I’m stretched out, all alone, in the second-class compartment of a French train, at the beginning of an 18-hour overnight trip from Cognac, France, to Alicante, Spain. Surrounding me is a glorious spread of jambon du payee, aged goat’s cheese, garden tomatoes and a crusty baguette — all purchased earlier in the day at a local farmer’s market. To wash it down, I’ve sacrificed a bottle from my stash of Chateau Rol Valentin ’95, a young Saint-Emilion Grand Cru that hours earlier had been destined for my wine cellar. (If the truth be known, I don’t actually have a wine cellar. But in the heat of the moment, after an orgasmic tasting of Bordeauxs, I had vowed to build one immediately upon my return.) As I open up my trusty Swiss Army knife to slice up a tomato, the conductor barges in unannounced to collect my ticket. After surveying the culinary carnage he’s stumbled upon, he begins barking orders at me. Unable to understand, I logically assume that eating, drinking and/or brandishing hand-held weapons are against French train regulations and quickly begin packing up my picnic. But to my surprise, the yelling and gesturing grow more frenetic. After a truly surreal exchange of international sign language, it finally becomes clear that the conductor is more concerned about my feet than my feast. As soon as I slip on a pair of socks, he clips my ticket and disappears down the hallway. Dazed and confused, I unpack my bounty and refill my glass.
You’ve got to love a country that sanctions topless beaches but prohibits bare feet. However, the French more than make up for this and any other contradictions with their unwavering respect for food and drink. In fact, my own unsubstantiated theory is that the so-called French Paradox owes as much of its credit to the habit of lingering over a meal, digesting it slowly and living and laughing amidst food, as it does to the miracle-working, cholesterol-reducing components credited to red wine. Perhaps part of the reason the French linger so long is that the food tastes so good. Tastes we can only dream about. Foie gras cooked in fat, croissants oozing with butter, and the cheese, those heavenly cheeses, unfettered by pasteurization — all of which bear a resemblance only in name to what’s available in our supermarkets. One could almost hypothesize that worrying about eating unhealthy food, America’s national pastime, is far more harmful than actually eating it. And the uninhibited dining habits go well beyond what’s on the plate. A favorite French dinner party trick involves couples discreetly leaving the room at midnight, then returning in each other’s clothing. With antics like these, it’s no wonder television takes a back seat to socializing around the dinner table.
The French approach to wine is also extremely different from ours, albeit in subtle ways. They drink to enhance the food, not to catch a buzz. It’s commonplace to see unfinished bottles left at the end of a meal. During a particularly memorable meal at the exquisite Chateau Cordeillan-Bages in the town of Pauillac, three half bottles were opened, allowing each course to be served with its perfect match — without drowning the dinner. In fact, the French rarely get drunk even though they always seem to be drinking. (A second French Paradox perhaps?)
Another difference I observed is that fine wines are opened with minimal melodrama. The day after a dinner party I attended in Paris (read: cooked for in exchange for a couch to crash on), the host casually mentioned that most of the wines the guests had brought were in the 300 franc range ($50). Similar offerings on this side of the Atlantic are usually opened with Jim Carrey-esque contortions. This isn’t to say that the French don’t hold their wine in high esteem. At a winemaker’s party celebrating the Ban des Vendanges (the beginning of the crush), the selected wines were marched in before each course by a choreographed procession of servers — to rousing applause. But when they reached the table, the bottles were opened and poured as though common vin de table.
Am I moving to France? Not yet. But with the remaining bottles of Bordeaux aging gracefully in my newly built cellar (read: recaptured space under the staircase) and some very aromatic cheese in my refrigerator acting as a constant reminder of my trip, I’m assimilating some of their best bad habits into my daily routine.
Say, has anybody seen my pumps?