petite anglaise

November 30, 2004

crawling off the plate

Filed under: miam — petiteanglaise @ 10:39 pm

Well, I don’t suppose any of you thought I’d let another opportunity to talk about food pass me by. Especially cheese of the ‘akin to socks worn for ten days with trainers and athletes foot’ variety. I am nothing if not predictable.

To get to the kitchen from the bedroom in our apartment, one has to cross the living room, walk down a corridor, and turn to the left. It is 45 fairy steps from bed to fridge (I just checked – the Frog thinks it’s still the drugs). However when the Frog opens the fridge door, I can distinguish from my bed whether there is an unpasteurised Camembert Le Rustique skulking in there. Or perhaps a couple of goats cheeses lurking out of sight. The little egg shaped plastic thing which also lives in the fridge and claims to neutralise all forms of pong, whiff and odour remains powerless against the pungency of these cheeses. Emprisoning the cheese in a tupperware container works, but creates a ticking time bomb: it is advisable to wear goggles/nose-peg when you decide to liberate the contents.

The cheeses mentioned above are freely available in our local Franprix supermarket. Kept refrigerated, and securely wrapped in clingfilm. In a proper cheese shop, or at an outdoor market they are just sprawled out on a counter, and ooze merrily in all directions. I would probably be able to smell those in my fridge if I was collecting the post from my letterbox five storeys below.

Coming from a family of mild white (or red) Cheddar eaters, who might also treat themselves to a slab of Wensleydale with their Christmas cake, I think my palate has made considerable progress since living in France. It has been more of a slow progression than a sudden epiphany. First I learnt to appreciate cheeses similar to English and Dutch cheeses with which I was already familiar, like Cantal, Emmental and Swiss Gruyère. Later I was introduced to proper non-pasteurised Brie and Camembert during my year in Normandy. The family I stayed with had their cheeses on a platter in a cupboard, never in the fridge, and it all looked worse for wear when it emerged at mealtimes, tough outer crusts with lots of messy oozing in the middle. But once I got past the offputting pong and appearance there were some surprises in store. (Sometimes blocking my nose and letting my tastebuds continue unbiased helped.)

Traveling around France has also been a source of inspiration. On my regular trips to the Jura I have been initiated to regional cheeses: runny garlicy Cancaillotte, made in a factory where Mr Frog once had a holiday job, Morbier, Mont d’Or, nutty earthy Comté. I’m now also very partial to ewes milk cheese from the Basque region (Ossau Irraty, Etorki), and Brocciu from Corsica.

I do have my limits though. Green veined Roquefort I can handle. But anything which has a layer of festering mould on the outer skin, or that ressembles a sheeps dropping someone found at the back of the barn several months later is unlikely to meet with an enthusiastic response, no matter how good the glass of red that accompanies it. A cheese with worms crawling inside it is not making it onto my plate. (I didn’t make that up – read ‘Almost French‘.) I’m not much good when faced with washed rind cheeses. I just can’t get past the odour of the rind, I don’t care how good the innards are supposed to taste. So I don’t think the Vieux Boulogne (the cheese with the title ‘smelliest cheese’ was bestowed upon) would be my cup of tea.

Extract from the Guardian article by Patrick Barkham, “Smelliest Cheese Honour”, 26/11/04:

“The odour of rotting vegetables and the scent of a goat on heat wafted down Farringdon Road a full five minutes before the cheese strolled in the door. “It’s gone to the post room,” said the man in the courier hut. “It was smelling the place out.”

Unwrapped from its plastic covering the Vieux Boulogne sent an aroma of six-week-old earwax floating through the Guardian’s offices. From a safe distance of 50 metres, the cheese emitted a pleasant eau de farmyard, replete with dung and Barbour jackets. Close up, its firm orange flesh, flecked with a delicate mould, recalled varnish.”

However I might be willing to sample it for a price, especially as it is described as ‘a cure for winter colds’. How about I add a paypal button and when the price is right, I’ll broadcast the Vieux Bologne sampling fest via webcam?

I feel I have to warn you though, it might end up looking like the Jackass egg eating competition.

November 29, 2004

songs about plucking

Filed under: Uncategorized — petiteanglaise @ 10:33 pm

Tadpole has started singing. Mostly nonsense words, but it sounds incredibly cute all the same. She has a little electronic nursery rhyme book which sings to her in French. I had a problem with this at first, as it sounds like my mother in law’s voice on the recording, but I’m over it now. Anyway, I thought I’d have a look for the full lyrics of some French nursery rhymes on the interweb, as the book sings the first few lines and then just plays the music and I don’t know how the songs are supposed to continue.

