Saturday, July 9, 2011

A Question of Meat

A few weeks ago, we went into a supermarket in England. It was someting of a shock. So many people, so much stock, all in one rather crowded space. The sheer volume of meat, especially, on sale was astonishing.

Here, there are supermarkets and hypermarkets, but away from the Channel ports and major cities they are never crowded.

A French supermarket's fresh meat selection is small - it would fit into one of the many fridges in any given Tesco, for instance. There is never much of anything: and you would need a king's ransome to buy a leg of French-produced lamb at any time of year. We used to live in a sheep-rearing region, and I asked a butcher why it was that none of the local produce was on sale. He explained that it is all exported to the cities and to the rest of Europe, where it fetches a good price. So all you can get are the tiniest cutlets imaginable, and the occasional piece of meat for a special occasion.

Check out the freezers, though, and you will find legs of lamb from Chile and New Zealand and occasionally England, all at half the price of the home-grown stuff. It doesn't make sense that it can be flown halfway round the world and still be cheaper, but that is the case.

Beef comes in many forms, but a lot of it is inedible unless you own a slow cooker. They still eat the long-fibre cuts here: you can get them in any restaurant, often as the dish of the day, and you will have to concentrate on your chewing to manage it. On the other hand, there is not much wastage, and if in England the supermarkets bow to consumer pressure, and only stock the soft cuts, in France people eat what there is available.

Just don't buy the bargain packs of "bourgignon" meat unless you have a tried and tested method of tenderising it, up to and including driving over it in your car a few times. Cattle in particular are what they eat. In England, that's green grass, lush and tender. In large parts of France it is frequently sunburnt pasture, or dry winter feed.

We learned very quickly that to eat meat in France you must cook French. I bought a French Larousse cookbook, and I follow the instructions carefully. After all, it's their meat - they know best.

We once went to dinner with some neighbours. This was dicey: they had cats, lots of cats, which weren't house-trained. A friend who had eaten there said that when they sat down there was cat poo on the table, and when it was pointed out, their host picked up his dessert spoon, scooped up the offending matter, and tossed it into the sink. The host, I should add, was a doctor before he retired.

On the occasion of our dinner, we had sat through the starters, and then he produced, still in its wrapping paper, a piece of steak from the fridge. He opened it, put it into a frying pan on the stove, and just when the poor thing was about to complain that it was a bit hot in there, he whipped it out, and chopped off a piece for our other host, his nephew.

"Do you want it more than that?" he asked.
Yes, we replied, we couldn't stand the plaintive mooing - a bit more would be lovely. So he turned the thing over, poked it, got it out again, and chopped a bit off for himself. "What, even more than that?" he asked, horrified. Yes, we said, not keen on mopping up the blood on the plate. So in disgust he put it back for another brief encounter with the heat. Then he refused to cook it any further, and cut us each a piece.

It was the best steak we had ever tasted.

Pork, as in England, is cheap and plentiful. There is no real bacon - not a method of curing that is used here: many an Englishman sidles back from a visit home with a packet of long back in his suitcase.

But if anyone ever asks us if we miss anything culinary about England, we both can only think of one thing: haggis. It is possible to buy tinned haggis here. Take my advice: don't.

As for poultry, it was the wish of Henry IV that all his people could have a poule-au-pot once a week. I've cooked this: I've cooked it for hours and hours, which is the only way to do it. A poule is an elderly bird which has been working out regularly all its life, and which benefits from a long hot soak in a vegetable liquor, whilst you go and do something else for the day. A bread oven would be ideal, after the bread was finished, and overnight even better.

One Christmas we ordered a brace of pheasants from the local butcher. In England this would set you back about a fiver. Well, it was a good thing I took my credit card: it was over 40 euros. If it hadn't been Christmas Eve I'd have walked out of the shop.  We never went back there after that. And in fact we recently found frozen pheasants on sale in our local supermarket, for the standard English price, which could be because they were imported from the UK.

I once considered writing a cookbook for the English in France, to include what to buy as well as how to cook it. As in most aspects of life here, it all goes so much better if you think, and do, as the locals do. Don't fight it: you won't win, and your dental health will suffer. Give in gracefully, and you could just eat someting surprisingly, simply, wonderful.

©lms 2011

1 comment:

  1. That was worthy of an article in a mag. I thoroughly enjoyed it - I was even drooling over some sections!