Friday, 26 April 2013

The foie gras effect

When I visit the south of France I end up feeling like a goose destined for foie gras. 

This goose has been richly-fed; over-fed; polite can’t-say-no-fed; fed more than my weight or size require; fed later in the evening than my body can process; fed and fattened like a gluttonous last supper. 

Like the hapless goose, I can’t seem to avoid the situation.  My hosts don’t open my mouth and physically force the food down my gullet… but the moral pressure, the sense of courtesy, is so strong that to not partake heartily in the French feast generously prepared would be churlish.  Features of the feast have also been presented specially in my honour, so open my mouth I do… smile and swallow, smile and swallow… without the diversion of conversation because I speak little French.

If you struggle to believe the extent of these offerings, thinking multiple courses means small portions, then imagine the giant-purple-berry-girl in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and you’ll get the idea.  She at least had the luxury of the Juicing Room for relief, whereas I am left on the verge of explosion… desperately needing to run… run like Forrest Gump… but know it’ll be days before I can sufficiently digest the excess of riches to manage exercise. 

This lavish banquet was not all bad of course.  The food was delicious – every morsel.   I started hungry, as aperitifs went on for ages, gobbling up the first course with relish.  My hosts had gone to such trouble to welcome me back to France, and their warm and eager “sava?”  très bien?”, after the serving of each dish, was endearing.  I managed the first courses, no problem, it was after the fourth or fifth I started to flag.  And as we tend to eat quicker than food journeys to our stomach, I was well and truly over-fed before I realized the accumulative foie gras effect. 

Blogs are about sharing so I’ll give you the low-down on the menu. 

First Course: platters of cold and cured meats, bread and pate.  (There’s always bread.)  Don’t picture a modest meat platter.  Picture an extravagance of choice – twelve varieties, spicy and sweet, the biggest chunks of pate you’ve ever seen, sausages and salami as big as a weapon, prosciutto and ham so scrumptous you simply have to go back for seconds.

Second Course: Salads.  Two dishes sounds moderate but they weren’t average salads.  One was French radish and grilled liver (lambs fry), tossed in a sauce which convinced you sweet and extremely-savoury go well together.  The other salad was an unusual blend of wild asparagus, potato, egg, bacon, and again an interesting sauce and embellishments.  Was I drinking too much – you know, to wash it down – or was my brother telling me this was ‘asbergers salad’?  “Seriously?” I mocked, “asbergers?”  “Yeah” he replied.  “It grows in the fields, really tall, and you just snip off the top.  It’s savage asbergers”.  That made me laugh so hard I nearly spat it out.  “Don’t you mean wild” I asked.  “And ‘asbergers’ is a form of autism… I think you mean asparagus, wild asparagus”.  “That’s what I said” he replied, turning aside to rattle away in French to others; my chances for future translation blown. 

This kept me amused a while so I probably ate more salad (and bread) than necessary.  I sincerely respect my bro for so deeply adopting a foreign language and culture that he forgets his mother tongue, but I relish the chance to tell my other brother about it as he’s a merciless tease.

Third Course: it turns out my host has gone fishing just for me.  He has sat by a lake for hours that morning, freezing in wind and cold, determined to wait until he caught at least one fish.  He knew I liked fish and would appreciate it, so of course I did; deliciously and beautifully presented on the plate.  But having learnt my host had weathered the cold to catch this trout, I daren’t leave a bite.  I took the odd pause to digest more effectively, my stomach struggling with an excess of aspergers salad and cured meats, but these pauses were taken to signify reluctance (or NOT très bien) so I hurriedly smiled, nodded, swallowed, smiled, nodded, swallowed. 

Small woman that I am, I felt done.  Well and truly satisfied.  It was a whole fish.

Then came the Fourth Course: the smoothest mashed potato I’ve ever eaten… with large chunks of baked pork fillet… all wrapped together in a spectacular sauce.  The rest of the table had watched me eat my trout, so they were ready to dive in.  But my plate was passed back with a helping as large as the next persons… and still the bowls from which these luxuries had been removed appeared full, like the Loaves and Fishes.  Repeat helpings were proffered with enthusiasm and an expectation of acceptance, and again I became the goose destined for foie gras.

My brother was no help.  He knows these people well so he doesn’t feel the same pressure to oblige (if ever he did), and when he leaves the table to catch up on the football he doesn’t even notice what hasn’t been eaten.  I start to wonder if the female geese are more imposed upon than the male geese?  Though I guess it’s got more to do with the size of your stomach before it’s forcibly stretched.

Now you’d expect at this point something of an interval, right? A rest?  No. Out she comes again, though thankfully this fifth time with a bowl of fruit. 

Soon after it’s time for the Sixth Course, and she reappears with the largest selection of cheese you have seen outside a deli.  Seriously, there is as much choice and volume of cheese ‘after dinner’ as there was cured meat and pate ‘before dinner’.  How can anyone fit it in?  How can we do justice to this fabulous platter, with more bread, when I love cheese and ordinarily find it hard to resist?  

Back the boys come to the table and in they go again – bread sticks and chunks of cheese passed up and over heads like a rugby line-out.  Before I know it I’m again nodding and swallowing, nodding and swallowing… the perennial goose.  Then, after squeezing in a morsel of the last variety of cheese, I wipe my mouth and put down my napkin with satisfaction.  I’m bloated, uncomfortable, but I’ve managed.  Just.  Back goes the last of my wine in readiness to clean up. 

Well, if the SEVENTH COURSE didn’t then appear.  Seriously?  Dessert after all that cheese?  And the bowl is huge.  Some say no, but our host looks at me with such a big smile I suspect she’s made it especially for me… how can I refuse?  The small bowl I request is not small, and it is rich and full of custard, toffee and gooey stuff I can’t name.  I eat it.  It’s lovely.  But by now I’m envious of my brother who is away again from the table dozing in an armchair.  Of course I have to eat, someone has to show good manners!

As the French women clear up around me, struggling as I am to stand, I feel considerable empathy with geese.  Yet I can’t bear to think about the practicalities as it’s too distressing.  Instead I wonder if I might not have adopted the boarding school practice of sneaking food off my plate into my school satchel; the only way, as I found, to escape a battle of wills with the nuns supervising refectory.  Alas the difference is obvious.  Boarding school food was hideous.  In the south of France, where over-fed and force-fed are less clearly defined, you could literally die for the love of it.

And that’s the love-hate of gluttony. 

That’s the life of a foie gras goose. 

That’s a……... burp.