How Long French Meals Made Our 10-Week Quarantine–Dare I Say It–Nice

If you’re new here, then you may not know that all of France has been confined to their homes since mid-March, and that my husband and I sneaked out of Paris the day before the mandate so we could spend our quarantine with his family in the countryside outside of Toulouse. Our apartment is tiny, so the option to spend two months in a large house with huge yard and vacant roads to walk down was a luxury we couldn’t pass up.

Mind you, that meant we’d have to share our quarantine with four other people: his parents, sister, and her boyfriend. They’re all lovely people, but I’m never too thrilled at the prospect of having to spend more than a few hours with any living human under normal circumstances, let alone an open-ended period of government mandated isolation. Given the apocalypse and all, I decided to chill-out on my misanthropic inclinations for a while and be the most generous and flexible version of myself I could be to hopefully make it through. Feeling bored, isolated, or irritated is after all the least of anyone’s problems right now.

I knew myself well enough to know it was of the utmost importance to spend as little time as possible with anyone in order to help keep the peace. I’m not that grumpy, but I need a lot of alone time, and I didn’t want our quar to turn into a groupthink, cruise ship itinerary, team sport situation. I was glad then when from the very first day everyone would retire to a different part of the house to work, intentionally reducing facetime with one another to avoid annoyance, perturbation, confrontation, or any variety of friction that might arise from this social experiment. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad.

But then lunch came along. Typically, my lunch consists of a few scraps of whatever, stuffed between what bit of baguette is left, eaten unceremoniously as I hunch over my laptop. The whole affair takes 12 minutes and is executed in total privacy. Therefore I was very uncomfortable when during our first quar lunch, all six of us sat around a table and went through at least four courses of food, while holding conversations. It was a Tuesday, a weekday lunch, and they seriously did the whole plat, fromage, yaourt, fruit, cafe, dessert thing together as a group, having full-fledged conversations all the while. I was tired from our journey to the countryside, confused and stressed from the pandemic, embarassed that I couldn’t understand what they were saying, and flabergasted at the pace of the dejeuner. I couldn’t wait until lunch was over to tell my husband “we can’t do that everyday, we’ll kill each other.”

After a few days of this, rules were put in place that stated that lunch would be fluid, would be BYO, DIY, eaten at one’s convenience. Clearly others in the party had felt similar feelings of claustrophbia at the thought of performing this hour-plus long ceremony twice per day. Dinner was likewise confining and was revised so that it would be cooked by 8:00pm but could be eaten in shifts at whatever time felt right for each couple. I felt the grip of French social norms loosen from around my neck.

couscous
Slowly but surely, hot sauce began to appear at every meal.

But. But. We didn’t actually change our patterns. We tried for a week or two to make space for variety and independence, but it just didn’t take. The urge to rebel against the practical dinner norms subsided, and once week 3 began I actually started to look forward to the group lunches and dinners. I don’t think I was the only one. I don’t know if it was Stockholm syndrome, an appreciation for the little things in the face of adversity, or a true heroes journey character arc, but I began to love exactly what I’ve always hated about the long French meal.

The promise of an uninterupted hour of peace, commeraderie, stories, and tasty treats actually began to be a welcome beacon on the horizon of each morning’s work. The “best practices” of my in-laws’ dining routine went from being mysterious, to irritatingly enforced, to understood and appreciated. The chocolate and biscuits taken with coffee after each lunch went from feeling excessive and calorie-ridden to delicious rewards. I was even sad on the few occasions my husband and I ate a quick lunch apart from the others if one of us had a work call during the lunch hour.

We took turns cooking each night, and it was interesting to try one another’s creations, praise their creativity, choke through their failures. I learned to love a lot of new French products I’ve never heard of, and I demonstrated to them the full range of foods that Tobasco can be enjoyed with (they had never put it on pizza before oh my god can you imagine).

The biggest benefit of these long meals was to our sense of time. Our strict adhesion to a one-hour lunch each day at 1pm and dinner at 8pm served as a clock for our quarantine, helped us stay productive and generally oriented in a world where there were few demands on our time, nowhere to be, and no norms to guide us. I’ve seen in my friends and experienced myself how this ordeal has played with one’s sense of time. I spent an entire day thinking it was Tuesday when it was in fact Thursday. I feel like I’ve been in this house for just two weeks but maybe also six months. Every day is the same yet somehow it’s gone from winter to early summer. But these two daily meals helped me organize myself, forced me to do yoga at 6:30pm otherwise I’d run out of time and never do it, force my husband to finally stop working for the day, forced daily walks and showers to be taken. As a freelancer, I work from home, eat at odd hours when it’s convenient, and never know what time I should work out because I have almost no constraints to work around. Without a nice little constraint, where does one even start?

