25 June 2008

Lunches – French Style

Everybody loves a lunch out. When I worked in London one of my greatest pleasures (apart from seeing my bonus statement) was to have lunch in one of the many fine establishments which were close to the office. Now I’m retired I still love to have lunch out but the sad thing is that now I have to pay for it. The days of the corporate (and virtually unlimited) expense account are long gone but the two hour ritual covering topics such as the forthcoming weekend’s TV sport, the latest bash on our cars and our wives’ most recent shopping splurges, still prevails.
And whilst I try to keep the magic of lunches alive by having no more than maybe three a month, my wife Julie would deem life to have ended if she did not have at least four a week, all lasting several hours and all with a different ‘lunch partner’. I honestly did not think she had that many friends – after all I seem to alienate most of them at parties by insisting that they witness my flaming willy trick or by betting them €2 that I can make their boobs move without touching them . You know the answer to this one – you grab them and then pay the €2 – it’s worth it – most of the time ! Anyway, the point is that whilst we Brits can quite easily have two or even three hour lunches and think nothing of it, we still regard the ‘lunch ritual’ of our Gallic hosts, who have lunch down to an art form, with a sense of wonder and bemusement.

So it is with a sense of fascination and envy that I watch my builders having lunch. They generally arrive at 7.30am each morning and stop whatever they are doing at precisely 12 midday for two whole hours….to have lunch. Concrete could be waiting to be poured, a delivery lorry might be waiting to be unloaded, but no matter what, everything stops for lunch.

The first thing they did when they arrived on site was to build a hut, then a stone barbeque and then make shelves for the hut where they could keep their olive oil, herbs and other cooking accoutrements. Then came the tables and chairs, the electrics for their radios and a pot for cleaning their utensils after lunch. The hangers for their clothes, the drawers to keep their cigarettes in and finally the gate across the hut door to prevent Shadow from sampling their food before they cooked it. After a week of this I wondered when exactly they would start to build the house ! For one awful moment I thought the hut WAS the house ! On the second day after they’d actually started building I found the young builder Philippe cutting parts of my Rosemary hedge so he could flavour his barbequed lamb. It’s no exaggeration to say that whilst building continued on and off for 5 years, we saw very little of Shadow as the food at the builder’s hut was significantly superior to that offered up at home.

So to say that the French love their long lunches more than life itself is an obvious statement to make – two hours – not a minute more nor a minute less. Why start at 7.30am and work through to 5.30pm and have two hours every day for lunch ? Why not grab a Boots or M&S (or if you’re tight a Benjy’s) sandwich and do with 15 minutes for lunch and knock off early ? I’m afraid it’s not in their psyche.

I would study them from my office window when I wasn’t out having dejeuner – they would finish their lunch after maybe 40 minutes and then just sit for another 80 minutes staring into the sky or just listening to weird sounding radio stations. Then suitably refreshed with a combination of French cuisine from their stone fire and French culture from their radio they would continue building – and a bloody good job they did too. Vive La France.

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