02 December 2010

World Heritage Burger

So UNESCO gave us a new world heritage: the French Cuisine. A good choice. The French take eating seriously, but only at the correct time of the day. Lunch is served from 12:00 to 14:00, and dinner starts at 20:00 but you'll have no problems getting a table at 20:00 because most people won't show up before 22:00. Law requires that working hours are posted at companies, and the lunch hour is a generous 90 minutes. We need the time.

Lunch begins with an apéritif, a drink. Usually that's a table wine. Then follows the entrée, an appetizer. The plat, the main dish, follows. Finally, there is a dessert, and coffee. If you are in a hurry, you may drop either the appetizer or the dessert, or combine dessert and coffee into a café gourmand, a coffee with several miniature desserts on a plate. Dinner is the same procedure, except more elaborate. I have eaten at many wonderful places - see my September Bouillabaisse article for an example, and I have eaten at various famous Parisian restaurants, and my newest discovery here in Marseille is a great French place called les pieds dans le plat, the feet in the plate. And the French love to have lunch outdoors, like in this picture from Aix-en-Provence:

When you order meat, you'll be asked about the cuisson: how would you like your meat? You'd be tempted to say "medium", but in France the categories are shifted. They like their meat (red meat at least) nearly raw. Saignant, bloody, is just that: lightly singed from both sides but basically raw in the middle. And there is another category below that, bleu, which means blue and describes the color on your face if you take a bite. So, ask for bien cuit, well cooked, or at most à point, if you don't want your food to crawl off your plate.

You are not supposed to just "grab a sandwich". Sandwich places exist but I haven't found a good one; besides, everything from gyros and kebap to ham and cheese sandwiches look alike - a baguette filled with stuff and French fries. Ice cream parlors are so-so despite the proximity of Italy, and the fact that they invariably proclaim themselves to sell glaces artisanales, maybe best translated as homemade ice cream. All Asian restaurants are, at best, rather mediocre because there are so few Asians around here in Marseille. Another place near work, called Buffalo Grill, is a charming burger emporium where everything is decorated Texan style but it's a hilariously obvious veneer on a French restaurant. At least I have never been offered French vin de pays to drink and crème brûlée for dessert in a Texan burger joint.

What the UNESCO maybe doesn't realize that underneath all this attention to excellent food, France has a big underground of junk food. Pizza is everywhere, and it's usually some sad mushrooms and olives frozen in a sea of gelled yellowish cheese. They'll warm it up for you. Dino's pizza near work is known to make pizzas with a black charred outer rim ever since they opened their doors. Fast food flourishes most in the USA but only McDonalds has a significant presence here; the French have their very own fast food chain called Quick that looks like McDonalds, except that the food - if you can believe it - tastes worse.

In the name of science I went to a Quick today. With the world heritage award in my mind, I took them at their word and ordered their current flagship product, a Supreme Cheese Bacon everything burger and took it home for analysis. After careful dissection it turns out to be a bland pile of mushed stuff that looks almost totally unlike the pictures above the counter. I have been taught to not throw away food but since there is evidently nothing at a Quick restaurant that deserves this description, I binned it after a few disgusting bites.

The French are great bakers. From my living room window I can see four boulangeries, and their croissants, baguettes, and other pastries are just glorious. The French are masters at tartes and petits-fours as well; nobody in the world does it better. But all the bread is white, if you want dark or whole-grain bread you'll have to buy German bread.

There is much more to be said about French food, but I'll leave that for another post.

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