Most of my friends in London seem to be under the impression that life in France automatically lends itself to a diet rich in fine fromage, foie gras and petit fours. If only this were true. Like everything on the Riviera, good food carries an exorbitant price tag so that even a basic supermarket shop here can result in financial catastrophe. Indeed, it is thanks to last month’s grocery bills from the Monoprix that I now find myself balancing precariously on the breadline (for the sake of economy, the loaf is sliced and frozen).
A couple of Sundays ago, I spent the last euro of my week’s wages on a pain au chocolate. Cradling the bag as I walked back to my apartment, I was convinced that as purchases go, it was deliciously decadent and frivolous. The next day, as I was rushing to get to an interview and didn’t have any money to get on the tram, it hit me how tough times had got: in Nice not even the tramps consider croissants luxury items, and they always seem to have enough spare change to go up and down endlessly on the tramway when it rains.
And the situation is worsening by the week. Today, as I tried to eek out 5€ in the local Carrefour, my list read:
x1 Tomato (x2 lunch)
Tin Tomatoes (makeshift pasta sauce)
Goat’s Cheese/Pate (for pasta sauce/lunch)
It occurred to me that the most professional chefs on "Ready, Steady, Cook" would struggle to create an appetizing dish out of the contents of my shopping bag. I tried to stay positive; at least with the cheapest baguette, fromage de chèvre and Terrine de Campagne I wouldn’t starve to death. Annoyingly, I probably wouldn’t even look malnourished.
Chez moi, I was searching on Google to see if it was possible for an adult to suffer from rickets when I remembered, with a sigh of relief, that my weekly lunch date with The Professor was scheduled for tomorrow. Thanks to The Professor, an elderly Egyptian-French man from my tango class, I dine once a week on Steak Tartare and frites followed by warm Tarte Tatin and cream. In return for a nutritionally balanced meal, I am his lively and pleasant companion, happily strolling along the promenade with my arms linked in his.
Also, on Wednesday, I am sure to be taking some form of afternoon tea with my little ward because, over the past few weeks, she has developed this habit of concocting reasons to include something edible into every lesson.
It began when she suggested that we bake a cake to tie in with a food module she was covering in her English class. I was excited; picturing, as I was, a scene from LITTLE WOMEN, giggling in our aprons and rubbing flour from our cheeks. However, when my charge led me to the kitchen I was disappointed to discover that she was badly prepared, with no cookbooks and a cupboard that was almost bare. There was not an apron in sight. I rolled up my sleeves and improvised. What emerged from the oven forty minutes later was a little flat, a touch flavourless, but considering the constraints it was also a remarkable achievement. My ward looked on dumbstruck as I consumed two thick slices one immediately after the other. I believe this was the moment when it occurred to her that I'd appreciate food related activities.
For the next lesson, she proposed that she would prepare an afternoon ‘teatime’. Unsurprisingly, the French adolescent didn’t quite grasp the finer details of high tea and, having promised traditional ginger cookies and Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, she ultimately greeted me with a bowl of butter biscuits.
I got home from class, still feeling slightly queasy, to find I had an email in my inbox with the subject: “An invitation to lunch”:
Would you like for the next time lunch at my house?
You are coming at 12 hours et we are making a lunch and after we are eating. This is not an obligation, is if you like and if you can. XOXO
It was charming; I was delighted to see her English coming on so marvellously. I could never decline the invitation. Besides, in principle, the menu she went on to suggest sounded perfect: salmon quiche and goat’s cheese salad, followed by chocolate eclairs and a selection of local fromage. I am quite certain that it would have tasted good too but as my ward forgot to purchase any of the ingredients necessary to pull the meal together this remains mere speculation. I made us an omelet.
Nowadays, we simply stick to whatever confectionary is in the kitchen cupboard. After tea, my ward describes at length how much jogging she will need to do to burn off the calories. No wonder French women are thin. Last week, after describing to her the delicious Raclette the Silky One had prepared for me the previous evening, she barked, ‘Raclette? You went jogging today, right?’ I shook my head. Hardly. I didn’t know when I would eat anything that divine again; I wanted to hang on to those extra pounds. The jogging Gestapo was having none of it: consuming Raclette equated to roughly 200 sit-ups or 45 minutes running. I shut my eyes, evoking the memory of the cheese melting into the crushed potato, and waited for her to shout, ‘Give me fifty.’