The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Finding Paradise in Provence, Part I: An expat foodie’s views on French cuisine for the very young

Continuing our theme of French cuisine, today we bring you the first of two guest posts from Joanna Masters-Maggs. Joanna and her husband are originally from England and have four children aged between seven and fourteen. Over the last fifteen years they have lived in seven different countries, and this summer they achieved what is considered by some to be the Holy Grail, the Paradise of company transfers: a two-year assignment in France. Despite her nomadic lifestyle, Joanna has stayed British at heart, and her post therefore is written in British English.

Oscar Wilde once famously said:

“When good Americans die they go to Paris.”

Paraphrasing him, I like to say of the employees of the company for which my husband works that

“If they are good, they will finally be transferred to Paris.”

After living in six other countries during our 15-year marriage, our family has been lucky enough – or perhaps well-behaved enough – to be transferred to France. Not Paris but, in terms of Paradise, close. In fact, some would say we have been even luckier, because we are now based in delightful Aix-en-Provence.

Having spent the last two years in Saudi Arabia, I was more than ready to reacquaint myself with the delights of French charcuterie and wine. While a six-week period of hotels and temporary apartments offered plenty of opportunities to try restaurants, bistros and cafes, there is no point waxing lyrical about Michelin-starred restaurants and the quality of basic ingredients in markets and delicatessens. It’s all been said before, and by people far more qualified than I.

Thankfully, more prosaic matters had piqued my interest before I was invited to write this guest post.

Developing a French palate? It’s child’s play.

One of our first purchases in France was a couple of board games for family game night. Not the usual Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit, however.

“How interesting!” I thought, as I looked at these things in the shop. “Tasting games and smelling games for children? I’ve never seen that before.”

Well, the instructions claimed these pastimes were suitable for young children, but little did I realise how demanding the games would be. I am not four years old (the lower end of the suggested age range for players) but I had trouble distinguishing between liquorice and aniseed. More trouble than I care to admit.

We travel to experience different cultures. But even after living in such various places as Holland, Brazil, and Saudi Arabia – among others – I realised with the purchase of these games that resettling in France with four children was going to be quite the cultural experience.

Out of the mouths of babes

This hunch was confirmed a few days later. My 7-year-old son, Patrick, recently started a new international school here in Aix. As we walked down the leafy lane that leads to the kind of shuttered and shabby chic building this part of France does so well, we met David, one of Patrick’s new friends.

During the ensuing conversation that covered the unoriginal topics we mums tend to ask about, I learned that David had spent his first year in a mainstream French school before attending international school.

“It was hard,” he solemnly informed me. “No one spoke any English, and they were strict. But I miss it.”

“You do?” I asked in the sing-song, too-bright way that mothers always adopt when talking to small children. “Why is that?”

He turned serious eyes on me.

“Well, the food, of course,” he replied.

He was too polite to add “stupid” but it hung in the air.

“The French, you see. They’re good at food. It’s nice here, but in French schools they have three courses and lots of different cheese. We get less cheese,” he added sadly.

If you cook it, they will come.

I was already impressed with the food served at the two international schools my four children attend, so I understood this was praise indeed from David. My children’s schools have resisted the usual route of chips, nuggets and pizza, and instead serve mainly simple grilled meats with vegetables and salads. Wednesdays tend to be more indulgent days, involving cheesy gratins and so forth. Puddings are sparse, and at their most indulgent involve only a small patisserie. No one is allowed second helpings, but fruit is plentiful.

The French are rightly proud of their reputation for good food and believe that appreciating it should form a part of the educational system.

School lunches: a social occasion, and rightly so.

Not since our days in Brazil have I been so enthused by a system of school lunches. Brazil took the whole process one step further. From the ages of 4 and 5, my children sat down at one table with their classmates, teacher, and assistants, and ate together, passing the vegetables and pouring water for one another.

How wonderful to take the time in the middle of the day to eat together and socialize in this way.

Between Brazil and France, I have spent a lot of time in various schools, agitating for better food and a more pleasant way of serving it. Jamie Oliver would have been proud of me. Time and again, though, I was told that the schools had tried switching to healthier food on the menu, but the children didn’t eat it.

“Children must have choice,” the mantra goes. Thus the healthy food, unappealingly presented, is placed next to the chips and baked beans. After a week or so of throwing it away, the contracted caterers stop serving it, to save money and maximize profits.

What the French and Brazilians understand, however, is if the choice is between eating well or going hungry for a few hours, most children will eventually adapt their tastes into healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime.

Good food, small portions, and time given to it. Simple.

Other countries could learn so much from this philosophy, especially those who constantly bewail an obesity problem among their population.

After all, it’s probably no coincidence that I see so few large French people – or saw so few large Brazilians.


Img: Exhausted but happy! Joanna on her first afternoon in France.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s episode of Libby’s Life, when Oliver returns from Vancouver to some news from Libby. Good news — or not?

Related posts:

DISPLACED Q: In modern French cuisine, who wins the race — the Slow Food Tortoise or the McDonald’s Fast-Food Hare?

When a Julia Child-like curiosity about French cuisine leads to a displaced life — bienvenue au October theme

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4 responses to “Finding Paradise in Provence, Part I: An expat foodie’s views on French cuisine for the very young

  1. E. October 5, 2011 at 4:55 pm

    I am so envious of you living in Aix!

    We used to treat school lunch times as a social occasion in England when I was little,and sometimes the teachers would eat with us, but sadly, the food was grey, overcooked, tasteless, post-war yuk, so it did little to encourage enjoyment of food. But we did learn good table manners and helping to clear dishes away. I also learned to be very faddy.

    I think the French school system has a lot to recommend it – I love the way the little ones greet their teachers with a kiss. Can you imagine that in England?!

    Look forward to reading more about your experiences in France.

  2. Kate Allison October 9, 2011 at 1:36 pm

    I remember the piles of wet cabbage that would grace our own plates of school lunch in my junior school. Honestly, it’s no wonder Britain has such a bad reputation for food.

  3. chaumierelesiris October 13, 2011 at 11:50 am

    Our children (aged 7 and 3) will eat all sorts of things in France that they wouldn’t touch in London or the US. And as you say – it’s because the unhealthy alternatives aren’t on offer. At lunch in Le Cannet this summer (just along from the new Bonnard museum), a waitress said she would bring them the normal children’s meal. We wondered what the children’s menu would be. Chicken nuggets? Pasta? Fish and chips? No! Oxtail stew and a pile of steaming provencal vegetables. It was delicious, and they ate it all.

  4. Bill January 21, 2012 at 1:23 pm

    Good god, you put it eloquently.

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