A French affair

Here in France Christmas Day was a French affair. Like many of the natives, we ate out. Our fabulous Déjeuner de Noël at Langousto was as follows:

Cocktail Maison
(Amaretto, Champagne, Beaume de Venise)

Gâteau de Foies Blonds de Volaille à la Crème de Cèpes
(Pour la Mise en Bouche)

Le Foie Gras de Canard aux Truffes du Haut-Var

Rosace de Coquilles Saint-Jacques au Beurre d’Oursins

Croustillant de Loup à la Décoction de Cardamome Verte

Pigeonneau en Croûte Farcie de Trompettes des Bois

Moelleux au Chocolat Servi Tiède et Glace Vanille
Sorbet Mandarine Caramélisé dans une Emincée de Pommes

Petits Fours et Chocolats

The French theme continued once we returned home, thanks strangely to the English television networks (relayed to the south of France by satellite). First BBC 2 broadcast this year’s animated French hit Belleville Rendez-vous and Channel 4 joined in later with the popular movie from 2001 Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain (aka Amélie).

Grand-mère comforts her long-suffering hound in Belleville Rendez-vous.

Grand-mère comforts her long-suffering hound in Belleville Rendez-vous.

We’d seen Belleville Rendez-vous in London last October, but for some reason its commentary on Anglo-French relations seemed more obvious this time. It tells the story of a French Tour de France champion who is kidnapped by the mafia, smuggled into the US and forced to cycle in secret for the benefit of the mob’s illegal gambling business. In typical French style, his grand-mère comes to the rescue. The title comes from a song made popular by a trio of swinging sisters, contemporaries of grand-mère with a penchant for grenouille, who live in New York City and help to save the day. So the criminal activity is all based in the US, where the heroines live on an exclusive diet of frogs. Make of that what you will.

Amélie film poster

Amélie film poster.

Helping the blind and infirm cross the road must be something of a French cliché because such a scene appears in both Belleville Rendez-vous and Amélie. In Belleville Rendez-vous an American boy-scout attempts to help grand-mère cross the road, but she wants none of it and discourages him by repeatedly beating him with her cane. In the eponymous Amélie, our frenetic heroine doesn’t just help an old man across the street, she takes him halfway across Paris unnecessarily. Could these scenes be metaphors for the perils of unwanted assistance from well-meaning strangers?

All we can say with certainty is that these days eccentric women seem to get what they want — at least they do in French films.

Meanwhile an article in this month’s Prospect magazine attempts to deconstruct another cultural difference between the anglo-saxon and French worlds. In French favours author Tim King wonders about the roots of French corruption:

Corruption exists in all countries, rich and poor. Does it have distinctive roots in France? According to the writer Edmonde Charles Roux, “the Mediterranean people have a conception of honesty which is peculiar to them.” In the case of France there are two aspects of all this which seem to be fundamentally different from life in Britain.

The first is the attitude to money. The British have a fairly clear view (which has been called Protestant) that money is a tool. There is nothing wrong with it in itself, but there is good money, earned by hard work, and bad money gained through greed or dishonesty. At the root of the French attitude is the Catholic view that money is tainted by sin. Yet money is necessary and since corruption is only an abuse of something already sinful, it doesn’t matter too much.

That historical, Catholic view, is overlaid by the Republican rejection of all things Catholic (partly because the Catholic church itself was seen as corrupt). According to Republican logic, the term “morality” smacks of the church, so calling a politician immoral is off limits because it mixes state with church, which is forbidden by law. Republicanism has also led to a conviction that the state will foot the bill – for anything. The result in France is a confused way of thinking about money, marked by suspicion and reticence when talking about it.

The second basic difference concerns the French attitude towards politicians. In France, politics is about strength and l’art de paraître. The French don’t condemn their leaders’ immoral actions if they are for the common good. At one of his trials former minister Bernard Tapie admitted he had committed perjury. “But I lied in good faith,” he added. “Better the dishonest minister than the stupid one,” says barrister Jean-Pierre Versini-Campinchi, who is defending François Mitterrand’s son in an arms trafficking case. The French do not share the notion that a politician should, personally, set a good example.