Mr Frog, needless to say, can’t remember any of the words. I sometimes wonder if he really is French? Or whether he had a childhood. Maybe he’s actually an alien masquerading as a French person. I haven’t seen any evidence of super powers so far, but if I do you will be the first to know.

What I like about English nursery rhymes are the references to comforting things like tea – ‘Polly put the kettle on’, ‘I’m a little teapot’. Of course I am aware that some of our best loved nursery rhymes were inspired by rather unpalatable historical events: ‘Mary Mary quite contrary’, which appears to be Tadpole’s favourite, allegedly recounts the persecution of protestants during the reign of catholic Mary Tudor (the garden being a graveyard and the silver bells and cockle shells being instruments of torture according to one source). But let’s face it, to Tadpole it is just song about a garden with pretty things in it.

I can’t help however being a little perturbed after reading the full lyrics for Alouette, one of the best known French contines.

Alouette, gentille Alouette,
Alouette je te plumerai,
Alouette, gentille Alouette,
Alouette je te plumerai,
Je te plumerai la tête,
Je te plumerai la tête,
Et la tête, et la tête,
Alouette, Alouette,
Alouette, gentille Alouette,
Alouette je te plumerai…

So what do we have here? A song about a lovely lark. Getting plucked.

Lark, lovely lark,
Lark, lovely lark,
Lark, I’m going to pluck you,
Lark, lovely lark,
Lark, I’m going to pluck you
I’m going to pluck your head,
I’m going to pluck your head,
And the head, and the head,
Lark, lark,
Lark, lovely lark,
Lark, I’m going to pluck you…

The song can be repeated substituting the word ‘head’ for other body parts (nose, eyes, wings, whatever). I cannot help but be reminded of all those bucolic French films with close up shots of rabbits being skinned and pheasants being plucked. But are larks even edible?

I am not looking forward to the day in the not too distant future when Tadpole inevitably asks me to explain what ‘plucking’ means and why the poor lark is getting it.

The upshot of all this is that I think I’ll stick to my English nursery rhymes after all. Preferably the ones about making tea.

*I think I may be delirious – I have an ear infection and sinus infection and am taking very strong drugs today – so please bear with me if this is utter nonsense. But I was getting blogging withdrawal symptoms.

November 26, 2004

fall from grace

Filed under: navel gazing, Tadpole rearing — petiteanglaise @ 2:37 pm

I would describe myself as an agnostic, I think. I don’t have any strong beliefs about the existence or non-existence of some kind of deity. But I don’t have any certainty either, so I don’t think the word ‘atheist’ is appropriate.

I was christened Church of England, and as a child went to both the C of E and Methodist Sunday schools in my village. Not simultaneously, I hasten to add. I ‘defected’ to the Methodists because my friends went there and it was more laid back; I crossed back over to the other side when I was too old for Sunday school to join the choir. The Methodist choir in the village church was made up of old ladies with pink rinses and thin, reedy voices, the attraction of the C of E choir on the other hand was the ‘proper’ flowing robes and wooden crucifixes on a string and that musically they took themselves rather more seriously. And if my memory serves me correctly I think there may have been a boy I was interested in. Although quite how I thought I’d make an impression wearing my NHS glasses and choir robes I really don’t know. I quite enjoyed the singing, but I remember the Sunday services being particularly tedious as the priest wasn’t much of an orator and his sermons were long drawn out affairs.

My subsequent fall from grace came about for several reasons.

I got lazier and I started to want a lie-in on a Sunday. I also started to resent being ‘forced’ to do anything. On principle. I was entering a phase where I questioned everything, religion included. I wasn’t at all sure I believed in any of it, and even if I did, I failed to see how attending church every week was necessary.

And then there was the A-Team. Choir practice was on Friday evenings. So was the A-Team. Everyone at school watched it and I hated feeling left out. Faced with such powerful arguments, and after I’d accidentally overslept three Sundays in a row, my mother realised there was no point forcing the issue. I was eleven years old. I’ve attended a couple of weddings and carol services since. Other than that, I tend to visit churches to admire their architecture when we’re on holiday.

Now I am a parent. We live in a country where catholicism is the main religion, but state institutions (and therefore all schools) are secular. The Frog is a non-practising Catholic, although he did attend a private Catholic infant school with real nuns (ostensibly because it was close to his mother’s place of work) and even went on a school trip to the Vatican to see the Pope one Easter.

My dilemma is this: what do I teach the Tadpole about religion? Should I buy her a book of bible stories some day – for her general culture and because I think many of the principles taught by Christianity are sound guidelines to live by – and explain that some people believe in God, but that I’m not one of them?

Am I going to deprive her of the magic of seeing a nativity play at Christmas and singing carols? The right to have a crush on a guitar playing Sunday school teacher or choirboy? How will I explain to her what happens to people when they die when the time comes without upsetting her if I’m going to leave angels and heaven out of the equation?

