Colours of home

Colours of home

Friday, 7 October 2016

The Melbourne Cup: The Frenchman Who Can't Cope with the Cup

My French husband Maxime chose a classic Aussie moment - the middle of a BBQ lunch on day of the 2016 AFL Grand Final - to say the following:

'Australians have no culture.'

I looked at my friend Marisa, of Italian heritage. Years ago, she had said exactly the same thing, sparking an angry argument with Aussie friends.

'You said that once!' I said to her.

'Yes. But I don't say it anymore,' Marisa replied quietly.

'Right - because I think we do have a distinct way of life, a way of approaching life, that's Australian. I think that's what culture is. And if you count thongs and a hat with corks on it, we even have a national costume.'

'Yes,' said Marisa. 'Not a fan of the hat, but I think Australians are more laid back than Europeans. Europeans have their protocols, they can get upset by trivialities.'

'Like when to go to the toilet!' I cried.

I had once been scolded in France by getting up to go to the bathroom in the middle of dinner.

My dad then pointed out that it used to be like that in Australia too. He itemised all the dinner-table rules there used to be, saying that he was not allowed to put his elbows on the table and so on. We have obviously loosened up a lot since then, but our European cousins have not. Manners, politeness and structure have their place of course - the idea is to get the balance right. Which Maxime evidently thought we hadn't:

'All Australians care about is sport and horse racing,' he said.

'Horse racing?'

I was quite happy to agree that obsession with sport was part of Australian CULTURE, but it had not occurred to me that we were particularly obsessed with the horse. In France, there are famous horse races at Chantilly (as in the cream ... and the castle ... and the race-track) and Longchamp (as in the handbag and the race-track), for example. There are sports bars dedicated to betting run by the French version of TAB, called PMU (Pari Mutuel). The PMU logo even includes horses! The same characters are found in both versions of the sports bar; they just speak different languages - and the Aussies are on beer and Winfields while the French are on wine and Gitanes. And so, as Marisa turned to Maxime to take up the argument against him, I tried to think what would have caused him to think Australians were crazy about racing.

We had taken him to the picnic races at Drouin twice. And I now recalled that he ... didn't like it. He ate take away burgers from food trucks happily enough but was deeply suspicious of the whole betting thing. J

'I just put a dollar each way. Just on a horse whose name I like,' I had explained. 'It's a bit of fun.' -

On our various picnic rugs, we had spread what we'd brought to eat - rolls, salads, roast chicken, mini quiches etc., and popped some bubbly and set about enjoying ourselves. What was not to like?

But going to the races was something the Frog had never done. And so he was wary. Towards the end of the day, when the crowd had swelled and teens were getting hammered at the pop up bars, Maxime had gone from out-of-his-comfort-zone to scathing.

And while our French kids happily accrete around the TV to watch the Melbourne Cup every year and excitedly talk about which horses they had in the school sweep, Maxime retreats to the kitchen to console himself with cheese.  If we'd held a Literature Cup and had eaten delicate canapes and sipped real champagne, that would have been fine, I'm sure. 

Well, let me just say one thing: if I score any winnings on my dollar each way bet this Melbourne Cup, a certain Drog won't be getting half of the packet of Cheezels I buy with it!The British came up with rules of modern horse racing, and so that may well be an additional reason for French aversion.

What's ironic is that I wrote this post on the train to Caulfield. On the train with me were the best dressed people you've ever seen on the Frankston line. It was Caulfield Stakes Day, apparently. Thankfully I wasn't on that train with a certain Frenchman ...

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

What Do the French Think of Australia's Top Restaurants?

My French in-laws were in Melbourne recently. As a birthday present, we got them a voucher for Attica, Australia's top resto.

We got them this because on their last visit to Oz they hadn't known where to go for good food.(And being French, of course, sourcing good food was priority number one!). They'd gone to fish and chips shops, for instance, hoping for fresh seafood - and then spent hours afterwards peeling batter off fish. My mother-in-law pleaded staff not to batter the scallops to no avail (and much peeling).

My husband Maxime had an additional reason for wanting to arrange things for his parents to do.

'Otherwise, they'll just spend their time going to Coles,' he explained.

