This is me, roundabout the age of fifteen I think, and so a little older than when I experienced the most exciting meal of my life. It's also not the venue for that meal - I will come to that. But it is France, which of course, is the venue of my most exciting meal.
But I am getting slightly ahead of myself.
This is actually the post that I was thinking of writing yesterday, until I got worn down by the "I've said it all before" thing. And I have. I know I have mentioned that meal before, and I have probably posted this photograph too. We did not have digital cameras back then and photographs were rare and far between time periods. I think I have about four or five photographs of myself from this time in my life and about three actually taken in France. So I shall try to take a slightly different approach to all of those things.
The location is the steps up to the flat above the Mairie in the village of Meung-sur-Loire. My exchange partner's father was the town clerk and this was their home. My room (which I think was actually Monette's was the right hand window on the second floor. The room behind the balcony was the kitchen from which Madame Coutant would swing the lettuce in her salad shaker to dry it. I was so impressed that I bought one whilst there.
The impetus for the post was my beginning to read this book by Julia Child with help from her husband's grand nephew Alex Prud'homme. I think it's the book on which the Julia side of the film Julie and Julia was based, so you probably all know the story. I haven't actually got very far into it as yet - just up to the beginning of her cookery lessons, but in it she recounts the story of her very first meal in France, ending with the words, "It was the most exciting meal of my life." Which made me think back to my first meal in France, which, I then realised was probably also the most exciting meal of my life.
I must emphasise here though that exciting is not the same as memorable, although of course it is memorable or otherwise you would not be able to recall it. But exciting suggests more. It suggests something truly momentous - like giving birth, those early unrequited loves, finding love at last, one's children leaving home ... Life-changing I suppose.
Neither does the most exciting meal of one's life mean that one has never eaten well before then. My mother was a really good cook and everything we ate at home - well almost everything was delicious. But I had grown up with this - it was everyday - however lucky I was to have good food - however plain - on my plate. I had revolting school dinners at my primary school to remind me how good food could be. But it wasn't exciting and life-changing. And I'm sure in the eyes of today's cooks and food writers it truly wasn't exciting. although Nigel Slater in his memoir Toast gives it a good hot go.
There might have been tiny moments of excitement - sticks of rock at the seaside, shrimps at grandma's, Christmas pudding and the lucky silver threepence, picking blackberries, brandy snaps, pancakes even because they tended to be a once a year treat. But none of those things changed my view of food. It was just what one did every day to keep alive although it was a pleasurable thing, and not without its minor excitements.
We were not rich but my parents were determined that their children should grab every opportunity available to better their lives, and so when my French class was told about the opportunity for an exchange holiday in France they insisted I should take the chance. I seem to remember it cost the princely sum of £10 - which was really just to cover the fare on the train and the ferry - and the organisation's administration costs I guess. I think I was in my second year of high school, so maybe 13 by the time the summer came and I was off.
It was, of course, random who one's exchange partner was. Mine was Simone Coutant - standing next to me in this photograph. She was known as Monette though. The other two are her best friend Annick and my sister who came with me in a subsequent visit. For the families hit it off and I went to stay with Monette and her parents just about every summer until I left school - and Monette came to visit us too. Maybe we are all around fifteen or sixteen in this picture.
But back to the beginning and that exciting meal. Monette had visited us first - I am pretty sure she was just 12 and so I must have been about the same. She was beautiful and so chic, serene and confident. I always thought that the French could wear anything and look chic. I don't know how they do it. Anyway the day finally came when I would travel with her - and all the other exchange children to Paris. They must have chartered a whole train, or at least several carriages. There were hundreds of us. She lived in the beautiful small village of Meung-sur-Loire, just a few kilometres down river from Orléans.
It was a then 2 hour drive from Paris, and so we stayed the night in Paris in one of those tiny hotels. Of course I did not speak a lot of French and I had never been out of England before. The smells - predominantly garlic and Gaulloises, and the drains too. The constant background noise of a language I did not really understand. The cars were different and the drivers more excitable. Such an adventure. My oldest grandchildren are now older than I was then. I cannot imagine now how I did it really. So young. But my hosts were wonderful. If I got really stuck Monette and her father, who spoke a little bit of English would help me out.
But I'm rambling. We went out for dinner and I know I have spoken about this before, but I am going to bore you again. The restaurant was Aux Armes de Colmar near the Gare du Nord, and today I found some photographs of the interior - empty alas - as it was then - and a photograph of what is now the Terminus Nord restaurant, which may well have been 'my' restaurant.
