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The Real Deal

French cuisine owes much of its reputation to two simple precepts:

Eat in season. Eat locally.

What does that mean exactly? Well, a French restaurant in France worth its salt would not dream of serving une entrée (a starter) of tomatoes and mozzarella in the dead of winter. And even if it were on the menu through some faux pas (literally, false step), a true French gourmand (foodie) would not think of ordering it at that time of year. In France, the mantra is to eat foods at the peak of freshness and flavor-and it follows that the most local products are the freshest and best.

A recent trip to the Saturday market at Arles in Provence gave me a whole new view on fresh. There were the usual suspects-fruits, vegetables, flowers, honeys, olive oil, cheeses, meats, and farm-fresh eggs. You could even buy an entire plateau (tray) of 30 eggs for 4.50 euros. What a bargain! But I suppose you'd have to be cooking for an army or making a whole lot of pâtisseries (pastries) to use up all those eggs.

But it was a huge booth full of live chickens, ducks, quail, geese and other fowl that really caught my attention. In all the times I have shopped at open-air markets in France, I have never seen such a cornucopia of live volaille (fowl). I immediately wondered if les clients (customers) were buying them to raise them for eggs (this was most likely true for the hens) or to keep them as pets (children were picking out some of the birds) or to butcher them for Sunday dinner (a real likelihood, France being France).

On this particular sunny Saturday, the poultry vendors were doing a brisk business. Customers were lined up two and three deep to purchase their choice of fowl. It was a fascinating process to watch. First, the customer told the vendor what she wanted. Then, the vendor expertly cut slits or air holes in the appropriately sized cardboard box. Next, the vendor opened the bird container, thrust a hand into the mass of living feathers and flesh, chose the best fowl for the customer, and quickly tucked it into the prepared cardboard box. Money was exchanged, and the customer went on her way. I could have parked by this stall and watched the live bird spectacle the entire morning.

While I won't be raising my own poulets (chickens) anytime soon, I came away from the market with a renewed interest in enlarging my potager (vegetable garden) and in making sure I only buy eggs fresh from local farms. Thankfully, I have a couple of great sources for real, just-laid eggs at my current home base in Dallas.* And who knows, if I can get fresh heritage turkeys through my Slow Food connections here, I might even be able to scare up a just-raised chicken or two.*

* The gourmet boutique Flavors From Afar in the Snider Plaza shopping center carries eggs raised on a local farm as well as locally-produced cheeses. The eggs sell out fast so I often have to put my name on the waiting list! I sometimes find fresh eggs at Roy's Natural Market in the Preston Royal shopping center.

* Slow Food is an international non-profit organization devoted to protecting the culture and tradition of what I call real food, i.e. non-industrialized and non-fast food. Check out the main web site at www.slowfood.com or the local Dallas chapter at www.slowfooddallas.com.

October 01, 2008

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