So you can imagine his chagrin when he read their email recounting how they'd spent their first day in exciting Melbourne, beginning with breakfast and then shopping 'chez Cooles [sic]'.

In comparison to Coles tubs of mashed potato, and deep fried flake, Maxime and I were quietly confident that their evening at Attica would be a roaring success.

But it wasn't entirely in the bag. Never under-estimate the powers of the Frenchman to criticise. They would have to be the most imaginative, creative critics in the world. What's more, my mother-in-law Jeanne, herself an accomplished cook, says she always orders risotto in top restaurants - because it's so hard to get right. (When I first heard this, I made a mental note never, ever to cook it for her myself). And she was taking a notebook in order to take copious notes throughout the meal. Maxime and I kept our fingers crossed ...

The next day, they gave us their detailed analysis of the night.

'Some people dressed very casually, while other people dressed up.' Why don't they feel the need to show respect to the restaurant and the other diners?'

Because we're barbarians. 'Erm, well -'

'There was a series of small plates - really microportions - of tastes of native herbs. Sebastien was hungry so he ate all the bread. And he asked for more.

In this sentence, Jeanne got to diss the resto AND her husband all in one go - nice work!

'And then there was this sort of undercooked potato thing' Jeanne was completely mystified by this object. The hungi homage had totally passed over her head. Oops.

'But the strangest thing was when I went to the toilet.'

'Ah,' I said, thinking, I'm really not sure I want to hear this,,,

'The waiter led the way and then held the door open for me!'

This was apparently deeply shocking.

'It would NEVER happen in France!'

'Why not?' I aked, confused. I mean, it wasn't as if waiter had asked if she wanted to do a number one or number two.

'Because we don't do this!'


She was astonished I even needed to ask and was at a loss to explain something so obvious.

'It's too intimate.'

Well. I don't find toilet doors very steamy myself, but then I'm not French.

Luckily, Jeanne recovered from having the door to the intimate toilet world touched by the waiter and managed to continue with the meal.

'The dessert was too sweet. Of course, Sebastien wolfed it down.'

Bingo - another double whammy. She was in good form!

But the micro-portions thing stuck in my Australian craw.

'I mean, the French invented nouvelle cuisine!' I complained to Maxime later.

'That was the Parisians,' he said, smugly happy to stick the knife in to those smug Parisians. 'You wouldn't see that in Alsace!'

No, I thought, but you do see a lot of diabetes....

Monday, 30 March 2015

Cricket World Cup 2015: Is Cricket Really French?

Married to a Frenchman, I was unable to spend the day of the Cricket World Cup final as I would have liked – i.e., eyes glued to telly, beer glued to hand. Instead, I was required to participate in a 6 hour lunch and consume my share of 7 bottles of French wine with another French expat and his wife. Yep, a hard gig, I know.

I strongly suspected that our French hosts would not be interested in the match, ‘le criquet’ being unintelligible to the French. For instance, my French in-laws, currently visiting us in Melbourne,  have not been able to make head or tail of it.

‘So when someone hits the wicket, the wicket keeper goes away?’ asked my mother-in-law the other night.

‘Ahhh … not as such,’ I said.

‘And why does everyone shout a lot and go crazy when someone hits the ball into the audience?’ she wondered.

Explaining cricket to the in-laws was probably going to be a task beyond my meagre powers, I realised. My husband Maxime did profess to have a mild interest in the World Cup, however. He sort of learnt cricket by osmosis – through having previously been forced to listen to the Ashes on ABC Grandstand radio as we drove all around Tasmania. By the end of that trip, he was practically channelling Jim Maxwell. And now, Maxime’s view was that the World Cup as an international contest was important … and even if France never got close to ever being in one, a Frenchman could still have a giggle at England getting spanked by Bangladesh. This is why Maxime readily agreed to keep me appraised of the Aussies’ progress in the World Cup final during the meal at our friends’ house via a surreptitiously-held-under–the-table phone.

So it was that just after we and our hosts had sat down to the entrée of chicken terrine and fennel salad, Maxime announced, ‘They got McCullum [the NZ captain]. In the first over!’

Our friends looked up in surprise (and I looked up in delight). Normally at this stage in a lunch, Maxime would say ‘mmmmm’ or maybe ‘the Riesling is excellent.’

