Friday, 3 June 2016

My first true gastronomic experience.


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When I was about 8 years old I stayed with a family in Dieppe as part of an exchange scheme. I spent a few weeks with them, then their son returned to England to spend a few weeks with us. Such things were popular then; I don't know if the same things happen nowadays.

As part of my time with the family we went on a round trip to Normandy, down into the Loire valley, across to Paris, then back up to Dieppe. It was a tour filled with wonderment, and some memorable food.

I wish I could remember where this particular restaurant was, but this is what I recall.

It wasn't a 'restaurant' in the classic sense, it was more of a woodland 'taverna', with rustic vine covered pergolas and even more rustic tables and benches. Running through the middle of the establishment was a small stream.

I don't think the place even had a menu, as with so many French eateries you just ate what you were given. In this particular case I believe it was famous for this trademark dish.

I remember seeing the chef dip a huge wire scoop into the stream and pull out a mass of small wriggling silver fish; something like tiny Sprats or Whitebait. These were drained of excess water then tipped directly into a large pot of boiling oil. The fish cooked in a matter of seconds and were served 'crispy' with a slice of lemon and some salad. As soon as one plateful was finished, another appeared.

As a small Surrey lad who had never travelled further than East Grinstead, I was enthralled. I seem to remember that we ate the fish whole, but maybe we removed the heads; it doesn't really matter.

It was a totally different attitude to food than I'd ever known. None of your meat and two vegs, but piles of tiny, just cooked, tiddlers. They were delicious, and we were actually encouraged to eat with our HANDS.

Such food, and even the method of eating it, is now commonplace, but in those days.....




36 comments:

  1. The main thing I remember about my exchange in the South of France is the food.

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    1. I remember M Bourgeois driving straight through a load of chickens on the way to his mill. I looked out of the back of his car to see several half dead hens flapping around in the road; he didn't flinch. Strange man.

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  2. Looking closely at the fish in the photo, they seem to have been coated with a tempura batter, and then quickly fried, which would give them that crispiness. We can still get them like that in restaurants here, and eat them with our fingers ! No idea what the fish are, although being coastal they must be salt water, not fresh water.
    I remember those exchanges too. They were done through the French Club at school - very much the luck of the draw where you ended up! We had to correspond with our "opposite" number, in French, beforehand and receive our letters back with (numerous, in my case)corrections, together with a reply written in good English !

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    1. In our case we knew The Consul in Dieppe and he was able to recommend a 'suitable' family. They were very nice people, although we were told that they had some 'Gallows' in the garden. These turned out to be 'Swings'.

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    2. Aah, but surely, Dieppe isn't proper France? Even in those days you needed to go much further south and preferably inland, to meet the "real" French. In the 50's, anywhere other than Paris or the Med was a real eye-opener !

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  3. I like a nice sprat or whitebait. Mum used to make them at home as part of my Essex childhood. x

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    1. Lovely grub. I could just eat a plateful now!

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  4. My first gastronomic experience was white bait bought at a fish stall in Norwich and fried quickly by my isophisticated half French boyfriend from Surrey. I was surprised that there was no preparation, he threw the whole lot in the pan and then told me to eat everything including the heads. So I did. I still love white bait.

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    1. I'm pretty sure we ate the heads too. Thank goodness I was raised not to be squeamish.

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  5. After a season working at M & S as a student and my job first thing to stock the fish fridge I have never been able to face them. Lots of little eyes looking at you at 7am! Arilx

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    1. They were probably smiling at you.

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  6. My first experience of French food was having to drink coffee from a big bowl, a case of slurping rather than drinking. Those were the days in England when tea was still drunk from teacups, before mugs were invented. And then there was the bag of garlic stuffed snails I brought back for my Grandad. Never knew what happened to them. My travel with the school was by coach and ferry. I think the snails were way past their best by the time I gave them to him!

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    1. We have a snail man who comes to our weekly 'Producer's Fair' in the summer. They are really delicious, but about €8 for a small punnet.

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    2. I still drink my tea from a teacup, every morning without fail.

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  7. Even today I still think French food at its best is much better than anything we serve over here - and the more rustic the better as far as I am concerned. What an experience for a small boy.

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    1. I agree. Give me plain simple rustic fare any time!

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  8. I have no recollection of my first French food but then my first trips to France were through the North on the way to Berlin where we spent October for a few years. Bearing in mind that I was never a great meat eater and that the plentiful fish I had eaten (living near the sea) was always minus 'the nasty bits'I was astonished that as late teenager I developed a love of whitebait which was readily available in the sophisticated (hmmm) restaurants of down-town Liverpool in the sixties. I never quite got used to the whitebait fritters which are so much part of New Zealand culture because they were so much larger and 'fishlike'. The last whitebait I had in, I think, Glasgow a few years ago were a huge un-crisp disappointment. Thanks for awakening my memory juices.

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    1. I've had Whitebait a few times in UK restaurants, but these were fresh water fish, and quite different. They wouldn't have been nearly so nice if not crisp.

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  9. We did operate the exchange at our school and many of my friends took part......I couldn't as we had no spare place to sleep the french visitor..there were 3 of us sisters in one bedroom and my brother in the boxroom! I teased my ma that I was traumatised by the experience (especially as those of us not going had to wave off the coach at school) but all the people who took part seemed to hate the people they were paired with!

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    1. Sounds like you were saved from a nasty ordeal. These things are probably better organised 'personally', and not en masse.

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  10. Took me a little while to get used to French food. Memories of goat’s cheeses floating in a pickle jar, goose gizzards, a steak so tough (possibly horse) that ended up in my handbag. Love it all now, except for horse and pate de ragondins.

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    1. I'll eat anything; ONCE. But I don't like the sound of that paté either. Luckily my parents were both 'foodies', so I was always well prepared.

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  11. There's a slab of pink meat shaped like an oversized oblong loaf that sits steaming for days until every thick slice has been sold. It lives in a metal and glass box with a small grill inside it in the corners of lots of the Bratwurst counters in the city and it's called Pferdleberkässe which literally means horse-liver-cheese which some street food people are positively addicted to.

    I prefer the Mediterranean diet myself.

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    1. I would certainly have a slice of Pferdleberkasse if I came across it. I did once buy a hot sausage from a tiny food stall in an underpass at Frankfort railway station; it was delicious.

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  12. Whitebait delishious, but I've not seen it here. We still don't eat/drink oysters but Saturday midi we shall be eating the classic moules frites, no doubt, in quantity.
    On an un-sophisticated note, there often appeared to be more fish food, whelks etc on the pavement Sunday am after a ight out in the pub with a stall selling outside. South London.

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    1. I love Whelks. I once unknowingly bought some live ones, and found them very chewy!

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  13. I would call that interesting food for a young man, both interesting to watch as it is prepared and to eat.

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    1. I remember being both amazed and thrilled. It was a totally new experience, and a delicious one too.

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  14. What did the other kid think of the food your family served? I grew up with meat and potatoes.

    Love,
    Janie

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    1. My mother discovered Elizabeth David in the 50's, and as a result we ate very well. He was very happy.

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  15. I remember first eating whitebait in the 60's - it has been a favourite ever since.

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    1. We eat a lot of Sardines here; simply fried in olive oil.... lovely.

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  16. Everything sounds so wonderful. What a fabulous time for you as a young child.

    cheers, parsnip and thehamish

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    1. It was indeed Parsnip; I had a great childhood.

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  17. Amazing memory. I think linking where the food comes from with what children eat is so important to making them interested and making them eat healthier food.

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