Article : The French spends more on food than others

Bonne Année
Compared to Anglo Saxon nations, the French spend more on food and drink than presents.

by Jon Doust.

I owe a lasting debt to René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo. The "Asterix" books that they created helped me greatly in beginning to read in English as a child.

As an adult I revisited their work firstly as an aid in learning Dutch and, more latterly, French.

The translations into English by Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge are masterful and preserve the original humour extraordinarily well.

But one or two of the cultural references remained a little mysterious.

To me, at least. Amongst these was a reference in "Asterix and the Cauldron" to onion soup being good after a late night.

As a teenager, I took this to mean that drinking onion soup for breakfast after going to bed late somehow relieved tiredness and the general jaded feeling that can sometimes accompany the morning after the night before.

I even tried it a few times as a student without feeling any great benefit, and, since I didn't actually like onion soup very much, I quickly stopped doing it.

Years later, shortly after we moved to France, I discovered the real reason behind the onion soup comment: it is, in fact, intended to settle the stomach after the God-almighty blow-out that constitutes the Réveillon de la Saint Sylvestre - New Years Eve in France.

Compared to present buying habits typical in Anglo Saxon nations, the French can appear rather parsimonious in their gift giving.

Presents are generally fewer in number and lower in value than in, say, the UK. But where the French make up their spending, and this should probably not come as too great a surprise, is on food and drink.

According to a short item on the radio news last week, the average household in France will spend €500 on food and wine in the week between 24th and 31st December.

If I might be forgiven a terrible pun, I found this a little hard to swallow at first, but a trip into town yesterday removed any doubt. Necessity in the form of a shortage of baby bottom wipes forced me through the doors of our local supermarket and some curious sights were there to meet my eyes.

For a start, a lot of the more usual goods and provisions had disappeared from the shelves (though – happily for me – not baby wipes) and had been replaced by mountains of foie gras, baskets of oysters and cases of champagne in preparation for New Year's Eve.

Secondly, the customers, who like most of us don't normally easily part with their hard-earned, were doling out used notes in quantities that could have had a marked impact on the liquidity of interbank credit markets.

Trapped in the checkout line for quite some time I was able to eavesdrop on conversations around me: "I was an hour at the fish counter…" "three hours in the butchers…" "queuing out of the door at the bakers…" Clearly the serious shopping was widespread.

They lady in front of me had nothing in her trolley apart from two baskets of oysters, three whole foie gras and four bottles of champagne.

She spent €290. I have mixed feelings about foie gras. Once, when I was young, I was fed a foie gras from ducks gavaged (an anglicised version of the French word sounds much nicer than "force fed," I think) by hand.

The lady who did this cradled each bird in her lap and using her hand to gauge quantity , carefully filled the creatures' crops two or three times a day for about two weeks before slaughter.

She used a mixture of pounded walnuts and puréed apple to feed them. The birds appeared happy enough with their lot in life, and the resulting foie gras was sublime.

Alas, the artesianal approach is far too labour intensive (read expensive) to satisfy demand, and practically no-one can be bothered to do it at home these days, so factory farming using machine force-feeding and a kind of slurry made from maize is the norm.

And this, it must be said (and I have taken the trouble to visit a farm that does it) is pretty repugnant. So no foie gras purchases for me. Not that it will make much difference – demand is on the up and the industry is not hindered by increased interest in some of the by-products it manufactures.

The current fad for roasting potatoes in duck or goose fat, for instance. Oysters, another of the traditional seasonal treats around here, are less controversial, at least, and although the price doubles at this time of year they are still pretty cheap by UK standards – about €4 per dozen for my preferred size.

They are not, however, without hazard, and hospital casualty departments do a brisk trade in bandaged hands over the course of the festive tide.

Injuries from imprudent shucking of oysters can include such nasties as severed tendons, and I was interested to note that more than one stall holder at our local market was displaying a sign warning customers not to drink before they shuck.

The potential for injury can be much reduced by attending one of the many organised dinners on New Year's Eve. The French are very keen on these and practically every village has one.

This year, ours is hosting a seven course affair: foie gras, oysters, charcuterie, tornados Rossini, trou Vendéen (a sorbet made mostly from grape spirit and covered in more grape spirit that no-one should ever actually try to eat), cheese and pudding for the princely sum of €58.

This includes a glass of champagne, half a bottle of wine, a cabaret and dancing. More wine will be available, if required. It starts at nine and it is unlikely that any actual food will be presented much before 11.

At six the following morning, onion soup will be served and the bleary eyed revellers will stagger out into the pre-dawn light to wend their weary way to bed.

Frankly it's all a bit too much for me, so this year I have pleaded the presence at home of three children under nine years old, all of whom will require at least some rudimentary level of care on January 1st, and shall be opting instead for a quiet evening with friends similarly encumbered with offspring.

Besides, I really do not like onion soup very much. is the copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited

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