So avoid following French politicians, but attend to determined French women whenever possible. That seems to be the message from two different perspectives on French culture this month.

The Audrey rule

The International Herald Tribune deserves to be more widely read, particularly the online edition. Not only does it have the best design of any newspaper on the web, with really useful features such as “Clippings”, but it also has some extremely knowledgeable writers on its staff, including Patricia Wells and Souren Melikian.

Yesterday the IHT published an article that warms the cockles of my heart. In London’s restaurant revolution Roger Collis wrote:

Today, eating out in London is better than eating out in Paris; food here has become some of the best in the world in a relatively short period of time – an incredible revolution, similar to that in New York, because of the nature of the way people live today and the diversity of ethnic food.

Good food in Britain is really not news these days. London in particular has had first rate restaurants for at least a decade. Instead the heart warming element of Collis’ article comes later when he quotes Tim and Nina Zagat, publishers of several well-known restaurant guides:

“…one thing that can destroy a good experience or make a modest experience into a good one is hospitality, not service, when you are made welcome by someone who looks like they’re glad to see you. Hospitality can make or break an experience. It’s the weak link everywhere we have surveyed – at any level. People are either nice or they’re not nice.”

Nina Zagat adds: “There are no schools for hospitality and training here or in the States as there are for chefs. Sixty-seven percent of complaints in our London survey related to service; while the combined complaints about the food, parking, smoking, noise, crowding, everything else, was only about 30 percent. That tells you the problem. The industry should hire nice people, hire for hospitality and understanding.

“Danny Meyer, who owns the Union Square Caf

The ultimate in recycling

From Radio Canada International’s Cyberjournal:


One of the largest private donations in Canadian history is going to McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. Michael DeGroote is donating $105 million for health research, a new learning centre and for a fund to attract outstanding new faculty. As a result of his gift, McMaster is renaming its School of Medicine after him. Mr. DeGroote is a long-time philanthropist who owned Canada’s largest school-bus fleet and North America’s third-largest waste-management company.

Thoughts in Westminster Abbey

From Thoughts in Westminster Abbey by Joseph Addison (1672-1719):

When I look upon the tombs of the great, every emotion of envy dies in me; when I read the epitaphs of the beautiful, every inordinate desire goes out; when I meet with the grief of parents upon a tombstone, my heart melts with compassion; when I see the tomb of the parents themselves, I consider the vanity of grieving for those whom we must quickly follow: when I see kings lying by those who deposed them, when I consider rival wits placed side by side, or the holy men that divided the world with their contests and disputes, I reflect with sorrow and astonishment on the little competitions, factions and debates of mankind. When I read the several dates of the tombs, of some that died yesterday, and some six hundred years ago, I consider that great day when we shall all of us be contemporaries, and make our appearance together.

No place for novices

I used to work for an auction house, and found myself campaigning constantly for the simplification of the business’ operations. So I felt somewhat vindicated this weekend when the Financial Times published an article about investing in antiques (The fine art of polishing auction costs) that concluded with the following:

Would-be investors need to look closely at the fine print and bone up. Auctions are no place for novices, say experienced collectors. And it is not like buying stocks and shares. The process of buying and selling antiques, fine art and collectables is considerably less transparent than dealing in stock markets, where trading is incomparably quicker, easier, cheaper and clearer.

The moral of this story is that there are easier and much safer ways in which to make money.

Trinidadian rubbish

I’ve written previously about Mark’s Mailbox, the letters section of Canadian journalist Mark Steyn’s web site, but I just had to share the following excerpt from a piece of fan mail published there this week:

Mark, I’m a long-time reader going back to National Post. As it happens, I’m a Canadian actuary currently living and working in Trinidad, a beautiful and wonderful country where we get garbage pick-up 4 times a week, no limit on number of bags or anything, no recycling, they take it all, and you couldn’t find nicer, more courteous guys – stark contrast from that socialist paradise Chrétien is so proud of, where the unions have the run of the place…

Gene Dziadyk
Westmoorings by the Sea
Trinidad, West Indies

People are strange. Since when is a great place to live defined by the frequency of the garbage collection? How much rubbish does Mr. Dziadyk produce in a average week? And when did a failure to recycle become a good thing?

