Friday, April 07, 2006

Cuisine de grenouille

I've lived in Paris for four years, and I've never seen a French person eat frog's legs.

As a matter of fact, I've never even seen it on a menu, except for just one time, and that was at a chinese restaurant in a supermarket shopping plaza. In french, they are actually called "cuisses de grenouille", or "frog thighs". Sexy. Frog's legs seem to be one of the many stereotypes about the French that aren't quite accurate, such as the so-called ubiquitous beret. (It may have been the case during the era of Robert Doisneau photographs, but no self-respecting Frenchman would wear one now. I've seen them on italian woman wandering up and down the Champs-Elysees, but that's about it.)

I've never tried cuisses de grenouille myself, so I have no idea if they really "taste like chicken".

That said, the French eat some things that might strike some as odd. I like some of these things, but not all. The French are quite big on raw oysters, they are traditionally consumed at the late-night Christmas eve supper after midnight mass. There's nothing like the sight of a waiter coming towards you with a big metal platter of crushed ice, on top of which lie half a dozen open shells, along side some lemon wedges and a bowl of chopped shallots in vinegar. Likewise, mussels and other seafood are eaten often, especially in the seafaring regions of Brittany.

Escargots are also not a myth, you can find them with a bit of searching but they aren't consumed regularly, in fact I've mainly only seen them in restaurants that have their menu written in five different languages. It's another one of those culinary oddities, which tourists expect the French to eat often, and therefore they seek them out in order to have the real French experience on their visit. Escargots aren't bad either, but they seem to be more of an excuse to consume large quantities of butter and garlic than anything else. The snail becomes an afterthought. Actually, now that I think about it, I don't think I've ever seen a French person eat escargots either. Only tourists.

Having installed myself in a vegetarian household when I moved in with Eddie, I've had a good time trying out many different French cheeses. We consume a lot of cheese on a weekly basis, since there isn't much else for vegetarians to eat in this country. There are over 400 different kinds of cheese that are produced in France. Some are stinkier than others. I can definitely hold my own when it comes to stinky cheese, with just one exception: camembert. I've only recently admitted to myself that I don't like camembert. More than just not like it, I will spit it out with a grimace, and have done so on a few occasions. I adore brie, ripe blue roquefort is divine, the bluer the better, but camembert, I don't know, it is just too pungent, and the flavor lingers on the palate just a little bit too long for my liking. Even after a few sips of Cotes du Rhone.

One thing I've noticed that real French people do actually eat and tourists tend to shy away from is steak tartare. That, in my humble, better-to-overcook-steak-than-undercook-steak opinion, is a dish that takes some getting used to. The first time I saw someone eat this dish was several years ago when I was an au pair for a posh French family in the sixteenth. They took me out to dinner to celebrate my birthday, and I was amazed when the mother, an extraordinarily chic and beautiful woman who had recently been been approached by French Elle for an article on what she ate in order to stay thin (yes, even French magazines have articles on how to stay thin), had a dish of raw red steak topped with onion and a raw egg set down in front of her. I can imagine that as far as fat content goes it makes sense as a low calorie and low fat dish, but still... to me, it just did not seem like the sort of dish an elegant French woman would eat. It was quite a difference from the gym-going velour sweatsuit-wearing Californians I had been surrounded by growing up, who consume nothing but salad and boneless skinless tasteless chicken breast.

Since then, I have sat across a dinner table on many occasions with French people who have had this dish set down in front of them. I haven't tried it yet. I'm sure it's delicious, but I'm just not in a terrible hurry to try it.


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