‘Do you understand cricket?’ our host Olivier asked Maxime, somewhat suspiciously (wondering if he was a closet Anglophile I imagine).

‘Yes. It wasn’t hard to pick up,’ Maxime said, sounding every inch the insufferably smug frog. (What was nice is that he was being insufferable and smug to other frogs for once. As opposed to me.)

‘Do you understand cricket?’ I asked Olivier.

‘Not at all,’ said Olivier proudly. He’d trumped Maxime by playing the ‘it’s-all-Anglo-Saxon-gobbledigook-so-cultured-French-don’t-care’ card.

But I had an ace up my sleeve waiting for that: ‘Well,’ I said, ’maybe you should be interested in cricket. It turns out that cricket might be French!’

People raised their eyebrows gratifyingly high. So I elaborated: I’d been recently dumbfounded to read in the French version of Wikipedia that the French may have invented cricket. According to the article, the oldest reference to cricket is in a letter of 1478 to the king, no less, about a match of ‘criquet’ in Liettres in the north of France. So cricket must have been bloody important to the French at some stage if they were whinging to the king about not getting their LBW decision (now there’s a third umpire for you!). The English actually planned their first-ever match outside England against France, but they picked a dud year for it. The 1789 tour was a bit of a fizzer. And after 1789, the French got a little side-tracked and replaced cricket with the sport of knocking people’s blocks off with a large blade instead of the traditional ball.

‘Typical English,’ said Olivier with a roll of his eyes as I finished my story. ‘We French have all the good ideas. The Anglo-Saxons just steal them.’ (Right, so NOW he thinks cricket is a good idea, since it might be French.)

I laughed. ‘Anyway, in the Revolution, it seems you lost the habit of playing cricket as well as a lot of heads.’ Then after a bit of reflection I said, ‘Although half the South African team seem to be French.’

‘A lot of Huguenots went to South Africa,’ explained Maxime. Huguenots were protestants escaping persecution in catholic France in the 17th and 18th centuries.

‘Right. So now you have Jacques Kallis and Faf du Plessis and de Villiers,’ I said. ‘And Philander seems appropriately French too somehow. But what sort of name is ‘Faf’ anyway? Is it French?’

I subsequently read it’s short for Francois, but Maxime said, ‘It means Fascist in French slang.’

‘Good Lord!’ I said, laughing. 

Ah well, it could be worse. Faf could have been French slang for dick. An astonishing number of words do seem to be slang for dick in French. I sometimes complain that I can’t get a sentence out without Maxime doubling over with laughter, telling me I’ve just said I’d like a piece of dick or something. And unfortunately, when it comes to cricket, there is also the slips cordon, giving Maxime the opportunity to shout things like ‘he was caught in womens’ underwear!’

After much hilarity at the expense of the poor old South Africans, we settled back for main course - Alsatian baker’s stew with beef and potatoes - and knocked over a St. Emillion Bordeaux and an Aloxe-Corton Burgundy. By this stage, the Kiwis were in as much trouble as our digestive systems. It was all going nicely until Boult came in to bat. 

Maxime pondered a bit and then said, ‘Bout means dick in French.’

Let’s just say I will not be taking Maxime to the cricket with me any time soon. Or New Zealand.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

What Happens When You Transplant a Frenchman into Australia for Christmas? Christmas Conflicts

A few years ago, my French husband Maxime and I were set to travel back to Australia for Christmas, as we did every other year. We had one last lunch with French friends before the flight. They were curious to know what an Australian Christmas was like.

‘And the family in Australia … do you fit in?’ Sebastien asked Maxime as he swirled a glass of Alsace Riesling.

‘Oh yes,’ said Maxime easily.

‘Err … it wasn’t always that way,’ I reminded him.

‘Oh, well, yes. The first Christmas there, I made a few mistakes,’ Maxime confessed, referring to his first ever visit to Australia, when things had gone ... interestingly. Especially where food was concerned. ‘At Christmas,' Maxime continued, 'they have this sort of gummy cake, the Christmas pudding. And they serve it with some sort of amorphous mass.’