On the other hand, perhaps the lack of recycling is a good thing in Trinidad. Some years ago, a Rough Guide television programme about Trinidad was broadcast, in which the country’s poor were shown crawling all over the municipal dump in search of things to use or sell. The narrator explained that this shocking behaviour was necessary because Trinidad had no welfare system for its unemployed whatsoever. So the lack of recycling presumeably means better pickings for Trinidad’s poor.

The saying one man’s rubbish is another man’s gold clearly applies in this case; not just to Trinidad’s poor, but also apparently to Mr. Dziadyk.

PS – What deluded developer came up with the name Westmoorings by the Sea? It sounds like it should be in Sussex; not near Port-of-Spain, Chaguaramas, Guayaguayre, or Tunapuna. It would be just as appropriate to call the place Beaulieu-sur-Mer.

Do we need mankind?

Having mentioned the Shell Economist Writing Prize in July (Do we need nature?), it seems appropriate to acknowledge this year’s winner. Diane Brooks Pleninger won first prize for her essay titled Interview with a fungus (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader).

Ms Brooks Pleninger turned the original question on its head, and it doesn’t take a mycologist to guess how the fungus answered it.

More on Camembert

Dust jacket of Camembert: A National Myth

Speaking of Camembert, a review of Camembert: A National Myth by Pierre Boisard was published this week in the Guardian:

Pierre Boisard seeks to show how, over the past 150 years or so, the cheese has been ruined: industrialised, homogenised, delocalised and, finally, pasteurised – and all without the assistance of American multinational corporations. It’s almost wholly an indigenous French story: the Camembert producers made it into the national cheese – the most popular and best-selling of any cheese in France – and then into an internationally recognised and traded commodity. Camembert is a gripping read, and if it winds up using cheese as a perspicuous site for understanding the making of modernity, well, there are lots of other cheese books which really are just about cheese.

So it seems the French weren’t such cheese-eating surrender monkeys after all. Cheese-eating, yes; but they practised modern methods of globalization and began conquering the commercial world long before Coca-Cola or McDonald’s.

Cheese cleavers and other dilemmas

I spent last weekend in a very wet Scotland. Sudsy Dame and I flew to Glasgow from Heathrow on British Midland. Disappointingly, the service on this supposedly full service airline left something to be desired. On the way there I asked for a Coke with ice, and the stewardess returned in record time with very hot tea and a packet of treacle biscuits. Luckily the pilot was more on the ball, and we reached our planned destination intact and on time.

While we were there, we were given our first Christmas present. As you’d expect it was disguised with seasonal wrapping paper that bore the usual tidings of peace and goodwill. We thanked our friends, and thought nothing more about it … until Sudsy Dame tried to carry it onto the plane for our return journey.

The security officer watching the x-ray screen nearly fell over backwards as the picture of our bag appeared on his screen. I had forgotten completely about the gift and had no idea what the problem could be. Eventually of course, we were forced to unwrap it and we discovered that we’d attempted to take three Laguiole cheese knives, including a two-inch cheese cleaver, onto the plane.

Laguiole 3-piece cheese knife set

Tools for cleaving cheese

The security staff were very good about it. They notified the airline, which accepted it as checked baggage, and we collected the knives, along with our suitcase, from the baggage carousel at Heathrow once we’d arrived back in London.

So now, once the Camembert is ripe, we can cleave our cheese till the cows come home. How can you tell if the Camembert is ripe? According to Monsieur Taittinger:

You put your left index finger on your eye and your right index finger on the cheese … if they sort of feel the same, the cheese is ready.

Now you know.