I don't think I had ever eaten in a restaurant before except for the Lyons Teahouses in London. So that was exciting in itself. It is sad that there are no pictures of the place with people inside it, for one of the other things I remember was that it was packed with people and waiters wending their way expertly between the tables holding aloft their platters of choucroute for it was an Alsatian restaurant and this was the speciality of the house. Truth to tell I cannot remember what we ate as a main course. Did we try the choucroute? It's obviously a dish for a group, not one person. Or did we have something else? Maybe we did have the choucroute, because I know that I had tasted it before I finally made it myself many years later, and I am not at all sure where else I would have eaten it. So let's pretend that I did, even if I actually only had steak and frites - although that too would have been exciting. I mean - frites - not at all the same as chips, and steak - we never had steak. But choucroute would have been much more exciting and strange. And that vision of the platters held aloft will never leave me, together with the generally buzzy ambience.
However, the real excitement and the thing that changed my life food wise was a simple salade de tomates. This is one of my attempts to recreate that very first taste. Of course I had eaten tomatoes before - and in a salad too. But never alone, or even with herbs, and never a vinaigrette dressing. Come to think of it, I'm not sure that that first tomato salad did have herbs on it. But it did have garlic, and oil, and I think a touch of vinegar - wine vinegar - also new to me. And the tomatoes would have been those massive ox-heart tomatoes that they have in France. I remember that when I told our English greengrocer that we were going there he raved about French tomatoes - and peaches. Those tomatoes were divine. They showed me that something so simple could excite the tastebuds in the most wonderful way. Of course the excitement, tempered with a little bit of fear, or at least nervousness - would have heightened this but it's something I shall never forget. I was so young, alone and away from home for the first time, I spoke very little French and I simply did not know how to behave. Of course I went on to experience home-cooked French food which added to that first revelation, but it was definitely those tomatoes that sent me on a life long love affair with food and cooking. For I wanted to experience that taste - and all of those new tastes again. I was so lucky that my mother shared my enthusiasm when I got back home and showed her how to make a vinaigrette, and potage. From then we explored the new dishes that were beginning to appear in the women's magazines - beginning with the incredibly exotic spaghetti bolognaise.
I don't think I have had such an exciting experience with food again. Of course I have had wonderful food all over Europe, South-East Asia and in the multicultural world that is Melbourne's café scene, but the defining thing about that particular meal in Paris was to show me that food could be so different even if the changes were very tiny. Now I know that food is always surprising, and so I am not as surprised. Delighted yes, but surprised, not as much.
And what about Julia Child? What was her first French meal? She was, of course, much older than I but had never been to France, although she had travelled much further than I - to Sri Lanka and China in fact, but never to Europe. She had the good fortune to be travelling with her very well travelled husband Paul, who spoke fluent French, and so for their first meal they came here - to La Couronne in Rouen, on their way from Le Havre to Paris.
"It was warm inside, and the dining room was a comfortably old-fashioned brown-and-white space, neither humble nor luxurious. At the far end was an enormous fireplace with a rotary spit, on which something was cooking, that sent out heavenly aromas."
Paul chose the food. Oysters, with pain de seigle and beurre d'Isigny - France's best butter - to begin with:
"I was used to bland oysters from Washington and Massachusetts, which I had never cared much for. But this platter of portugaises had a sensational briny flavour and a smooth texture that was entirely new and surprising."
Oysters, I'm afraid are not for me, but I will concede that they always look very photogenic. Salade de tomates is more my thing.
The real revelation for Julia though was the fish - Sole Meunière - another one of those oh so simple and yet oh so perfect dishes that the French have gifted to the world.
"It arrived whole; a large, flat Dover sole that was perfectly browned in a sputtering butter sauce with a sprinkling of chopped parsley on top. The waiter carefully placed the platter in front of us, stepped back, and said: 'Bon appétit'
I closed my eyes and inhaled the rising perfume. Then I lifted a forkful of fish to my mouth, took a bite, and chewed slowly. The flesh of the sole was delicate, with a light but distinct taste of the ocean that blended marvellously with the browned butter. I chewed slowly and swallowed. It was a morsel of perfection. ... at La Couronne I experienced fish, and a dining experience, of a higher order than any I'd ever had before."
The meal continued with those other so French, so wonderful things - salad verte, 'my first real baguette' (who can ever forget real French baguettes - even Laurent's - who is French - are not as good):
"a crisp brown crust giving way to a slightly chewy, rather loosely textured pale-yellow interior, with a faint reminder of wheat and and yeast in the odour and taste."
Finishing with fromage blanc - which you still can't get here and filtered coffee.
As they leave the waiter gives them an introduction to a restaurant run by relatives in Paris:
"'Mairci, monsoor' I said with a flash of courage and accent that sounded bad even to my own ear. The waiter nodded as if it were nothing, and moved off to greet some new customers.
Paul and I floated out the door into the brilliant sunshine and cool air. Our first lunch together in France had been absolute perfection. It was the most exciting meal of my life."
What was yours?