Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Frenchmen and Food!

I simply love the way my lover serves food. Be it a picnic or some dishes I have cooked, it’s the way he arranges it all on the platters and the way he uncorks the champagne and the wines. He’s a heavy weight businessman but that does not diminish his grasp of that French art of dealing with food. He’s French, of course and it seems that Frenchmen know all about cooking and serving food. I don’t mean ‘The French’ entirely. I mean French men. The only two French women who ever cooked anything when they stayed with me in London had one dish each in their repertoire. One did Croque Monsieur when her boyfriend visited. The other did Moule Marinere when I introduced her to a Francophile ex of mine. The moule were superb, as were the bottles of Pouille Fume he brought,  the whole lot, served before a blazing log fire in my Montagu Square salon.  The love affair lasted a few weeks. Perhaps the one dish introduction needed some additions? One should not rest on one’s culinary laurels!
But back to the men, much the best part of the deal. The best French Chefs, in France or abroad, are well known to be creative, temperamental and exacting. But although a few females have been trying to erode their solid ranks, they remain dominant in the kitchen. Two French Chefs were friends of mine in London. They worked at prestigious embassies but moonlighted to make me a three course buffet for a concert and soirée I produced for 100 people. They did a great job and the ticket holders were ecstatic about everything from the ambience to, yes the concert, and of course the food. When, I was asked, would I do another one?
Since then I’ve moved to Paris, where I have to say I find not all French know that much about food or wine. Perhaps they take for granted the fact that even the simplest brasserie or café can rustle up a delicious omelette or steak and frites. Even though the standard is declining as costs rise, these compare favourably with many London equivalents. Some French seem not to expect a foreigner to know anything about food or wine. But I was taught French dining rules as a child. Besides, there is more good wine and more good French cuisine available at good restaurants in London than in France except at the very top establishments. I’m not saying that the food lacks quality at places like Laurent where President Hollande and his First Umbrella Carrier, the Rottweiler, (yes its still raining all the time) dine occasionally--a few steps from the Elysée’s back gate. I simply think that the Michelin star system is over rated: each time I’ve eaten at a Michelin starred place, I find the more the stars, the worse the food. Crème seems to be the main ingredient, plus salt overdose, and vegetables are mere slivers of decoration. One invariable feels sick later.
But eating at top restaurants is not the point. France is acknowledged as the home of great cuisine. Due to this, gourmets from all over the world fly in to discover how to shop, cook and serve great French dishes and wines. Hence, there are cooking schools all over France where these devotees train as adepts. French people also attend cooking schools in Paris, often in the lunch breaks.
French cooking was apparently imported from Italy by the ghastly Catherine de Medici, bride of Henry I (of France) along with high heels. She did a good job on marketing both.
Paris boasts several cooking schools, one of which, ‘Cook’n with Class’ in Montmartre attracts an international clientele who are taught by English speaking Chefs. This school will have a stand at the France Exhibition at Earl’s Court the coming weekend of Jan 18th-20th.
Other stands at the Exhibit include estate agencies, financiers and property renovators. Their stands may have been booked before the election of Francois Hollande last May as President for five years and the killer taxes he has since imposed on foreign property owners plus their incomes, or indeed on the wealthy French. One of the latter is Gerard Depardieu the actor who has invested heavily in restaurants, one of which my lover and I patronise for its excellent simplicity. His decision to become a resident of Russia makes him one of the more celebrated examples of a wealth drain of billions that has occurred since Hollande’s anti- wealth policies came into effect last October. In October-November 2012 France’s exchequer suffered a net loss of 53bn euros as individuals and businesses decamped; plus money supply has been falling at an accelerating rate since Hollande’s investiture. Bankruptcies are rising and the private sector is in revolt.
I grieve for French enterprises whose representation at the London Exhibition demonstrates such hope that France with all its wonderful amenities for leisure will attract foreigners as property owners, investors, tourists and foodies. Alas, while the cooking skills will remain, they may reap more profit for their talented cooks and restaurateurs outside France rather than at home.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Fifty Shades of Black

Put your Black Rags on, Babes! It’s the festive season. I was at a party the other night. The mostly French women there were dressed in deepest black from topknot to stiletto. There was plenty of texture, lace, damask, crochet, bits of fur and fluff—but black. I was the only woman wearing a colour! Shocking pink! One other British woman was wearing a white cardigan and my friend Tara was in a silver top.
Shopping for something new? Every boutique window in my quartier of St Honoré is draped in, yes, Black. With one exception, that of a recently opened boutique in the Rue Place Marché St Honoré where the windows are filled with multi-coloured trousers, jackets and sleeveless dyed fur gilets. I’m not quite sure I’ve understood the formula or the marketing sense. I don’t know where a Parisian would go dressed in these clothes. To her country house perhaps?. A friend of mine who lectures in fashion complains that going on the Metro in the morning is “like going to a funeral.” And the mood matches the colour. Somber.
The only women one sees dressed colourfully on the streets are usually artists. But generally, coloured clothes are not considered chic. I have heard a shade of magenta described as “flashy.”
Recent fashion seasons made grey into the new black and recently one of the boutiques in Rue St Honoré was displaying clothes in shades of beige and brown mingled with white, one of this year’s fashion favorites until the Christmas window displays took over. When I cycled down Rue St Roch on Daisy Belle just before Christmas I was shocked to see that, even the Pronuptia boutique was displaying long black dresses. Eek! Is black in for weddings now too?
To anyone who knows anything about the effect of colour on the spirits, this black fixation could be one reason why so many Parisians are on anti-depressants. Not that black cannot be sexy and alluring, but the sight of sallow unmade up faces framed with non descript black puffa jackets gives one the heebie jeebies. That’s why a slash of red lipstick or a nattily coiled scarf in some bright shade of anything but black can offer relief. And if French women have a talent it's for draping and coiling that foulard. Lately it seems they are not bothering with those flashes of colour. The endless procession of black clad bodies in the street (in baggy leggings and puffa jackets) says something about the French woman’s fear of being different from the crowd. At work she wants to avoid being conspicuous. Out for the evening, she wants to be the most attractive and chic of any group but she does not want to be too adventurous. But could this black fixation be a statement of class? Are we talking petit bourgeois? It is evident in my turns around the streets of St Honore and up into Rue Faubourg St Honore that it’s the more expensive shops that display coloured clothes. Does money mean a greater sense of liberation from convention, a carefree self expression? Or could it be that these very expensive boutiques in Rue Castiglione and the Faubourg St Honoré are patronized by rich foreign women? My feeling is that French women always prefer black whatever their social status.
One evening coming home on the Metro from a dinner at a friend’s, I was impressed by two elegant women in expensive looking, fur trimmed black coats. They sat opposite me and I watched them fascinated. They were clearly from the upper bourgeoisie, confident, manicured and well heeled, expressing a hard self absorption. To their right a young girl, with loose hair and pretty without make up in baggy beige jodhpur leggings with trainers and a brown puffa jacket looked them up and down repeatedly. Her clothes, her open mouthed expression and her wooly-hatted boyfriend suggested students. The more she looked at her rich sisters, the more she portrayed a yearning for something beyond her reach, a sense of being denied entrance to an unattainable world. The rich sisters, at a guess in their late thirties or early forties had clearly made a substantial investment in new winter coats. What other colour would they choose than black?
The girl gave a resigned sigh and leaned back against her boyfriend’s shoulder, envious eyes shut. Ah, I thought, surely love is better than a rich black coat?