The meals also gave us a moment to exchange news and updates about the world and ourselves. Did you hear the new rule about flying internationall? Did you know the Mairie is giving out masks? Did you know I won a new contract? We could “echanger des banalites” in this designated window, and leave each other the hell alone the rest of the day to preserve the afforementioned anti-tension measures of the rest of the day.

When we drive back to Paris on Thursday, back to our tiny apartment and tiny table, I will not miss having to devise a menu for six people some of whom are picky, I will not miss the hard mattress that’s been attacking my back for ten weeks, and I will not miss worrying that I cooked something too spicy. But I just might miss that sense of commeraderie and order we were able to create together twice each day.

All the New French Products I Tried While Quarantined With My French In-Laws

On this, the 7-week anniversary of our confinement here in France, I’m taking stock by thinking about the highlight of each day–meal times. Okay, for me it’s meal times and the walks because I’m trapped in a countryside town you’ve never heard of before called Bazus where the walks are lovely.

Because of the 1km rule, my walks don’t feature much variety, but the meals definitely do. This is because we’re quarantined with my French in-laws, my sister-in-law aka ma Belle Soeur, and her boyfriend. They all do the shopping because I wouldn’t trust the lone American in this quar to shop for five Frenchies if I were them, and thus, I have tried many new foods.

Back in Paris I freelance, and therefore I tend to do the shopping and cooking. I’ve been buying a lot of the same things over and over because A. I’m a taurus and I know what I like, and B. familiarity of products gives some structure to my confusing expat life. As a result I’ve been embracing this month of mystery meals by keeping my expectations low and my mind open. This is good advice for life in general these days.) Here’s a list of some of the discoveries I’ve made while being outnumbered by French eaters five-to-one for a month…

Danette

Expresso Danette
Expresso Danette

I can’t say I’m totally new to the glorious smoothness of Danette; I’ve had the pleasure of trying their pistache flavor which I highly recommend. My French family can’t really say what these are. I used the word pudding and they gave me a funny look, so they’re not pudding. They call them “creams” which might be a less gross word for pudding. Either way, they are devoid of nutritional value, smooth as a baby’s bum, and full of flavor. I still prefer the pistache to the expresso, personally.

Le Petit Basque – Caillé Vanille

Le Petit Basque – Caille Vanille

I still can’t say with authority what this food actually is. I know it’s a yogurt-like substance made of sheep’s milk. Like so many French products, it’s named after where it’s from, Le Petit Basque. It’s far lighter than typical French yogurt though, almost crumbly and a little watery. This one was allegedly vanille flavor but honestly it kind of tasted like vanilla yogurt water, but not in a bad way. It was interesting for a snack, not too rich, and anything of sheep’s milk is tasty. I don’t quite understand why it exists though and when one is supposed to eat it.

DeliChoc

Delichoc French cookie

I thought these were going to be like those beautiful, thick, decadent LU biscuits, because that’s what they look like. Don’t be fooled though. The biscuit attached to these isn’t that great and is pretty small. The chocolate isn’t nearly as decadent, and is kind of a crispy rice chocolate, like a Krackle if you will, which personally I find distracting texture-wise. Hard pass.

Lu Napolitain

Lu Napolitain
The more than adequate Lu Napolitain

Unlike the DeliChoc, this treat didn’t look that great but ended up being delicious, especially with strong coffee. Imagine if a Twinkie had slightly more texture and some splashes of chocolate, that’s what this Napolitain is like. I usually hate sprinkles also because they add no flavor to a food, and therefore only contribute a weird texture like tiny plastic pellets. These don’t have that affect.

Panier de Yoplait

yoplait de Panier
Yeah, it’s essentially just normal strawberry yogurt.