Clearly the Frog and I both had some religious education and then were free to make up our own minds when we were old enough to do so. How can I give Tadpole the same freedom?

November 24, 2004

a nice bit of crumpet

Filed under: miam, missing blighty — petiteanglaise @ 3:35 pm

The 22nd of December 2001 was a black day for English expats in Paris: Marks and Spencer finally closed down their Paris Haussmann and Rivoli branches.

In a last desperate bid to stock up on crumpets, English breakfast tea and mature cheddar I braved the closing day 40%-off-sale hordes. Anarchy reigned. Protestors were making their anger felt by tearing the wrappers off triangle sandwiches in the food hall and scoffing them without paying. The clothes section looked like a jumble sale. Extra security guards had reportedly been taken on for the day to keep the peace.

Once the store closed, I began to fully comprehend what I had lost. Never again when feeling a bit low or homesick could I turn to English comfort foods like toasted teacakes and hot cross buns to munch in front of Eastenders. There were to be no more properly spiced chicken biryani ready meals. Crispy duck with pancakes, plum sauce and a side order of crispy seaweed was a thing of the past. (Parisian Chinese restaurants don’t seem to serve this, my favourite dish, more’s the pity.) Rice pudding, custard, cheddar and stilton were definitively off the menu. I would have to learn to recover from hangovers without the help of a bacon and tomato ketchup sandwich.

When I first moved to Paris, I started off terribly enthusiastic about all things French. Thus I watched the French terrestrial TV channels, read only (terribly serious) French novels, and ate 100% French food. As the months stretched into years and it was clear that France was to be my permanent home I started to crave a bit of English food, English language literature and television programmes. Nowadays I have gone to the opposite extreme and watch exclusively English/American films and TV programmes on cable TV (apart from the odd good French programme on Canal+ like ‘+Clair’ or ’90 minutes’) and order English/American fiction via Amazon. I watch Eastenders religiously every night, even when it is going through a bad patch. I read Heat magazine when I can lay my hands on it (even though I’ve never seen the English version of any of the reality shows they harp on about ad nauseam). In my former life in the UK I wouldn’t have been seen dead reading a gossip mag and I didn’t follow Eastenders. I suppose I clutch at any Englishness I can get my hands on these days.

Don’t get me wrong, my love affair with France is by no means over. I just missed my English side a little bit. Especially during the period where I worked for Franco-French companies and spoke only French all day long. My Englishness is an important part of who I am, and I want to preserve it.

And I feel the best way to cultivate this is by eating crumpets and drinking tea.

November 23, 2004

tales from the goldfish bowl

Filed under: city of light — petiteanglaise @ 11:29 am

Once upon a time, I had a holiday job working in a Thomas Cook foreign exchange bureau on the rue de Rivoli, opposite the Jardin des Tuileries.

It is fortunate that I do not suffer from claustrophobia, because this involved being locked in all day behind the (probably not) bulletproof glass (because the safety instructions mentioned ducking as well as pressing the panic button) until a security man came to let me out in the evening. And the office was rather cramped.

Fun aspects of this job were that I got to open a proper combination safe every morning – like in a James Bond film: 10 to the left, 100 to the right – to get my hands on the cash stash. Then there was the fact that I could read a book when there were slack spells, or sing along to the radio, and no-one saw/heard. I also got an (albeit small) thrill from wheeling and dealing. The French Franc was in its death throes and consequently the exchange bureaus were all in fierce competition with one another to make as much money as possible before the introduction of the euro wiped out half of their business. In order to win over customers who were wisely shopping around before changing their money I had to haggle. The rate shown on the board was for mugs. My goal was to entice people to change more cash so that I could give them a (slightly) better rate. I pretended to do lots of complicated sums on my calculator and this usually did the trick.

Bad things about the job were that I had to deal with a lot of very dodgy/ignorant people on a daily basis. There were the gypsy ladies who probably put Romany curses on me when I refused to change their huge bags of centimes into Francs (I wasn’t allowed to) and hassled my customers. Being in a glass bowl like a goldfish makes you rather impotent in such situations . There were shifty looking men (pimps?) who came to change vast amounts of low denomination dollar bills late at night, and didn’t take too kindly to my confiscating the forgeries that they had slipped in for good measure. (I was trained to recognise forged dollars: a missing tree here, insufficient detail on a president’s face there.)

Then there were the tourists. Some of the things they came out with left me speechless.

Female tourist: ‘Honey, I don’t understand. Can you tell me why the restaurant over there won’t accept dollars?’
Petite : ‘Ah. That’ll be because you are in France and the only legal tender in France is the French Franc…’

I then proceeded to change her dollars at the rate on the board because clearly this customer would not be doing any negotiating.