The amorphous mass he was referring to was actually brandy butter. My sister’s girlfriend Wendy the Fluorescent (named for her colourful tracksuits) was immensely proud of her contribution to Christmas dinner. She was thought by everyone to have considerable pudding savoir-faire, and had spent the entirety of Christmas morning whipping up a special brandy butter flavoured with Cointreau.

‘When they put it on the table,’ Maxime said, ‘I made a remark about its appearance that wasn’t appreciated.’

‘Um, actually you said it looked like vomit,’ I said.

‘Oh putain!’ laughed Sebastien.

When Maxime had offered this choice observation that first Christmas lunch, there’d been a pause as everyone tried to decide whether or not he had really just described Wendy’s labour of love as vomit. Eventually deciding vomit must be French for lovely or something, people got on with their pudding.

But it wasn’t just brandy butter that got Maxime into hot water that first Christmas in Australia. My family were meeting him for the first time, and were expecting a polished, sophisticated European.  Mum had been vacuuming the house twice a day for weeks in preparation for his visit. To be fair, Maxime CAN do a decent line in polished and sophisticated at home in France. But somehow in Australia, it all unravelled. I suppose it was because all the rules are different here – when there are any.

And prehaps the little gastronomic shocks Maxime had to cope with rattled him. The first in store was when he discovered that at lunchtime, rather than coq au vin, Australians ate square pieces of bread. ('You eat sandwiches? Every day?' he'd said.)  But it was our Australian Christmas Eve that really took the cake (or the presliced bread). The thing is that since Mum would be doing a lot for Christmas dinner the following day, we’d decided to order takeaway pizza for dinner on Christmas Eve. When it arrived, the boxes were arrayed on the kitchen table and Dad got out some tumblers and a bottle of milk.

Maxime had stared at the table in utter horror.

‘What’s wrong?’ I asked in concern.

‘It’s December the 24th!’ Maxime squeaked.

‘Yeah, I know.’

‘But it is Christmas!’

‘No no,’ I said. ‘That’s tomorrow.’

‘No! Christmas is today.’


‘In France, we celebrate Christmas on December the 24th.’

Oh shit. It was French Christmas Day! Maxime would normally have been feasting on canard à l’orange and champagne and here he was with a bendy slice of pizza and a glass of milk. Maxime nibbled his slice weakly.

After the shock of celebrating French Christmas with takeaway pizza, Maxime was perhaps not in the best frame of mind to celebrate Australian Christmas the next day. He perked up a bit just before lunch when someone offered him a glass of champagne, but sagged again when I was forced to admit that it wasn’t real champagne, it was just a five dollar bottle of Aussie bubbly. By the time he got to the brandy butter, Maxime’s gastronomic expectations had sunken considerably. Although to think he was being served vomit was maybe going a bit far.
Christmas food ...who knew it could be so contentious?
And so our Christmas had continued. After lunch, Mum asked Maxime if he’d like to take a look at our garden. We all knew that the garden was Mum’s pride and joy. Well, all of us except Maxime. We were all waiting for him to say ‘I’d be delighted’ and so we were a bit taken aback when Maxime said, ‘Oh, no thanks’.

Maxime had made the mistake of thinking Mum was asking if he genuinely wanted to walk around and look at her climbing roses. ‘In France, you show respect to your guest by making them comfortable, you fit in with their wishes,’ Maxime explained to me later.

Sadly, Mum just thought that all this was not because he was French, but because he was a philistine.

The failed garden tour was followed by a BBQ on Christmas night. My uncle was doling out drinks. He gave Maxime a glass of sparkling wine which he called champagne. I winced, but Maxime accepted it with reasonable grace and took a sip. Then he promptly spat it out on the lawn. We stared at him aghast.

‘It’s corked,’ Maxime said. Then he saw everyone staring at him open-mouthed. ‘What?’ he said.  

Maxime simply couldn’t understand what everyone was upset about. ‘They get offended as if they made the wine themselves!’ he said.

We left Australia after that Christmas having offended most of my friends and relatives, all of whom urged me to ditch the rude Frog.

But I didn't of course and things are different now. Maxime has leant to feign interest in gardening where appropriate, and my family expect him to do strange things with wine. And nobody forces him to eat takeaway pizza on Christmas Eve. He has fish and chips.

