A Life in a Year – 19th April, The Curious Culinary Habits of the French

I have always liked La Rochelle ever since my first visit in 1996, I like the sea food restaurants, the patiseries, the busy harbour and the leisurely pace of life; so much so in fact that I have visited four times, the last being in 2007.

Our final day in La Rochelle (19th April) began exactly the same as the day before.  A Hotel Ibis breakfast and then out into the city bathed in a soft blue sky and the early morning sun burning off the remains of the sea dew.  It was going to be another fine day.  We decided to explore the town today and set off first to do that thing that has become a bit of a ritual and go and visit the local market.   And it was a very good one indeed, just the place to get our market envy fix.  The meat hall was full of interesting produce alongside the usual including big portions of wild boar, whole rabbits and bits of chickens that it certainly wouldn’t occur to us to eat. These included heads and feet, and like most people from England I always thought that the chicken leg stopped just below that meaty piece of thigh meat.  Shoppers would have a fit in England but the French seem to have an appetite for the most unusual. 

In the fish market, once again as with everywhere else we have been the variety and quantity was eye-popping, there were slabs and slabs of oysters all carefully graded by size from number one to number six and the breathtaking amount of shellfish and crustaceans simply served to confirm that the French will eat anything that swims, crawls or slithers through the sea.  Outside the vegetable stalls offered appetizing produce that was all arranged in spectacular displays with much more attention to detail and presentation than we had seen elsewhere. 

We enjoyed walking around the medieval streets with their timber framed houses and we visited the Cathedral de Saint Louis, which was impressive for a provincial city and later the Notre Dam Church that was dark and eerie and with an overwhelming smell of incense. 

Out of the town we sat in a green park and ate strawberries that we had purchased in the market and were startled by the most amazingly loud croaking noise, so loud we took it to be a man with one of those duck decoy whistles but when we investigated further we located the noise from the river and were surprised to find some frogs swimming about and making a really astonishing amount of noise for such small creatures.  Obviously not very bright either because given the French habit of eating practically anything and being especially fond of these little amphibian’s succulent legs you’d have thought that they might have learned over the years not to draw so much attention to themselves. 

As we relaxed over lunch we were amused by a motorist who was looking for a parking place and identified a vacant spot opposite the brasserie.  Actually it was quite obvious that there was insufficient space to squeeze his vehicle into but he was determined to get in there one way or another.  One way was to reverse into the vehicle behind and shunt it a few inches backwards and the other was to drive into the vehicle in front and shunt that one a few inches forward.  He repeated this a few times until he was satisfied with his unorthodox parking arrangements and then he unashamedly got out of his car and sat down at a table for lunch. 

This reminded me of an old friend, Charles who lived in Evreux in Normandy and prided himself on being able to slip into the most improbable parking spaces always claiming that that is exactly what bumpers on cars are designed for.  He also had a curiously impatient habit of when waiting at traffic lights and being first in the queue of driving beyond them a distance of about two metres or so.  I asked him why he did this and he explained that it was so he could make a quick getaway.  What was illogical about this however was that he couldn’t actually see the lights change colour and invariably had to wait to be prompted to move off by the driver in the vehicle behind.  Curious people the French!


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