What to Eat?
… or more likely, what was that?
Study all the guides you want, all the French texts that you can find, all the French Coobooks (maybe), and you will still be confused with a French menu.
Rule #1: Ask. Your waiter will love to describe the food … that’s what they do. I once asked about a strange sounding shrimp – was it a langoustine or an ecrivisse. The waiter brought a live one to the table – looked like it weighed 15 pounds … as everybody ducked, watching it carefully as it “flew” overhead, guided gracefully by the smiling and very pleased waiter, in a manner similar to a little boy with a new toy airplane. But that’s what they do and with pride. So Ask.
Why is it so difficult? Because the French love food, and also like to make it sound as appetizing as possible. A Big Mac may be a hamburger … but it’s different. And you can’t make something sound different by describing it as “Poisson” or “Poulet” – that’s what you get at conventions.
Rule #2: Poêlée is not a fish or chicken … or a rice dish, famous in Spain. It means pan-fried. French menus, like american menus, often describe the dish including specifically which part or what shape, how it’s cooked, what it is … and , of course, why it’s so special. Search for the “What is it?” part … typically follows the “de” – so Magret de Canard Poêlée aux Figues de Vendée is a breast (magret) of duck (de Canard) pan fried with figs … [and this is the signature] … de Vendée does not mean it came from somebody who sold [vend] it to the chef, but from the town of “Vendée” – the figues, that is. Au maison is “the house special”.
- It’s hard to get a bad meal in Provence … but it is possible to get and ordinary one, so pay attention to where you eat and what you chose … and when they bring you something that looks and tastes completely different from what you were expecting, smile … and use this opportunity to re-read the menu to figure out what it actually described.
- Want a really good steak? Get the Magret de Canard – try it a little more done then you would cook a good steak – like rare? order the duck “Au point” [medium]. Although, in recent years, beef quality has been improving in France, the steak you order will, in my observation, be more like Outback or 99 restaurant than Ruth Chris or Morton’s.
- In Paris, you can order Onion Soup in just about every restaurant … and they will all be different – similar, but different. In Provence, you will have a hard time finding it at all. The french have “rituals” when it comes to food – Onion Soup is a Northern dish.
- The menu may have a section called Poisson – fish. They will be listed by the name of the fish:
– Cabillaud: Cod
– églefin: haddock
– Moule: Mussels
– Homard: Lobster
– Huitre: Oysters