It was an accident. But then this country is boobytrapped with such “accidents.” Such happy accidents have added about 6cm to my waistline in the last three years.
I went to the market for carrots. Fresh carrots. The little tender kind with the leaves still on, all fresh and pretty and healthy.
I steeled myself on the Sunday morning drive to the village with mental blinders: Just the little old lady in the center stall. Park. Dart in. Carrots. Dart back out. Quick and clean. No sideways glances. No drool. No engagement. Above all avoid the charcuterie. And the baker with the raisin rolls with the custard center. And the olive guy. All the olive guys. Avoid everyone but the carrot lady.
“Bonjour. I am having French friends to lunch,” I overshared immediately at the vegetable stand, in my very strong accent. “Loads of them. Gourmands! And I’m looking for some young fresh carrots just like these…”
If I were a lamb I would have just walked into a dark wood and squee’d to the top of my lungs that here I am, a plump tender morsel of succulent meat, helpless and all alone and in need of guidance and tending, and lo, here is some fine tender grass to graze idly meantime, while I am waiting, helpless…
As the coins dropped and the carrots slipped into my basket, the fromager silently slid out of his stall and sidled up to me like a boa falling off its branch to cuddle up to prey. He waited patiently for my purchase of healthy calorie-free staples, and then, slithered alongside as I turned to leave. In every Eden there is a Temptor, and in this one more than a few.
“Bonjour et bienvenue, Monsieur! Welcome, welcome. So you are English? Et en zee vacations heres?” he said with a very strong accent of his own, probably exhausting most of his English vocabulary in this one sentence.
I know better than to talk to strangers in the markets. I well know that I stand out like a dumb-sheep target for just such pitches as his. I know my profile, and my vulnerabilities, and above all to avoid cheese trucks and the portly little cheese sellers within.
But being called English… He got me on the first hook.
What came out of my mouth involuntarily in retort was, “Bonjour. Mais non, pas du tout, Monsieur. Je suis americain.”
And with that phrase I tripped the simple mechanism of the trap, ratified a conversation and put my little sheep’s head curiously inside the mouth of the lion to glance around at his razor-sharp teeth, all at once.
He amiably drew me close to his cart window and started pointing out his wares – educatively, you see. For the Englishm… err, American.
There were at least 100 kinds of sumptuous cheese in that case from all over France. As if on cue, his daughter started peeling off the inevitable samples as he recommended one after the other, filling my mouth and both hands. Oh! They were good. Morbier, brie de Meaux, Camembert, Saint Nectare, local cabachons…
I didn’t want any more education. I know my failings! Now I wanted cheese on an industrial scale. In fact, at this point I wanted a whole cheese plate. I wanted a cheese plate that would impress even the French guests that afternoon, which is not easy.
And some left over for us afterward, which is even less easy, if the cheese plate is good. If you’ve ever seen a table of French go at a well-done plateau de fromage, you know that if you serve truly good cheese, having any left over is almost an insult.
In that case, Monsieur le Fromager knew just what to do: A chèvre, quite common but a necessary creamy texture to start; a cantal, because you also have to have a cantal, but he confided knowingly, “this one, Monsieur,” because wow, better than any other cantal; a bleu, the best he had, as we are in Roquefort country here and you can’t skimp on the bleu, Monsieur; a Saint-Félicien in a reed case, all melted into its paper already, runny and matured juste au point, for a little whiff of acid in the nose; a Gruyère from the mountains of Switzerland with just a hint of crunchy crystal salt forming in it (and a breathtaking price worthy of its pedigree and long travels); and a Basque brébis cut with piment d’espelet, which, though I balked at first, my new friend assured me was so mild that any Frenchman would find himself already smiling before he felt the burn sneak up from behind, near the throat. He grinned evilly, and poked that sample in my mouth without me even having to reach for it.
There were so many other specimens the size of grapefruits added to my basket that I blacked out the memory from trauma.
But then he paused, and carved off another thin translucent white slice, this one speckled with black bits. He held it up to the light on the tip of his thumb for me to appreciate how many flecks were in every shaving. “And perhaps, to finish, a bit of the gouda cut with fresh truffles?”
Truffles. I was down for the count, bound and straddling the altar. Yes, at least a bit of that. When this touched my tongue, I know that my sheep eyes grew three times as large.
There was nothing to be done. I gave in completely and emptied my wallet and filled my basket. The carrots were buried under an avalanche of cheeses.
And long after the party last Sunday at which everyone ate their fill, I am still working my way through the block of gouda infused with truffles. I have never tasted anything like it. I don’t even care about anything else this week but how long must I wait again until I can reasonably sit down and eat more of the truffle-cheese.
The carrots are still on the counter, considerably less fresh than they were last weekend. I ate one on Friday night, and they are very good, but no match for the cheese. And I have probably gained 3 kilos in 6 days.
So I am putting the Skinny French on notice: Either stop the cheesemaking or regulate these predatory samples-as-sales-tactics. Or, perhaps there is a third option: Stop the fat-shaming outright, because really, a man can only resist so much truffle-infused anything before even a single thigh is not going to fit into a common European pants size.
You have your choice, right there, France. This is where past meets future. I am drawing a line, even if it’s a wider line at the waist than it used to be – and growing.
And that reminds me that I need also to get a larger shopping basket.