely Moroccan menu. Woks Cooking in Lytham is my favourite Chinese eating house and Ego, also in Lytham serves Mediterranean food with a smile and outstanding service.

One of my all-time favourite meals was at my favourite French restaurant not far from Calais in a place we found on a country road, miles from anywhere. Liz and I stopped there many years ago for an early evening meal. For starters I chose celery soup and Liz ordered the pate.
I was a little disappointed with the rather small dish that was presented to me but then a huge tureen of soup arrived which was wonderful and produced about four small servings, one of which went to Liz while I sampled her pate which was full of rustic flavours and was perfect served with fresh French bread.
The main course was a simple omelette, light and fluffy with a fresh salad and Liz’s fish was lovely with a creamy curry like sauce, unusual for French country cooking.

Another great French restaurant is in Saumur, my favourite French town. Again, I don’t know the name of it and it’s always hard to find, in fact we usually tend to stumble upon it after walking around for a while. It’s a small restaurant that spills out on the pavement and I do so love those three lovely courses that French restaurants serve; starter, main and a cheese course, served with red wine and plenty of crusty bread. There is no rush in a French restaurant and there’s plenty of time to watch life and people pass by as you dine.

IMGA0302Tapas are pretty fashionable in the UK these days and we sampled some lovely tapas at the Blue Note restaurant at the Marina Rubicon in Playa Blanca earlier this year. The highlight was the Canarian potatoes served with mojo sauce, lovely.

Yes, I’ve come a long way as a diner from the Plaza Cafe in Manchester where my friends and I used to call in the early hours of Sunday morning after a late night drinking and chatting up the girls. The Plaza served curry and there were three options: mild, hot, and suicide! Yes, how we used to laugh as we called up “Three suicides please!”

A lot of people seem to think I’m a fast eater. I’m not sure if I am but if that is the case; it surely comes from late night curries like the one above. If you are with six boozed up guys and you want something to eat, you have to grab it and get it on your plate as soon as possible otherwise you might just end up with nothing but a plateful of rice as my friends used to clear the table faster than a horde of locusts.

My one hate of restaurants though is this. Do waiters lie in wait for me to take a big mouthful of food before coming to the table? Many times I’ll try my food then nibble on small portions just in case the waiter approaches. When I finally think, ok, he’s not coming over, I’ll shovel in a good mouthful and out of nowhere a waiter is sure to appear.
“Is everything all right for you sir?”
All I can usually do is nod and try to mime someone enjoying their meal . .


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When Good Service Makes Your Meal.

I do love my food as anyone will tell you. And I do love dining out. The food is important of course but just as important is the service and I do hate bad service. Not so long ago Liz and I were in a local pub and I noticed that on the next table there were a couple finishing off their meals. One meal was half eaten; the other looked to be almost untouched. What was wrong with it I wanted to say? Had any staff member been over to ask if it was OK? If so, what did the two diners say? I think we, the English, tend not to like to complain. I’ve had poor meals and eaten more of it than I wanted just because I didn’t want to leave a half full plate. Even so, the meal I mentioned above was hardly touched. Why hadn’t the staff done something? Most pubs these days have someone who comes round and asks ’is everything ok with your meal?’ The thing is, a lot of those people are not prepared or trained when the answer is ‘well it wasn’t very warm’ or ‘the steak was overdone’ or ‘the chips are cold.’ In Wetherspoons not long ago we were asked just that question, was our meal OK? Liz replied that her steak was cold and the waiter just said ‘sorry’ and went away. Was he doing something about the food? Evidently not as he never returned! Why ask about the state of the food if you are not prepared to do something about it? These days I just won’t stand for bad food or service. Complain! We British should complain more. We owe it to the subsequent customers to complain so that the pub or bar or restaurant will get it right.

One little bit of advice I will give is if that if you want a decent meal and decent service, go for a restaurant rather than a pub. No matter what anyone may tell you, a pub is all about drinks, and food is just secondary. A restaurant on the other hand is all about food and it seems to me that staff in a restaurant know more about service than staff in a pub who are used to standing behind a bar. OK, there’s the cost factor, but when you add it up I believe a restaurant is better value in the long run.

Anyway, enough about bad food; I’d much rather talk about good food. One of my favourite meals ever was at a restaurant in France. I can’t tell you the name of it but it is on a winding road coming out of Calais and heading towards St Omer. My starter was celery soup and Liz had the pate; simple French country food. A pichet of red wine and jug of water appeared. An empty bowl and spoon came and sadly I looked down at the rather small bowl that had arrived. The pate came with a huge basket of fresh French bread and a healthy portion of home-made pate with side salad. The waiter soon arrived with a large tureen of soup with a ladle and as I waited for him to dish me out a small portion, he just put the tureen on the table and left. Needless to say, Liz and I had several bowls of that wonderful soup each. It was lovely and the pate was tasty and just perfect with a small salad and French bread.

My next course was a ham and cheese omelette, the lightest, fluffiest omelette. Delicieux! Even the fish that Liz had was nice and I am not a fish lover. Pity I was driving that day as I could have sat there and consumed another pichet of wine as we enjoyed our cheese board.

Just to finish with I’d like to say a few words about my favourite restaurant. It’s the Ego restaurant in Lytham. The food is always good; I’d say it alternates between good and very good and on the rare occasion it isn’t that good, maybe the steak is overcooked or the salad comes with a dressing that we didn’t want, there are no arguments. It’s not like some places where we hear the excuses, sorry, we didn’t get a delivery of that today or the oven’s not working properly or the chef’s not feeling well or something. The staff just whisk the meal away and come back with a new one or with the missing item replaced. The staff in Ego are really exceptional and as we’ve been going there for a while we’ve got to know the staff and they’ve got to know us. They know without us saying that we don’t care for the anchovies on the Spanish sharing board and they always replace them with something we prefer, like the chorizo in red wine and garlic. I have to say hats off to Jay, Tony, Paul, John, Christian, Natasha, Camilla and Sandra, not forgetting the chefs, Ben, who makes a superb Spanish sharing board and Adam who rustles up our main courses; they certainly know how to look after us and as long as they do, we’ll keep coming back for more!

 

The French way of Dining

menuThe French have a rather unjustified reputation for rudeness in my opinion. OK, Parisian waiters are not the most polite and neither are Parisians for that matter, but take a drive out of Paris into the country  and you will meet the real French. The French who appreciate that you try, in only perhaps a small way, to communicate in their language. In a bar in the Loire that I always return to, every drinker that arrives will say ‘bonjour’ to everyone in turn, regardless of whether they are like me , strangers or foreigners and will say ‘au revoir’ when they leave and as for food, well, I will be the first to say that French cooking is not always the gastronomic delight that it is supposed to be but I do like the French way of eating. I like the ‘formule’ menus you see in French restaurants, the starter, main and cheese or dessert for sometimes as little as twelve euros or even less. And don’t forget the ‘plat du jour’, the French dish of the day.

Saumur, one of my favourite French towns is beautiful, not too busy but full of lovely restaurants. One I always frequent has most of its seats and tables on the pavement, what they do in the winter I do not know as the main brick part of the establishment is small!

The starters are small but full of flavour. The mains are wonderful and the cheese and French bread, exquisite! All washed down with a carafe of water and lovely French wine. A good meal does not need to be large but it needs to have a rhythm and those three acts, starter, main and cheese are a wonderful way to enjoy food, though it’s not just the food that is important. The wine, the service, the mood, all that comes into play and when that last mouthful of bread and camembert are gone, its time to call; ‘l’addition s’il vous plaît’.

English pub restaurants; take note!

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