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.