Something about the French that is consistently true but little known is that the whole country is obsessed with yogurt. They eat it at almost every meal. There are more yogurt options than cheese options in the grocery stores. They love this stuff. I’m constantly trying new yogurt in France, and I can never find the like of it when I’m back in the US. This Panier de Yoplait however is not unusual if you’re used to American yogurt. It’s kind of crappy plain yogurt with fruit on the bottom, just like Yoplait at home. It just looks special because the container is clear. It’s fine, it’s just not a crazy new discovery because we actually have this, just uglier.

Tuc

Tuc French crackers
Tuc crackers, like more polite Ritz.

These crackers are bomb! While the French are generally way more pro-carb than the US, it’s still amateur hour here in the cracker and chip department. I am not a sweet snack person, I like something savory, and I’ve really been missing my Wheat Thins. These Tuc crackers are more like a light and less flaky Ritz, and would go amazingly well with crappy cheddar cheese.

Carre Frais

Carré Frais french cheese
Carré Frais, a great substitute for cream cheese.

This one was perhaps my favorite food discovery of the quarantine–Carre Frais. It’s taste and texture are extremely close to that of good-quality cream cheese, and it comes in cute little individually wrapped cubes which are great for packing in a lunch. When spread on a piece of bread or biscuit the mouthfeel was very much like whipped cream cheese more than a more dense cream cheese; now all you need is a bagel.

Vandame

Vandame cake, very unnecessary fruit cake.

I’m not quite as enthusiastic about this Cake Vandame which is essentially just a smaller, longer fruit cake. No need to spend too much time here.

Chamonix

Chamonix, a little bit fruity, a little bit crispy.

This cake by comparison is a tasty revelation. I thought it would be like an orange-based Fig Newton but honestly it’s kind of it’s own special treat. Nice and tart orange filling, with an outer shell that is crispier than it looks on the package. Would recommend.

PiM’s

PiM’s, yet another LU creation.

Are you noticing the trend in goute treats this household purchases? Lots of LU products. I am not a huge fan of anything that mixes chocolate with raspberry–I can’t say that I’ve ever met anyone who is honestly. No one in this house is yet still someone bought these because we needed a change and they’re truly not bad. As with most LU products, the chocolate is almost better than the cookie deserves, which increases the flavor value for me a lot. Worth a try.

Delisse Yourt du laid du Chevre ~nature~

Goat yogurt. Goagurt.

For months now I’ve been purchasing plain yogurt brasse because I could trust its heavy texture. But our quar has been all about changing up the yogurt offering every week and truly exploring that yogurt aisle at the Intermarche. I’ve discovered the tasty lure of all yogurts from goat and sheep’s milk–they’re freaking delicious. More tangy and savory than cow’s milk yogurts, they’re a nice change of pace. Some are even offered in vanille which I also recommend.

Bonne Maman Tartelettes: Chocolate Caramel

Dessert in a tiny cup: Bonne Maman Tartelettes Chocolate Caramel

These little wonderful morsels are like if you turned a Twix bar inside-out. Wonderful cookie on the outside, filled with caramel covered in a chocolate shell. They’re perfect little individually-wrapped specimens. I recommend trying one with strong coffee then hiding the rest so no one else in the house can find them.

What’s The Deal With French Breakfast AKA Petit Dej AKA Petit Déjeuner

If you’re an expat, there’s a chance you’re like me and have a love-hate relationship with expat groups on Facebook. Yes, you get tons of great tips and ideas for where to eat, how to not get arrested, doctors who have mercy on non-French speakers, etc. But, the price of such compatriotism is dealing with dumb questions. And yes, there is such a thing as a dumb question, and in expat Facebook groups, the dumb questions are the ones asking why things aren’t like they are at home. One I saw recently that chafed me was “why don’t the French eat a proper breakfast?” which usually comes more from Brits than Yanks.

Proper is of course, a relative term, because to me, the French have a far more proper breakfast than I had as an American. As a 9-6er with a commute, my breakfast was a coffee and a scream session at other cars on the 110 South. This would be a crime in France, where breakfast AKA petit dejeuner is a ritual that is necessary in order to get out and greet the day.

For the uninitiated, French brekkie is more of a moment in the day than it is a gastronomique experience. As with so many things in France, it can only be done in one way: some type of bread, most likely a baguette with butter and/or jam (confiture), potentially a croissant, coffee or tea, and a very tiny juice. Walk from cafe to cafe in search of more, you won’t find it. If you’re in a tourist zone, you can find some cheese omelette options, but they won’t be egg mountains filled with ham and peppers, saddled with hashbrowns and two strips of bacon. In fact, now that I’ve been here for a few months, I’ve kind of forgotten what else people used to eat for breakfast–cereal, oatmeal, overnight oats (I’m from LA), a breakfast sandwich maybe? More like whatever I can grab as I run to my car, if even that.

