Friday, June 19, 2009
Who doesn't like a bit of street grit with their poulet?
The world is understandably fascinated with French cuisine. It sits right up there at the top of the world's gastronomy ladder as one of the most refined, accomplished, complex and proud culinary traditions. And for good reason. For centuries, French chefs have been setting the pace in international cooking circles, and while new world competition has emerged - and is fierce - French cuisine still manages to serve as a benchmark in cooking excellence.
More than just technical competence with the blending of foodstuffs and flavours, the French food dominance stems from the national obsession that is eating in France. Your average French person, be they a good cook or not, will go into raptures about a steak they had the other night or the texture of a comte cheese they consumed after dinner. Food occupies a central part of all French peoples' lives, to the extent that living is just the stuff they do to kill time between meals. And it makes for one of the great joys of living here.
The French relationship with food is such a tactile and intimate one. You'll see customers at the butcher's feeling a cut of beef for tenderness or old ladies in line at the market fondling a salmon steak or squeezing a goat's cheese to check it for "ripeness". It's also a relationship that is delightfully devoid of the the kind of borderline anal, hermetically-sealed, health-and-hygeine approach that we have to food in countries like the US, UK and my homeland, Australia. At home, all foodstuffs are packaged in styrofoam and plastic wrap, kept in spotless supermarket freezers or served by vendors wearing gloves, hair nets and using tongs, as if the food they are serving is somehow toxic and untouchable. And while there is certainly some comfort to be drawn from the fact the food you are buying at least APPEARS to have been hygienically prepared and handled, there's something earthy and honest about the French approach.
Take for example the chicken rotisserie at the butcher's shop on my rue. It sits there on the footpath, day-in, day-out, with plump chickens turning slowly, sending a heavenly aroma up the street. Cars, buses and motorscotters fly by on the busy thoroughfare that is Rue Oberkampf, kicking up all manner of dust from the street. Pedestrians scoot by, pushing prams with wailing babies, coughing, talking, laughing and sneezing. And still the chickens turn, separated from all of this by two flimsy glass doors. At the base of the rotisserie, and basting in the fat of the chickens above, sits a pile of new potatoes, bubbling away. During winter, it's the job of the chicken lady to ward off the more enterprising members of the homeless contingent who live down on the boulevard Richard Lenoir and make occasional raids on the rotisserie, scooping out as many potatoes as they can before they are chased off by a carving knife-wielding butcher.
In my home country, this butcher shop would be closed down. A phalanx of clipboard-carrying Public Health And Safety officials would descend on the butchery and slap a condemned sticker on the old rotisserie, labelling it a grave threat to public health.
And maybe it's not the cleanest, most hygienic way to prepare roast chicken. But I challenge you to find a more tasty poulet anywhere in the world.