Cooking… the French way

Anyone who knows me knows I’m fussy as all hell about my food – or at least I used to be. When I was a child, I used to be packed off to other children’s parties with a list from my mother. It stretched to about 15 items and it was all the food I would eat. This was because the list of things I wouldn’t eat was far too long for her to draft.

Without wishing to sound offensive, I’d have been an ideal Jew. I didn’t like pork, sausages or bacon. Neither would I touch fish or any other seafood (some things never change…). I also didn’t like lamb very much. Melted cheese was a no-no. Forget onions, pickles, peppers, spices, curry, garlic…

Since then I have grown to live for a decent bacon buttie on a weekend. A sausage sandwich is a good way to fill up on a lunchtime. Extra-spicy fajitas (stuffed with peppers) are the order of the day at present and Midnight Express along the road don’t to anything that’s not improved by the melted cheese inside.

While I’ve been travelling, I’ve explored a few unusual foodstuffs. In Australia I had kangaroo, emu and crocodile all in one meal; and a camel-burger at another. At various points in Vietnam I chowed down on cobra, pigeon and sparrow, though I’ve yet to try dog. I did sample alligator back in the UK once. And I found the best curry house in the world in Krakow, closely followed by a doozy in Vientiane. Not to say the food in India wasn’t good – it was superb (too many links to mention!)

Here in France, I’d expected just the usual – good bread (on a par with the Vietnamese stuff at least), various cheeses (none as good as mature cheddar, but hey), fine wine (who can argue with €0.85 a bottle for rosé?)… I’ve even made a couple of "French" meals while I’ve been here, some inspired by those cooked for me when I was walking through Europe last year. An easy one is to fry some potatoes, smother them in one of the runny cheeses that comes in tubs like toghurt, mix in some meat, spices, and perhaps some pepper or onion and slap it on a place. I guess this is kind of the French version of a hotpot or stew. Damn fine it is, too.

The other night I opted for something simple. A slab of meat and some mixed veg. Now at home I used to have one of those George Formby ukulele/grill combo things. It got rid of all the fat from your meat, cooked it right through even from frozen and played songs in a cheerful Cockney accent. OK, maybe not the last bit. In my little flat I have a tiny oven the size of an antique portable TV, and a frying pan.

I usually opt for the pan (poêle) method as the electric oven just dried everything out. So I warmed up some oil and checked the cooking instructions. Yes, OK, so I know it was just a steak but it’s interesting to see that they actually tell you how to cook it. I guess they must get a lot of tourists (with French/English dictionaries) here. Essentially the instructions were to drop the meat into a pre-heated pan, heat on each side for 2-3 minutes and then serve.

Now, anyone who’s tried French cooking knows that they prefer their meat… almost still kicking. If it doesn’t bleed all over your plate when you poke it with a spoon, it’s overdone. If you want it done correctly you get a trained chef to breathe on it for half an hour. If you want it slightly charred you get him to eat three chilis first.

I prefer my meat just cooked right through, preferably without charring on the outside. I’d kind of gotten a knack for it, but it’s been a while since I made a steak, and the meat I had this time was very slightly different to what I’m used to. You’d be surprised, but horse meat takes a bit more cooking than a piece of cow’s rump. On eating, the texture is very similar but it’s pretty tricky to get it to cook right the way through without turning the outside to charcoal.

So add another species to the list that’ll want to kick my ass when it gets the chance.

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