Literally my breakfast today. Not pictured: croissants.

So in a way, the French do have a proper breakfast, it’s just not warm or fried or meaty, but they are extremely dedicated to it in all its bready glory. Running late? Doesn’t matter, they will still eat their petit dej. Have nothing in the frigo to even eat? No worries, they will find something to gnaw on; you can spread jam on almost anything if you’re desperate enough.

It’s understandable for a Brit to want more, as they’re as dedicated to a specific breakfast style as the French are, albeit a much meatier, beanier, warmer style. But when you go to a new country, it’s probably safe to expect that they do meals differently just as they speak differently and dress differently and greet differently. Maybe that’s what is irksome about the “where do I get a real breakfast in Paris?” question; it assumes there’s one way to do a thing, and if you start with that nonsense you’re going to get real pissed real quick. The irony is not lost on me that in this foreign land, there actually is one way to eat breakfast.

McDo even has a breakfast formule in keeping with French tradition, to which one might add a McMuffin.

However, huge disclaimer that weekends are another thing altogether where a brunch style straight from America reigns supreme. That’s when three course, hollandaise-christened, syrup-drenched, egg-topped extremes are reached, if you’re savvy enough to have made a reservation, mind you. Then you can get your sausage and potatoes. But Lundi a Vendredi, it’s just bread and jam and if you’re hungry, you’ll eat it.

A Guide To Holding A Baguette While You Walk Around Paris

I’m just going to deal in absolutes here: if you live in Paris, you’re going to walk down the street with a baguette tucked under your arm or into your bag. You are. It sounds idealic or like a French stereotype, but it’s just a fact of nature. The earth is round, gravity is a thing, and in Paris everyone is constantly eating, on their way to eat, carrying, or buying bread.

There are boulangeries or boulangerie/patisserie combo packs on every corner, every block, of Paris, rarely more than 20 yards apart. They all look very much the same: they rarely have unique names, and their signs always simply say “boulangerie.” They boast a glass case with some sweets and croissant,s a back wall with assorted tasty breads, and a cash register. Some spots are also cafes and there will be an old local having an espresso in the corner.

This particular baguette had some seeds and such on it. I’m not sure how I happened to order this one since my French is bad/nonexistent, but it was delicious anyway.

At first, as an American, it’s a little intimidating to get in there and obtain that grain. You assume there’s some kind of code or process that you don’t know about because we don’t have little walk-in bakeries on every corner back at home. What are the rules? What do you order? How do you pay? Does the person at the register hate me? All good questions.

Here’s what I know so far: Always begin by saying hello, aka “bonjour.” If you didn’t say bonjour, then yes, the shop keeper does hate you. Always order the baguette traditionelle/tradition (I’ll explain this later). It’s going to cost 1 euro, maybe 1,20, so put your coins down in the little tray. Some boulangeries have a litte coin machine you put your money into and correct change pops out, it’s cool. Say thank you. Walk away and enjoy a few bites before you get home, that’s allowed. Repeat every 1.5 days until you die.

Nex question: which boulangerie do you even go to? How do you know if one is good? Because of the sheer volume of boulangeries and lack of any differentiating qualities, I was immediately overwhelmed by my options. I needed to know as soon as possible which was the best and why–tough to figure out when there are so many of them everywhere you go and they all charge about the same price. Luckily, because of the sheer amount of baguettes we’ve been eating, there has been plenty of opportunity to try as many spots as possible. I’d like to be able to report that there’s a huge range of flavor, texture, value across the different locations, but there isn’t. It’s convenient to teach yourself to like the bread from whatever boulangerie is nearest your apartment.

The most important thing to know is the bit about ordering a baguette “traditionelle” or “tradition.” This is because (*sToRyTiMe*), back in 1993, the PRIME MINISTER created this special bread category to protect bakers from the bread industrial complex. The decree stated for bread to be lawfully “traditionelle,” it has to have never been frozen, be baked on the premises, can’t contain ascorbic acid or additives (duh), and must pretty much just be salt, flour, and water. The result is a crackly exterior that is firm but not hard, a spongey, soft interior unlike the airy and uninspiring inards of the cheaper baguette ordinaire.

