Whenever we talk about France, we inevitably mention the great triumvirate: cheese, bread, and wine. La gastronomie, or the art of preparing and eating food, is as essential to the French national experience as Super Bowl, eagles, and freedom are to the American. During my visit to the southwestern city of Bordeaux, I was introduced to some of this region’s cultural practices revolving around eating and wine drinking.
Upon our arrival to Bordeaux, we stumbled into the nearest uncrowded establishment looking for some lunch. Hoping for a quick meal before our pre-ordered tour around the city, we browsed the supposed lunch menu and ordered three courses each. Our starters arrived within ten minutes, only to immediately disappear (a three-hour road trip with no stops will do that to you). Forty minutes later, my father was pacing outside the restaurant because our main courses had not yet made their appearance. Now, my father is not a patient man, but forty minutes does seem a bit excessive for a business lunch. Eventually, the bewildered waiter found himself face-to-face with a frowning Russian man, who in broken English informed him that his family was late to “a meeting,” he needed the desserts to be here now, and there really was no need for more coffee. As our tour guide later explained to us, we had probably given that waiter the culture shock of his life.
In France, eating a meal is a lengthy and thorough process. It is expected that you take your time to study each course and reflect on all the sensations you experience while consuming it. Enter the infamous French wines that are inevitably present at every lunch and dinner and you have just sat down for a two-hour meal. I have watched people go outside for a smoke between courses, one woman pull out a novel as she finished her salad, and two men pour over the wine list for at least twenty minutes. It is unfathomable to the French that one might ever want to rush through a meal. To them food is not a simple survival necessity or a craving: it is a collective cultural experience that must be embraced, shared, and respected.
A local woman told us about her 11-year-old son’s school lunches – the school administration strives to maintain a healthy balance of carbs, proteins, and fats, and educates the kids extensively about the nutritional value of food. Better yet, they give the students different cheeses every day and ‘strongly suggest’ that the children try them whether or not they happen to like that particular kind. Contrast that with French fries, cheeseburgers, pretzels, chocolate chip cookies, and a mediocre salad bar in my high school and you can begin to see that these people take their food very seriously.
A few words of amateur advice to anyone planning to visit France in the near future: budget at least an hour and a half for any meal, explicitly ask them to bring your coffee now or you won’t see it until the dessert plate has been cleared, and do not refuse the wine unless you want to explain your hangover from the night before to the waiter.
And how the French love their wine! I have been fortunate enough to score a wine fanatic for a father, and so spent a whole day touring the Bordeaux vineyards. One lecture about the delicate process of gathering grapes and a dozen pictures of my parents next to wine casks later, I still cannot tell a 2009 semi-dry fruity red wine from a 2008 semi-dry fruity red wine. Apparently, one of them tastes like wet leaves and mushrooms. Yum. What I can tell you is that here making wine is an art form and a way of life. A wine farmer can dedicate his entire adult life to perfecting a blend of three grapes only to bottle that mix and allow it to mature for another twenty years, perhaps never to live long enough to taste his own creation. It seems that these wine connoisseurs inhabit another dimension altogether. “Il faut que le vigne souffre,” they say as they purposefully create adverse conditions for their vines in order to force them to adapt and thereby produce more “saturated” grapes. A woman working at one of the vineyards told us – with a completely straight face – that they have tested the effects that playing classical music in the cellars has on the wine. We were told it tasted differently (“had different notes”) when they switched to electrical. I suppose it also makes for nice burial music for the yeast literally working themselves to death in those wooden casks.
In a country where the wine list is longer than the menu, where multiple waiters help customers select cheeses for dessert, and where it is impossible to find an open table after 7 p.m., la gastronomie is so much more than a hobby we often think it to be. For the French, it seems, it is nothing short of a religion.
Pictures courtesy of Tamara Evdokimova