Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The first French restaurant

When my parents first started taking us to the south of France in the mid nineteen seventies, they were doing something relatively unusual for the times. There was not a lot of money and - surprisingly, perhaps, for the daughter of an Italian - my mother would pack food from home which we took with us: packets of Shredded Wheat; those round flat tins containing Fray Bentos steak pies; and tins of meatballs. It might have had something to do with exchange controls.
Be that as it may, two tins of the meatballs got to the south of France. One was pronounced so disgusting that the other was shipped all the way back to London and given to harvest festival collectors who came to the door.
One year, we had arrived in northern France; the tent was up; and we were all hungry. I have a feeling that my aunt Christine was with us. For whatever reason, the idea of opening one of the tins of food was rejected and we headed out, destination unknown. It was to be my first meal in a French restaurant, indeed my first meal in any restaurant other than a Berni Inn.
I do not recall there being much choice about where we would eat. The restaurant was on a  square in a nondescript northern French town. It was dark. But the light coming from the restaurant was cheerful and the place bustled. There were probably white paper tablecloths. It was that kind of place.
In those days, my brother and I shared one adult portion between us. I can remember the menu very clearly. Cornets of ham, filled with "crudités"; stuffed tomatoes; Steak-frites. And, having said I can remember the menu, I have no recollection of what there was for pudding. If the place was anything like the dozens of other, similar restaurants we were to encounter over the years, there would have been a choice: Crème Caramel, Mousse au Chocolat, Tarte aux Pommes, Glaces, Flan. Or was "Flan" simply another term for "Crème Caramel"?
I suspect that if we had walked into such a restaurant thirty years later and been offered the same things, we would have spent the rest of the holiday reliving the appalling meal we had endured. Instead, on that August night in the nineteen seventies, we were all enchanted with cornets of plastic jambon de Paris with tinned Russian salad in thin mayonnaise; with tomatoes that were stuffed with some kind of mince; with steak that, according to my mother, was "probably horse".
So enchanted were we that a few years later, at my particular request, we returned. It was a mistake. None of us knew for certain even the name of the town, although I had a vague recollection that it was called Albans or something similar. My father only remembered roughly where we would have stopped on that first night. We spent some time fruitlessly searching for it as the night grew darker and ended up back at the campsite, hungrier than when we had left, forced once again into self-catering. A sarcastic remark I made ("Well that's great!") was misconstrued as being a criticism of others and it was not a happy evening.
The following day, we renewed our search and very quickly came upon the square in the town, to find the restaurant, and it was open. It was not usual for us to eat out at lunchtime but it would clearly have been rude not to have done so on this occasion. And my father suggested we did just that. It was perhaps an illustration of how one should never try to recreate the perfect meal. Unlike its forerunner, the menu has passed into oblivion, although my father documented the "foul mashed potato" in the holiday log. His conclusion about the meal was that it was "much less impressive (and more expensive!) than last time". Or had we simply grown more sophisticated in the intervening years?

1 comment:

  1. Paul Wasserman–son of French food dictionary wine importer Becky–has just launched EatDrink, a company that sells gorgeous reprints of old wine books like 1927's Bouquet (above) by G.B. Stern, which follows a couple's journey through the vineyards of France.