The crispy exterior of the baguette tradition.

One thing you’ll quickly realize about bread is that you’re always running out of bread. Because of the no additives thing, it only lasts about a day, which is about as long as it takes for two people to eat it. For this reason, you pretty much need to grab another round every time you are on your way home. If you don’t, you’ll end up without bread at 7pm when the boulangerie is sold out of traditionelle and you’ll have to end up gnawing on a baguette ordinaire. Do this a few times, and you learn to take the extra thirty seconds to buy a damn baguette on the way home.

The boulangeries don’t just bake in the morning either, they fire up some fresh ones all day long, so if you don’t make it in time for the morning batch, don’t worry. We’ve begun to notice that they bake a fresh batch in the evening so that they have plenty of stock for folks buying them on their walk home.

As promised, I’m more about feels than facts, so if you want some much more helpful bread literature, I found this article on Frenchly super helpful: A Guide To French Bakeries.

French Grocery Musings: Boxed Sandwiches

Back in the day, I used to write very elaborate reviews of the absolute worst frozen food I could find at the Albertsons on Hilhurst in Los Feliz. I was bored, I wanted the diversion and attention on Tumblr. I also made them a little allegorical and hid messages to my enemies in them. Again, bored.

The minute I walked into a French grocery store, I knew I was going to be resurrecting this weird hobby. Except not about frozen food necessarily, but about food we don’t have in the US, food that I probably woudn’t buy in seriousnes and in health for my husband and I, but that I wanted to try for the heck of it. Maybe I’ll review restaurants as well, but honestly, there’s enough food snobs out there, never enough food slobs.

So with that context in mind so that you don’t think I’m totally insane, here’s my very serious review of a boxed sandwich.

You can tell from his paintings and writing that William Blake was no slave to OCD. He could rhyme “eye” with “symmetry” and then walk away and not lose sleep over it. Even though the previous couplet rhymes PERFECTLY, he was okay to just let that one dangle like that. I haven’t forgiven him.

What first gave away his anti-OCD for me was that he described the Tyger (henceforth referred to as “tiger” because it’s 2019) as having “fearful symmetry.” As in:

What immortal hand or eye, 
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Great line, still fucking love that line because of English major stuff. OoooOO who would dare to gaze upon or depict the terrifying symmetry of a tiger–oh wait, I know, William Blake would because he just did. Then he did it again when he painted the tiger. But, I contest that there is nothing fearful about symmetry. Symmetry is order, and order relaxes me because I am the control freak that William Blake apparently is not.

It’s this (not fearful) symmetry that has always drawn me to perfect little pre-made, boxed sandwiches. A rectangle is cut with machine precision into two identical triangles, then put side by side into a triangular box, the exact same shape but a tiny bit bigger, then sealed. I’ll tell you who else dared to frame up some symmetry, Monoprix did when they boxed up a ham and emmental sandwich, so calm down William Blake. Framed, glorious symmetry.

Not so fearful symmetry.

I know what you’re thinking, they sell boxed sandwiches in the US at 7-11 and various shady vending machines. But those aren’t the same. Those sandwiches may in fact be fearful, quite possibly also inedible. But the ones sold here at that heaven of heavens that is Monoprix are actually good. The bread (wheat mind you!) was soft and fresh, without that post-refrigerator crispiness we all hate. The ham was ham, and ham in France is by default better than ham in the US, don’t even start with me, it’s true. Plus, it was made with a slice of emmental, not questionable American cheddar. It had a little mayo on there too to add some saltiness, but not enough to remind you that you’re eating mayo. It kind of tasted exactly like if I had made the sandwich myself, but I didn’t have to dirty a knife or create crumbs, which also suits my dislike of disorder.

Maybe it’s the Monoprix setting or the slightly nicer packaging, but I also didn’t feel like a drug dealer eating this sandwich, and I kind of always thought I’d feel like a drug dealer if I ate a boxed sandwich from 7-11 in the US. I don’t know how to put that in terms of flavor, but it’s helpful information to know if you’re considering taking the boxed sandwich ride for yourself.

What I enjoyed most about it, because I am not William Blake, was the chance to get to eat two identical, neatly arranged triangles, framed in another triangle, what order, what art.