Gratatouille

The French are voracious carnivores and eat anything that runs, crawls, swims or flies. They’re particularly fond of all the nasty bits that civilised people reject including hoofs, ears, tails, brains, entrails … a flippant David Hampshire, ‘Living and Working in France’.

Tongue-in-cheek is a euphemism best avoided in Paris, where it may be interpreted as a request 😉 and not a form of ridicule. Yes, your gastronomic sensibilities will be challenged. But food is an utterly sensual delight here, more so than elsewhere, and taken very seriously. Surprisingly great food is affordably priced, since nobody in this egalitarian country would settle for less, and a higher standard becomes the norm. This applies equally to the staples as it does to refined dining, so leaving your mind open is advised – it’s all good. Swoon at the macaroons or devour baguettes, and be grateful for their fastidious focus on ingredients. I have only childhood memories of cantaloupe (rockmelon) of such quality in Oz.

In the animated movie the ultimate prize is achieved through comfort food, and the acerbic critic’s name Monsieur Ego is ironic. Ratatouille is a simple mashup of courgette (zucchini), aubergines (eggplant), tomato, etc and this rustic dish is reminiscent of the qualifying test for the chef in ‘The Hundred-Foot Journey’ – Hassan’s masala omelette. Furthermore, this blog is recall of Carole and my visit to Paris via India this year.

Ratatoille © Pixar 2007

Although we only had a few words of French, and spent most time in regional non-English speaking Bretagne/Normandy, we felt very much at home. Unless dealing with hordes of Anglo tourists the French were kindly, warmly welcoming, and anytime ‘Bonjour’ wasn’t sung out was anomalous (but being on a cycle did seem to be the endearing factor). Parisians too, were outgoing -it being summer, displaying gregarious appreciation of civic parks, and a neighbourliness that we portrayed to the Brits in ‘Neighbours’ on TV (but rarely display).

The TV phenomenon that is ‘Masterchef’ epidomises where we’ve gotten it wrong. Society should have moved on from gladiatorial battle over the last couple of thousand years, but animalistic survival of the fittest happens to be the armchair spectacle de jour. A pretentious pressure-cooker setting is however, an echo of the pomp that met its fate with the ultimate chopping block in 1793. Food is best savoured at leisure, and consumerist ‘wanting it now’ (if not sooner) is a bastardisation borne of insatiable demand for immediate gratification. Urgency is ill-advised in France, and it is rare to find a business in a French town open at lunchtime – which may run quite a long time. Food is social, is central to life.

The ‘Arrogant Frog’ stereotype is a farce. This is a society that has overturned an aloof aristocracy, and embraces all peoples. Being grateful for being in France surrounded by fabulous patisseries is much less arrogant than it is simply appreciating the privilege of a cuisine that excels. I must confess though, some dishes in France didn’t go down easily. Thanks for the memories, Blackadder. 

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