Monday, October 6, 2008

Foods of the Gods

I'm still messing around with the idea of "what's different here?", and the food is the easiest thing to get a handle on. So here's about some of the edibles. There's a lot more to say, of course, but I have to go home now and feed the cats.

Stuff which is just regular here but you have to make an effort in the States (I won't say there's anything you can't get in the States. I've lived in LA and I know you can get Everything. Even if it isn't allowed. I personally know a determined soul who risked the $40,000 fine at LAX to bring home an entire St. Nectaire cheese. She got pretty pale when she was chosen to have her bag searched, and with the cheese actually in sight its dirty-sock smell apparently said "nothing but bad laundry here", and the guard gave up & let her through. I tried that with some Bleu d'Auvergne going through Toronto once, but chickened out and ended up scarfing an unhealthy amount cheese at the customs window. If only I'd had a baguette handy.) These are my Top-4 of the moment:

Nutella. Oooohhh. I love nutella. I adore it. I eat it straight out of the jar. Sometimes when I have toast for dinner it's just an excuse to have someplace to put a lot of nutella. Every time I pass through the kitchen to let the cats in/out, it seems I stop for just a little, teeny spoonful of chocolate-hazelnut spread heaven. I know I'm not the only one, too. There are signs of serious nutella consumption right at work, where all the jars we use to hold stocks of eppendorf tubes are in fact used nutella jars.

Unpasteurized cheese. Yeah I know you can get unpasturized cheese in the states, but it isn't 'regular' cheese. Cheese dies when you pasturize it. It remains more or less cheesy, but the soul is gone. Thus any cheese worth buying here is raw-milk cheese with a whole panoply of microorganisms in it that together make the complex textures and flavors of french cheeses. And there is absolutely no health problem with that at all. The process from start to finish is tightly controlled to eliminate bugs that may make you sick. If there's a problem, there's a recall, just like in the USA, and I remember only one in the past 12 years.

Whole nutmeg. What's hard to find is ground nutmeg. What you do is buy whole nutmegs and a little scraper device that holds it and scrapes off just the amount of fresh nutmeg that you need. Definitely worth it - like the difference between freshly ground pepper and pepper that's been in a shaker can for two years.

Nearly raw steak. They call it "blue". Barely warm in the middle. If you're someplace where you know the beef is top-notch, a real delicacy. I've had steak Tartare several places, and I've learned you have to ask how they serve it. The classic has raw egg, onions, chopped pickles and such on the side. This one bar&restaurant I like for its other dishes and its Saturday afternoon rugby watching serves Tartare with the pickles and onions already mixed in. Ech. Didn't they know I always leave the pickles alone?

Stuff you can't get in the store here in Clermont-Ferrand (admittedly, Clermont is a backwater. You can get a lot of this stuff in Paris if you're willing to pay the price. Think 4 to 6 times what you'd pay Stateside.)
Poptarts. Yes, we could in fact tour the whole junkfood section of your average american grocery store and list every third item (just a few years ago it was every fifth item - they're catching up fast). But once in a while a Frosted Cinnamon poptart, hot from the toaster, is exactly what you need for breakfast. And in those hermetically sealed aluminum packets, you can keep them around for ages, until you need a little taste of home. Then, having eaten a pair, you remember, and you don't need another one for months.

Sour cream. In the rare mexican restaurants around, they put a dollop of fresh cream wherever you would normally use sour cream. Nooooo!!!!!! It's not so bad, sometimes, once you get used to it, depending on the dish. But they miss the point that sour cream is supposed to bring a touch of sourness to the dish. Random semi-liquid dairy products are no substitute. Try yogurt, or just leave this secondary condiment off altogether.

Hot Tamales ("A fat-free candy" essential to human life). They haven't even thought of Hot Tamales here. Cinnamon in candy? Cinnamon that is candy? When I pass my tin of Cinnamon Altoids around the lab, I do that with the assurance that exactly one person out of 15 will want one.

Pitted olives. Even on pizza, beware of pits. Although, since there are only three to five olives on any pizza said to come with olives, they are so special you will hardly fail to notice them and forget. Pitted cherries are missing too. They actually make cherry pie with whole cherries. I think I can attribute two of my broken teeth to french cherry pie. On the cherry end, they are learning. You can get cherry pitters, meant for making jam, really (could you imagine - leaving the pits in jam?), but catching on for other cherry delights. A pit or two escaped me when I made cherry jam this summer, alas, and I didn't realize until the blender started making odd noises and jerks. Most of the bits were successfully fished out, but enough little ones remain that I can't make gifts of cherry jam this year, and have to eat it myself rather carefully...

That's it for Cultural Differences today. Other subjects, such as universal heath care, free university access, direct voting, and the wearing of biking costumes (not just the shorts), may or may not be addressed in the future.


haitham said...

haha I liked the cinnamon altoids point. one thing i've noticed here in Japan in the way of food culture is that there's almost no drinking of beverages with your meal; and if your meal happens to come with a beverage, people will eat the whole meal, then chug the beverage at the end . . . weird! i shouldn't like to chug French wine. Are you particularly keen on wine? I hear from friends that incredible wine is to be had for a pittance (i wish i could tell good wine from bad!)

This was a fun read--thanks!


sciencegirl said...

It's absolutely true that you can get excellent wine for a pittance. Soda is often more expensive than wine or beer. Like you, though, all I know about wine is I like it. Even after all this time, although I like some more than others once they're in my glass, I still can't pick well when I'm in the store.