Friday, 5 December 2014

The Victorian State Election: As Seen By a Frog

My French husband Maxime is in self-imposed political exile.

Well, sort of. At any rate, when we lived in France, he announced to friends that if it came down to Hollande versus Sarkozy in the second round of voting for president in 2012, he would emigrate to Australia. And so … he emigrated to Australia. Nor, in his disgust, did he bother to vote in 2012, since in France, voting is optional. Some people think that’s more democratic, but how representative is a government that’s voted in by a measly 30% or so of the population (and zero Maximes)?  Even the ancient Greeks realised that people need a little prod to make democracy work. Well, to the extent that it can.

I voted in the 2012 French presidential second round, however. I’d only just got my new, shiny French citizenship and voting rights, and I wanted a ‘go’ of them! On the sunny voting day morning of the 2012 election, I walked down to our local hall in Alsace to vote. The streets were deserted. The only faces I saw were those on the election posters (I noted with amusement that someone had drawn a Hitler moustache on Sarkozy). It was so quiet at the polling station the only thing missing was a couple of tumbleweeds floating by and a whistling, empty-sounding wind.

Not only was there no queue at the polling station, but voting itself was over in a literal click of a button - a simple click on a computer panel for Sarko or Holloande and Bob’s your president. I have to say, it was a bit dissatisfying. I’d had to wait four years for my French citizenship, fill out around one billion forms, and have the foreign police visit my house to check that I was really married and not in a ‘mariage blanc’ (the Frog’s underwear hanging to dry all over the lounge probably convinced them). After all that effort, I wanted a bit more fanfare as I exercised my rights for the first time. I wanted a few more boxes to tick and people to choose from and a senate paper the length of the Seine like we have in Australia. It was like looking forward to Christmas and then waking up on Christmas morning to find you have only one present. Not that politicians are much like Christmas presents. Maybe it’s like Christmas when all you get is socks.

But what I wanted even more than a smorgasbord of political choice on that French election day was a sausage. I wanted the traditional Aussie post-vote reward of a freshly sizzled snag from a stall outside the polling station run to support a local school or kinder.

How different it was when I voted during last Saturday’s Victorian State election. In the car on the way to the local school, I heard on the radio that there are even websites advising people on what food is available at whichelection station. Even sites that rate the quality of your snag!

Returning home from voting (and sausage consumption), I announced triumphantly to Maxime that I had the answer to France’s abysmal voter turnout issues:

‘You need sausage sizzles in France – you’d improve the voter turnout no end.’

‘Yeah! True!’ agreed Maxime, perking up as usual at the mention of food.

I wondered how come the French of all people haven’t come up with a foodie solution for their voting issues. Maybe if Sarkozy had been out flipping burgers in 2012 he would’ve got over the line (OK, perhaps only if he'd provided foie gras burgers). What’s more, Maxime himself is proof that intelligent use of food would work in French election campaigns: once, he even tried to vote for a sausage - le Chien Saucisse, a sausage-dog running for the seat of Marseille. (Sadly, however, we'd not been in Marseille, but in Alsace, and no sausage-y candiates were running.) Maxime’s estimation of French politicians also correlates suspiciously with their appreciation of wine. Come to think of it, why not have a ‘vin d’honneur’ after voting – a free glass of wine just like they have after wedding ceremonies in France (and after just about any other official occasion except, apparently, voting).

Speaking of Frenchmen and elections, you might be wondering what interest Maxime has shown in the Victorian election. Not being an Australian citizen, he can’t vote, so you mightn't expect him to get too excited about it. Nevertheless, his interest might have been engaged had it not been for the fact that the main issue of debate (apart from federal politics) seemed to have been over Melbourne’s east-west link. (Not only does the link lack interest for Frenchmen, the poor ol’ regional Victorians must be feeling a little under-cherished given the central focus of the election too.)

‘Why don’t they join up that road-in-the-north-whatever-it’s-called to the Eastern road and complete the ring road?’ Maxime asked me. ‘A city the size of Melbourne deserves a ring. The ring might be longer but it must be cheaper than digging up the city. I’m in favour of doing things the proper way, not the shitty way.’

