When people think of France, some of the first things to come to mind are its scrumptious baguettes, cheese and wine. I was definitely looking forward to my first bite of the country's famous eats before arrival, and I have since determined that France is completely deserving of its status as a world leader in haute cuisine.
What's more, the country's attitudes and customs concerning food are fascinating. First of all, food is a very important part of everyday life. Meals are planned days in advance, rarely repeated within the course of at least a month, and can go on for hours. Food is a value everyone shares, and it's not uncommon to encounter discussions on where the best restaurants are or which spices should be used in which dishes.
Secondly, food is seen as a source of joy, and is expected to be of high quality. If the French consider what they're eating to be of low quality, or if they're not enjoying it, they simply stop eating. Portion sizes are decent-sized (larger than I expected) but the fact that the French eat very small breakfasts, generally don't take seconds, walk constantly and never snack keeps them trim. In fact, snacking and eating anywhere but at a table are largely frowned upon; this means no eating in the car, while watching TV and definitely not in class! There are even mini-segments on kids' TV channels discouraging them from snacking or eating foods "too sugary, too salty, or too fatty," and the same warning can be found on all junk food commercials and billboards. One of the two fast-food restaurants in town is a McDonald's (which the French affectionately refer to as "Mac Doh"), and it remains a special treat for kids and teenagers.
This reverence for fine foodstuffs is visible everywhere. The shopping districts become ghost towns between noon and 2 p.m. as cafs and restaurants burst with customers. Specialized food shops, such as boulangeries (bakeries), patisseries (pastry shops), boucheries (butcher shops) and fromageries (cheese shops), as well as weekly markets, are just as frequented as the supermarket. This past weekend, I went to the market with Sandrine; it was chock full of local vendors of fruits, vegetables, meats, breads, fish and more. There, we stocked up on fresh, seasonal food for the week, which is seen as a necessity for most French families. Sandrine, my host mother, also picks up a couple of fresh baguettes from the boulangerie near her pharmacy every evening. I adore perusing the exotic products in specialized shops and at the market, and the supermarket gives a view into France's packaged tastes. Though processed snacks are looked at as distasteful and reserved for children and students, they still reflect the French culture; individually-wrapped chocolate croissants, goat cheese-flavored potato chips and fig-flavored yogurt can be spotted amongst the rest.
Needless to say, my gastronomic experience here has been a delicious one. I've sampled raspberry pastries, fish soup, mussels, liver, all kinds of cheeses, figs straight off the tree, cow's brain, Nutella-filled crepes, countless combinations of meats and sauces (French cuisine is all about the sauce), homemade tiramisu, fresh baguettes, regional fruits and vegetables and much more. Sandrine taught me how to make crepes from scratch, and I even made them for dinner one night; they were a tad overcooked, but delicious all the same! Tonight, we're having guests over for several courses of guacamole, provincial tomatoes, eggplant in tomato sauce, a seafood platter, a cheese platter, fruit salad and chocolate mousse, so I'd better go help get it all ready! Bon appetit!
Editor's note: Sierra Parker is spending a year in France as a Rotary Exchange Student through the Houghton Rotary Club.