I gave in to temptation this morning and bought a pain au chocolat on the way to work. The chocolate was warm and runny and the pastry was so buttery that the paper bag gradually became transparent in places. It smellt heavenly. But I didn’t eat it there and then. No! I waited an excruciating half an hour until I had arrived at the office before tucking in. Why? Not because I enjoy torturing myself, but because in France you just don’t see people eating in public places. It is just not the done thing. If you do decide to snack in public, you must be prepared for some funny looks and even passers-by wishing you “bon appétit” in a sarcastic, disapproving manner.
This is one of the things I think the French have got right. Eating here is something to be taken slowly and seriously: you don’t cram food in your mouth while running down the metro escalator, you sit down, and probably have a much healthier digestive experience as a result. Although many people now use the restaurant tickets their employers provide to buy a take-away lunch of sandwiches or salad to eat in the work kitchen or – if they work in an anglo-saxon company – at their desk, there are still just as many who eat a proper two or three course meal in a restaurant. In some parts of town every second building houses a different café, restaurant, bistrot or brasserie; without lunchtime diners I doubt even half of these would survive.
Snacking between meals does not seem to be part of French culture. Go into any tabac and instead of several square metres of confectionery (as you would find in the UK), you’ll have to choose between a solitary twix, a couple of snickers bars, and a dust-covered kit kat, all housed behind a glass case next to the cashier. Crisps are not even sold in single-serving small packets (nor in appetising flavours). They are meant only as an accompaniment to the evening’s aperitif, not as a between meals stop-gap. Cakes on sale at boulangeries/pâtisseries are mostly the layered moussey type which require the use of cutlery, not easily eaten on the run. You might have noticed that vending machines have recently been introduced in metro stations, but I am the only person I have ever seen buying food from them, on the rare occasions that they are working.
On trips home to England, my eyes light up when I see the tantalising array of candy on the shelves. It seems every chocolate bar I grew up with has spawned five or more different flavoured offspring, or been subtley changed and rebranded as an entirely new product. But maybe there is just too much choice? Sometimes it is all too much and I end up walking away empty handed. And let’s face it, the UK’s growing obesity problem must have a lot to do with our snack culture. I have been known to moan (me? moan?) about how it is not fair that French women are generally stick thin and hipless – but perhaps if I hadn’t been brought up on a diet of Rowntree’s misshapes I too would have an androgynous figure and would not be subject to sugar/salt cravings at inappropriate times of day.
Talking of which, I would KILL for a Cadbury’s flake right now. Or a Curly Wurly…