Thus Maxime dealt with the east-west link project with typical French harshness (perhaps the frog smelt a rat!), and after this, he largely lost interest. What he’d REALLY like to see is laws relaxed to allow you to drive at your speed of choice after a seven course lunch with matching wines and possibly coffee and a balloon of Armangac, but no-one seemed to be running on that.

‘And the Melbourne public transport is a joke for a population its size,’ Maxime had added.

‘We’ve got the same make of tram as Alsace,’ I said lamely.

The Frog shrugged.

Regarding Melbourne’s public transport, it’s true that I ‘ve been shocked myself to find that after 13 years away, the Melbourne transport network hasn’t changed even though the city has at least half a million more people in it. In that same period of time in France, Alsace was connected to Paris and Dijon by a super-fast TGV, and our local area in Alsace got a new tram network. And this was all apparently without people even bothering to vote for it.

Ah well. There may be a lack of Aussie candidates at elections proposing Frog-approved infrastructure, but at least here, I get my sausage ‘n’ sauce!

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Why Frogs Love Frogs' Legs

A few years ago, my French husband Maxime and I went on holiday in the Dombes region of France, in the Ain. 

On the second day of the trip, we were driving to the restaurant Maxime had selected for lunch when Maxime announced, 'This is a gastronomic region!' and his eyes gleamed.

I looked at him, puzzled. 'I thought all of France was a gastronomic region.'

'No!' he said. 'The only true gastronomic regions are Alsace [of course, Alsace is Maxime’s home region], around Lyon [i.e., where we currently were] and the South West.'

‘What about Paris?’

‘Pffff!’ Maxime pffffed.

‘And what about all those I dunno, cheeses in the north of France, and Normandy's Isère butter and Champagne’s…um, champagne and – '

‘No no. In true gastronomic regions, the food and wine are accessible, affordable - enjoyed by everyone – it’s democratic food.’

I thought about this for a while. 'OK ... so what’s this wonderful gastronomic region were in now famous for, then?'



I felt a little crestfallen. Not truffles or brie then. Not even something edible.

Maxime explained that the whole region was full of man-made ponds, and was hence famous for frogs' legs. The Dombes was frog central.

‘Well, quite frankly, I don’t think I’ll mind if the Dombes people don’t want to democratically share their frogs with me.’

But Maxime said, ‘I can’t wait to eat some!’ and his eyes shone even brighter.

He was getting inordinately excited about frogs' legs, I thought. But it can be amazing what foodstuffs can rouse the passions of Europeans. They don’t just celebrate the births and ressurections of deities but also hold fetes where they can worship snails, asparagus and particular varieties of onion.

'But there’s so little meat on frogs,' I said. 'I mean why do you bother? Why not just eat chicken?'

'Because frogs' legs are thin,' Maxime said. 'When you fry them, you get this caramelised juice that you get at the surface of a chicken wing. It’s like the chicken wing surface without any of the boring stuff underneath.'

'Hmm,' I said, unconvinced.

At lunch, of course, Maxime ordered legs. I had actually seen frogs' legs before, at a gastronomic restaurant in Alsace. In that case, people were served a little leg with sauce. You could have almost pretended it was little bit of quail or something, and that’s what I was expecting Maxime would be served now. But what the waiter brought out to us was a metal platter piled high with stiff-looking V shapes. I leaned forward for a closer look. And then I recoiled with a cry. The V shapes were whole cut-in-half frogs.

'Oh, that’s appalling!' I exclaimed, trying and failing to not imagine someone cutting all the little frogs in half. 'You can’t eat those! They’re too … froggy looking.'

Not to mention the fact that in this case, Maxime'd be eating not just the legs but the frog’s rude bits too.

No amount of caramelisation could lull me into forgetting that I was eating a demi-frog, but Maxime just said ‘mmmm’.

And it wasn’t just Maxime who loved frogs' legs. An Alsatian friend of mine who liked to educate me in the culinary ways of Alsace talked once of the fabulousness of frogs’ legs:

'They're delicious,' Patrice said. 'Although in my Grandma’s day, the legs were better.'

‘They were more shapely back then?’ I smiled.

‘No, no!’ said Patrice, serious because it was a serious topic. ‘They were smaller - more concentrated in flavour.'

I was doubtful that strong frog flavour was a good thing, just quietly. But if you ever find yourself in a suitably ‘democratic’ region of France, you can judge for yourself.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Why DO the French Eat Snails?

