Thursday, November 24, 2011

Food and other Heritage

Recently, UNESCO added French gastronomy to its list of the world’s intangible heritage that must be safeguarded. By this they mean the long, not to say interminable, meal which arrives in multiple courses, lasts five hours, and leaves you vowing never, ever to eat again.

I once ate a similar thing in a French gastronomic restaurant in England, and spent the entire night lying like a beached whale unable to turn over for fear of causing a seismic shift. If you are ever going to try this sort of feast, do it at midday – then go for a long walk. It won’t be easy; your legs will complain about the extra weight. But it will be necessary for life as you know it to continue afterwards.

Food, obviously, is important to a French person – so much so, that when the current economic crisis arrived on their doorstep knocking to be let in, the first thing that the government came up with as a means of making money was to increase the TVA ( VAT) on restaurant food and drink from 5.5% to 7%. This, it is implied, will rake in the euros and pay off a fair amount of debt. After all, you’ve got to eat.

That apart, I got to wondering what else was on the list. The Mediterranean diet is there, because it is healthy and kind to your arteries, which it has to be said the grand dinner en fête is not.

There is a Brazilian ritual for the maintenance of social and cosmic order. Well, a French meal probably equates to that: without food, what have you got?

There is the watertight bulkhead technology of Chinese junks, which, after eating a meal of the larger variety, though by no means junk food, washed down as it is with copious and varied types of wine, would come in handy.

Mongolia is represented for, amongst many other things, circular breathing in the Limbe folk long song performances – and trust me, after the gastronomic blow out, circular breathing is about all you can manage. Anything deeper is impossible.

Mexico’s Day of the Dead Festival rates an inclusion, but one hopes it won’t come to that; just keep the antacids handy.

The UK, however, is conspicuous in its absence. Now, I think this is unfair, and would like to redress the balance a little. I have one particular ingredient in mind that really ought to be included, and which you will not find in French gastronomy – or any other level of cookery: and that is suet.

You don’t get suet on sale in the supermarket here. You won’t see it displayed in a butcher’s shop. A lady I know asked for some, and was handed the whole portion of animal fat, as cut from the carcase. It ended up in her garden for birds to peck at, but they were French birds and declined on the grounds of deep suspicion.

Where is the French dumpling? The steamed pudding? Mincemeat, in which suet is the only remnant of its historical past as a savoury mixture? They don’t exist. Suet, you see, is a regional delicacy, and that region is the UK. So, on the grounds that the intangible heritage list is for things that should be safeguarded, and as suet is under threat from the cholesterol war, I think it deserves a place.

In the 16th Century, a French diplomat said that to visit England in the pudding season was to come at the best of seasons. So, in these difficult times, perhaps we should cancel the gastronomy and eat suet. You’d be just as full, at a fraction of the cost, and you can clog up your arteries without having to sit at the table for hours on end. What more can you ask?

If only Marie Antoinette had said, “Let them eat suet” – who knows where history would have led?

©lms 2011

Sunday, November 6, 2011

After You.   No, After You.

Now, I want you to pay attention, class, because this is going to be complicated. We are going to discuss the knotty question of la priorité à droite.

The idea is that, at any junction, any vehicle (and that includes the two wheeled, leg-powered variety) approaching from the right has priority, except when it doesn’t.

It doesn’t, when it has a sign telling it that it doesn’t. I’m glad we’ve got that cleared up. 

Now, supposing you are proceeding along at, say, 90 kph, on your largish sort of road, and there is another joining from the right. It’s not big, not small, but a useful sort of road to the people who live up that way. They use it regularly. In fact, there is a car approaching along it now. You would assume, you daredevil, you, that you have right of way because yours is the Big Road. But do you? Can you see the sign on the other road that says so? No, because there are trees or a hedge in the way. In fact, there are many such junctions, and you can’t actually see much of any of them, just at the critical point.

(Signage in France is a whole other problem: quite often you will miss your turning because the sign is there for people coming the other way. They don’t expect you to want to go to A from B, only from C, so they aren’t going to tell you B’ers when to turn. And as for deviations – take a map and a packet of sandwiches, because you are going to be abandoned halfway along the route.  But that is for another discussion).

You have to assume, in that case, that you don’t have priority, because if they do, they are entitled to take it, and saunter out in front of you at a critical moment. They, you see, have been told that they should not use excessive speed when entering onto another road. 

You will be delighted to know that really small country lanes do not have this right, so you will only have to be alert to every other sort of side turning.

Streets, cul-de-sacs, however small, can have the right of way over anything they join (unless they don’t). Your way may lead you across a dual carriageway, in which case one would devoutly hope that the sign makers had been diligent, and the road painters lavish with their white lines; but in case they haven’t, and you do therefore have right of way across the two lanes nearest you, you must stop in the middle, and think twice, and make sure that the other road users have spotted you.

If, however, you lose your nerve, and actually stop, even though there is nothing to tell you to do so, you must then behave as though there is: you must give way. It’s your own fault.

Roundabouts in general have the appropriate signs and rules: vehicles approaching from the left – that is, those already stuck on the roundabout and so in a panic about how to get off the darn thing – have priority, and you would need to be – well, a Frenchman, to ignore this.  We were crossing a small roundabout near a major retail outlet the other day: we clearly had the right to proceed, and the road on the right was definitely signposted with a triangular STOP sign. The driver we encountered, too closely for comfort, not only ignored the imperative but stared right at us as he did so. I was forced to make a gesture, which did not mean  “live long and prosper”. I was in the passenger seat, so he won’t have seen it, but I hope he felt the vibe.

Happy motoring!
©lms 2011