So I’ve been in France for almost 2 weeks, and just like last time when I studied in Grenoble, I’m realizing that it’s the little things that make the biggest difference when you go abroad. Things that are taken for granted, that one might not expect to be very different, or just little unexpected things that are funny or interesting, like stores named “Fashion Mode” or cheesy tourist trains filled with old people. Or shirts that say hilarious things in English (French use of English can be really hilarious, like restaurants called “Pizza Land” or “Sandwich House,” our beloved Grenoble staple.) Igor found this one in a shop here:
People saying hello on the street was quite unexpected, and the fact that everyone is so incredibly nice (we made friends with the salespeople at the cell phone store). Fifty cent coffee vending machines are definitely something that the French take for granted, and this time we discovered they have expanded on that – there is a pizza machine down the street! Open 24 hours, your choice of 4 different flavors of fresh-baked pizza. That should exist in America. So if you haven’t figured it out already, the most important ‘little things’ to me are the food. This is actually a really big thing (I mean, let’s face it, I pretty much came to France just to eat their food. And maybe work a little. But mostly to eat.) but there are a few particular foods that I’ve come to appreciate in the past week, and also certain attitudes and practices towards food that are different. Here are the highlights:
- The Market – This may seem obvious, but the market is central to the culinary culture here. In Le Puy, there is a huge market every Saturday morning that pretty much takes over centre ville (downtown) and you can find everything from fruits and veggies to spices to honey to rotisserie chickens and even live chickens. The best part is that a lot of the products are local. That is a huge deal here. The food is fresher, more natural (no preservatives or genetic modification), tastes better, and you feel good supporting the local farmers and food artisans. Even in the huge supermarket the woman working at the cheese counter told me to buy a local goat cheese instead of the apparently mass-manufactured one that I was eyeing. People here seem to be more conscious of where their food is from and pay more attention to what is in season locally.
- Patisseries and Boulangeries – France has a lot of food shops that specialize in one thing. Charcuteries sell meat. Boulangeries sell bread. Fromageries sell cheese (or Laiterie for all dairy products). Patisseries sell pastries. Chocolateries obviously sell chocolate. And here is a new one that I hadn’t seen before I arrived in Le Puy – Viennoiseries. A “Viennoiserie” is basically a patisserie but the pastries are Vienna style (I guess there’s a difference?). These shops are usually a bit more expensive than big supermarkets, but according to my trusty French advisors, the one thing you should absolutely not buy in a supermarket is bread, or more specifically baguette. You have to find a good boulangerie (and according to Flo, and now my experience, they are not all good) and go there specifically for bread. So we have our favorite little Boulangerie that’s right across the street and we go there almost every morning for a baguette that will be breakfast and maybe lunch. I feel so French! I also just discovered that the Patisserie down the street has some of the best croissants around! It’s really hard to walk by a Patisserie and not buy something sweet…mmmm
Now for the specifics, differences both good and bad:
- Pears – they are awesome here. So sweet, so big, and they actually taste like pears. Unlike all pears I have had in the US since I can remember
- Lettuce – I don’t know why French lettuce is so different from ours, but it’s not romaine or red leaf or iceberg and it actually has flavor. Plus it lasts longer! According to Igor, the tomatoes are also way better in France
- Butter – They eat it unsalted, and there are always baguettes to put it on. Delicious! And according to the package, it’s part of a balanced breakfast!
- Cider – this was one of those things I was looking forward to that I remember from Grenoble. Cider (hard cider) does not exist in the US like it does in France. You can get supermarket brand or something fancy, and you always have the choice between Brut (around 4% alcohol) or Douce (2% alcohol, they give it to children so it might as well be juice). And it is amazing. Also it is traditionally served with crepes, and anything crepe-related is good.
- Chocolate – Côte d’Or. Enough said.
- Saucisson – dried sausage is huge here, and sometimes it taste delicious. I was a little suspicious when we saw “kangaroo” flavored saucisson at the market though. The woman there said it was actually kangaroo… hmmm… we got the blue cheese flavor instead
- Beer – not France’s strong suit, unfortunately. It was difficult to find a decent pint that actually tasted like something. At least they have wine. I got spoiled living in Boston near the Publick House. I guess we’ll have to take a trip to Belgium soon.
- CHEESE! – As some of you know, this is the main reason I came to France. And so far we have bought… let’s see… 10 different kinds. (Wow that makes me sound crazy when I actually count them. It’s normal here! I swear! And they’re small!) We’ve tried 4 different kinds of goat cheese – 1 fresh, 2 soft, 1 hard, the local blue cheese, the local weird cheese that smells and supposedly has spiders in the rind, brie for sandwiches and omelets, a soft-ish sheep cheese, comté, and St. Nectaire. So far the weird spider one is the only cheese I don’t like. Next week I want to buy the local Auvergne cheese that has black pepper in it! (And thanks to Geoffrey for the tip on where to buy cheese! That guy in the cheese truck is awesome!)
- Tea – I thought that I would put coffee on this list, but strangely enough, Le Puy has a whole bunch of “Salons de Thé” (Tea Rooms). According to a French guy, French people order more coffee in the Tea Rooms than tea, but if that’s true it’s a shame, because they serve some really good tea! I’ll have to write a full post about our favorite Salon de Thé at some point
- Stuff that’s hard to find – oatmeal, skim milk, brown sugar, peanut butter