‘Did you know Daddy eats snails?’ one of our daughters asked another the other day. ‘That’s disgusting!’

‘Does he eat spiders too?’ asked Elise.

‘No,’ I said.

‘Why not?’ she asked.

‘Good question,' I said. 'I don’t know.’

I mean, if my French husband Maxime eats something as unappetising (and slimy) as a snail, then why stop there? Why not ingest arachnids and suck on slugs? And so I put the matter to him.

‘Spiders have no meat,’ explained Maxime. ‘Snails are a lean meat with a nice texture.’

‘I think the snails are just a nice excuse to have garlic butter. But why not put the garlic butter on something nice, like chicken?’

Non!’ exclaimed Maxime, getting surprisingly agitated. ‘The combination of chicken with garlic sauce would be AWFUL! They don’t compliment one another. You need the snail texture.’

The combination of the snail-y texture with garlic sauce. Quite frankly, the thought of snail texture makes me gag. Mind you, I have eaten snails. The first time was in an Alsatian winstub (a 'wine pub', serving rustic local fare). I’d been dismayed to find the snails were served still in their shells. (It’s one reason I avoid crustaceans – I hate having to dismember something in order to eat it.) Maxime had then shown me how to hold the snail shell with the special snail tongs and prise it out with the special snail-gouging fork (and although it involved no dismembering, I still found the process quite disturbing). As I forced myself to chew the freshly shucked snail, I enjoyed the warm garlic butter sauce but I didn’t have the impression the snail added anything to the experience and more than a piece of rubber would have.

‘Snail has quite a subtle taste,’ Maxime had said, chewing with pleasure, a far-away look in his eyes.

‘Like dirt,’ I said, spoiling the moment somewhat.

‘No!’ Maxime replied, forced yet again to defend his national cuisine against my barbaric cluelessness. 

He raised his hands as if about to expound upon the loveliness of snail, but then let them fall in defeat. I was a hopeless case. (But it did taste like dirt.) I allowed Maxime to finish my snails while I concentrated on the wine he had chosen for the meal: a Riesling. He'd explained you need to pair snails with a dry wine. I imagine it was dry to counterbalance the sliminess.

Then I wondered how people ever came to eat snail. I wondered if during some sort of medieval wartime, the French began to eat them to avoid starvation. They’d sometimes been driven to eat rat in wartime, I knew. But then for some reason in time of peace, they continue to enjoy snails but shun fricassee of rat.

Actually, I read that the French have been eating snails at least since Roman times – as the Romans did too, apparently. Indeed, Maxime and I ate snails on holiday in Rome (I gave them a second chance – it was a two-Michelin-star restaurant. I'd wondered if two star snails would do it for me. Nup. Still tasted like dirt. Expensive dirt in this case.).

I had no more contact with snails after that until another holiday a few years later, this time in Burgundy. We had kids by this time and our five-year-old Chloé had come upon a snail on the hotel terrace. She ‘rescued’ it, putting it in a glass full of ice. I didn’t view being put in an ice bath as being rescued personally, but I left Chloé to it.

‘What are you rescuing the snail from?’ I asked her.

‘From the hunters!’ she replied.

‘Snail hunters? People don’t hunt snail.’ They sort of don't require chasing.

On the other hand, I reflected, maybe people gather them, as they gather mushrooms and things. Maybe that’s a sort of hunting? I decided it was best to keep this upsetting idea from Chloé, the small defender of snail rights. And things went well until lunch the next day when Maxime ordered half a dozen snails as an entrée.

‘Maxime, what are you doing?’ I hissed at him. ‘You know Chloé is attached to snails at the moment!’

What would Chloé do when she saw Papa dining on murdered molluscs?

The answer, to my relief, was nothing. Chloé apparently didn’t connect the need to hunt with the fact that Papa was eating something. Similarly, she’d been terribly upset to find out that her grandfather hunted deer, but didn’t react to people eating venison stew, as we did a lot in autumn in Alsace.

Venison – now there’s an improvement on snail. But as for the French, they eat snail because they really actually like it. There's also the French attraction to frogs' legs - another highly emotive issue. I'll deal with that next time!