Female tourist to French colleague: ‘Oh my gawd, isn’t it cute the way everyone speaks French here? Y’all are so clever.’

I struggled to make sense of this one. Finally realisation dawned that she thought that every human being was born speaking English and that French people had learnt French as a second language from an early age. No really. That was what she meant.

The most distressing part of the job was however the International Money Transfer service. How I hated taking hard earned cash from some poor immigrant worker and sending a tiny fraction of it home to their needy relatives. Those services are outrageously expensive, but people without bank accounts have very little alternative but to use them. When I was working alone I broke the rules by trying to explain the cost of each transaction, but either I couldn’t make myself understood or the customer knew but wanted to send it regardless.

If you are travelling to France with large amounts of cash or travellers cheques, a word of warning. Life is harder for exchange bureaus these days, and they are consequently meaner. Don’t assume that because you have euro denomination cheques they will be exchanged without commission. I learnt this to my cost when my well meaning mum gave Tadpole some money in M&S Travellers cheques. There was a 10% charge. I was livid. No negotiation possible. Walking away and pretending to go to another agency didn’t have the desired effect (i.e. of them calling me back over to make a new proposition).

Evidently the rules of the game have changed since I last played.

November 22, 2004


Filed under: misc — petiteanglaise @ 3:50 pm

I have a song called “Ice Pulse” by the Cocteau Twins stuck in my head.

This is because I went to see ‘Tarnation’ at the weekend with Mr Frog. We had seen a documentary about it on Canal+ and I felt it was a film that definitely deserved to be seen on a big screen with surround sound. I wasn’t wrong.

Of course if you live in the UK/US/anywhere but France, you probably saw this flim aeons ago. For some reason it has only just been released here. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to do so.

The director, Jonathan Caouette, has assembled footage of his family from the past twenty years (photos, Super8 footage, video) and set it to a soundtrack of music, answering machine messages and letters to tell the story of his life so far. Caouette had a disturbed childhood to say the least: his mother Renée suffered from mental illness (possibly caused by a series of shock treatments ill-advisedly administered in her teens) and was repeatedly institutionalised; infant Jonathan was abused in foster care before being adopted by his grandparents. Having spent a very brief spell in foster care myself, before my adoption as a baby, I cannot find words to describe how livid it makes me to hear of children being abused when they are at their most vulnerable and desperately need support from the adults entrusted with their care.

In spite of the subject matter, ‘Tarnation’ is a very uplifting film: Caouette has faced his demons and although a lingering fear remains that one day he too may suffer from mental illness like Renée, he seems to be in a good place right now with a very supportive partner and, in his own words, he is closer to his mother than ever before.

Unfortunately, four things were nagging at me during the film and marred my enjoyment somewhat.

The first was that I was trying in vain to remember the name of a semi-autobiographical novel I had read which reminded me of this film. I’ve finally found it, after a few google searches that I hope my employer will not hold against me (search terms “trailer trash rent boy”). The book I was thinking of was ‘Sarah’ by J T Leroy. Apparently I’m not the only one to have made this connection as I found an article on the interweb where Caouette and Leroy are interviewed together.

The second thing was that the complete stranger on my left and I laughed at all the same things (in particular, Caouette’s staging of a musical version of Lynch’s ‘Blue Velvet’ at high school, to a soundtrack of Marianne Faithful songs), while the Frog didn’t react at all. I started to wonder whether we were soulmates after all. But then I reminded myself that he is and will always remain a philistine (he has never read a work of fiction in all the years I have known him and generally prefers films which have a car chase/a shoot out/both) and I don’t suppose he will ever change. And if I’m honest, I quite like feeling culturally superior to him.

Thirdly, the Frog had purchased a large tub of (salty) popcorn and this was not a popcorn film. The French, you see, take their cinema rather seriously. Small art-house cinemas abound in the capital where popcorn is not even on sale. In this instance, although we were in a UGC cinema, which ressembles a Warner Bros or similar in the UK, most people in the audience were not eating and drinking. There appears to be an unwritten rule about the type of film in which popcorn is permissible (e.g. a Hollywood blockbuster) and the type of film where it is not. So I found myself snatching handfulls of popcorn surreptitiously during the loud music bits (because we hadn’t yet eaten and it was too tempting) but feeling very guilty and conspicuous and un-French for doing so.

And to top it all off, I needed the loo. From about half an hour into the film (it was 88 minutes long). And when the final credits rolled, I couldn’t even sprint to the bathroom because I needed to see what the name of the Cocteau Twins song was.

And that brings us full circle…

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