Experimental Eating - France is full of different foods, and part of the fun of "living" here is experiencing these differences in their normal contexts.
While we didn't eat out much, it seemed that each time had at least a small surprise for us.
- We definitely enjoyed a favorite discovered last time, Gardianne de Taureau - it is a stew made with the local Camargue Bull meat, which is the only meat that has an AOC* seal (these were the same stock we saw during the Autumn festival, and we drove past many of the ranches on our day trips).
- We had paella again, but I tried a different version - black rice! This isn't a variety of rice that is black, but is white rice cooked with... squid ink! And it was good!
- There was a salad place with a concept I really liked - you ordered from a list of ingredients (pick any 6), and it came in a huge bowl with lettuce. I ordered something that I knew was a meat, and what I knew was calamari, but took a chance on how (or if) it was cooked :-) . My salad showed up with absolutely delicious duck gizzard! And what I first took for onion rings (strange, I didn't think I had seen anything like that on the menu) turned out to be the calamari (Roman style).
- And there were the bulots. I was sure they were a type of seafood (we were on the coast, after all). And they were! I have now had whelks, aka sea snails - and they were yummy!
Most of our meals were either cooked at home or picnic style. I was really looking forward to cooking with different ingredients in my own kitchen. All I can say is that everything was edible, many dishes were interesting, but nothing was earth shattering :-( I had expected to shop at the farmer's market, but we always seemed to fill our cupboards from the grocery store. I did go to the local co-op a couple of times - they had fresh fish and seafood; tempting to consider, and I even sketched out a recipe to try with seiche (cuttlefish) - the stars just never aligned... One time I was prepared, and brought home a nice fillet - I looked up the name later, and discovered I was going to cook an ordinary cod! What was fun was perusing the meat aisle at the grocery store - there were slices of turkey, very tender chicken breast, duck wing meat, rabbit legs, duck breast (with or without fois gras!), and calf brain (yes, I passed on that one).
One area full of disappointment was the produce. There were hardly any green vegetables in our (admittedly small) grocery store. We always found zucchini, but only occasionally broccoli or green beans, and that was essentially it!
More grocery surprises:
- the Camargue is full of rice fields (it felt oddly home-like driving through the area), but we only ever saw instant rice in the store
- half-and-half was not to be found, but the powdered whole milk was great in our coffee
- ready-made food included tabouli (here, this is couscous with interesting seasonings and bits of vegetables) and fruits de mer (a cold mix of cooked seafood)
- deli sections sold all sorts of salads in containers, but there were no plastic forks on offer
- olives were plentiful and there were lots of interesting varieties. Rick got hooked on the Greek style - black, cured with just oil and salt, packaged dry
Perhaps the best habit we adopted was eating a picnic lunch (and often dinner). We had a wide variety of cheeses to try out; crunchy, springy, fresh bread (by law, containing only wheat, water, yeast, and salt); crunchy raw veggies; and an amazing variety of meats! We cooked chicken breast and sausages, bought serrano ham, pâté, and pungent dry summer sausage.
All of this was rounded out with quite a variety of wines - our favorites were a Roche Mazet Cabernet Sauvignon and a Demazet Viognier.
* AOC stands for Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée, and is most often applied to French wines. It means that the product is in line with the characteristics and production method of its region.