Seduced by French food. Tuesday, Jul 3, 2001
This year I joined those who have a mid-winter swim. I stood waist deep in water and looked back at the land. Behind me I heard the rolling waves crashing onto the reef. Beside me the water was deep azure blue but ahead it softened into turquoise where it ran over the white coral sand, to lap on the beach. There, the lazy bending coconut palms divided the warm lagoon
This year I joined those who have a mid-winter swim. I stood waist deep in water and looked back at the land. Behind me I heard the rolling waves crashing onto the reef. Beside me the water was deep azure blue but ahead it softened into turquoise where it ran over the white coral sand, to lap on the beach. There, the lazy bending coconut palms divided the warm lagoon water from the dark green lush vegetation that ran right up the mountainsides.
Above that the dark rocky, mystical peaks pointed to the heavens and snagged the cotton wool clouds. Looking down into the water, through the reflections of those clouds, the masses of coral offered a safe haven to hundreds of multi-coloured fish that drifted around, none too concerned by my presence. I lay on the surface and cruised around marvelling at nature's adaptation of colour to the light and the surroundings. This was no hellish icy dip off the shore of New Zealand. I was in heaven. I was in the Tropics. I was in Tahiti.
Tahiti is the main island in the Society Island group, which is situated a little above the Tropic of Capricorn, about 5 hours flying from Auckland. These islands are every bit as magical as the travel brochures and calendars depict. The air is humid and the temperatures in the twenties to thirties in the cool time of the year. I was visiting my daughter so had a guide and translator who made every effort to show the places and sights that every conscientious visitor should see.
We enjoyed the Paul Gauguin museum; we toured two islands; we saw a pearl farm, a vanilla plantation and a turtle sanctuary. We ate at the roulottes, we dined on French fare at beautiful restaurants, and even had lunch on a motu where fish was grilled on an open fire. We visited marae and learned a little of the local history. We flew over or visited other magical islands like Moorea, Bora Bora, Huahine, Raiatea and Taaha and gained some of the natural history of the area.
With so much thrill and excitement packed into the few days there, it surprised me that one of the major highlights for me was a super market! This was a French style hypermarche, which could be likened to a K Mart and a Foodtown store rolled into one. The cool temperature inside the building provided a soothing break from the outside air, enabling easy movement and relaxed thinking.
It was the food section that provided the excitement, partly because the French make an art of food and its presentation, and partly because supermarkets worldwide are the climax of the promoters' and advertisers' art. Surreptitiously one is encouraged to buy by the clever use of lighting, placement on the aisles, careful stacking and the soothing climate. More blatantly the labels have irresistible colours or names that stir the imagination. The displays are mouth watering or the specials are such a bargain that they cannot be passed.
On entered the building I had no need for loyalty to any brand, country or label and was free to just browse. The cheeses always cause the mouth to water but this display of huge Brie rounds, large Emmentals, Gruyeres, Goudas, Camemberts, Vieux Lilles as well as other European lines looked resplendent.
It was the first shipment in since the foot and mouth outbreak in France. Australia had benefited from the temporary border closure and managed to have a good cheese selection on one shelf. The red meats were mainly New Zealand sourced and appeared as an offering of more select cuts than the chunky business like lines in N.Z. Still they were tidily and invitingly arrayed.
The salami, black sausage and the like hung side by side, both short and long, straight and bent, some white powdered, others in netting web, beside the hams, corned beef and bacons.
The patisserie had to be drooled over. I don't associate the French or Polynesian taste with sweet foods but this showed how wrong I was. Little tarts to flamboyant gateaux adorned the shelves. Fresh rolls, croissants, plain or chocolate, and endless metres of fresh baguettes awaited their short-lived destiny.
Baking in the store is not just about convenience it also provides an aroma that overcomes the customer's self-control. The chocolate section was full of European labels that depict such scenes as Swiss mountains or the Pyrenees, and ranged from darkest dark to the white of the mountain snow, each offering blends of an assortment of nuts or dried fruit. Incredible arrays of small tinned delicacies were stacked regimentally along the shelves, well suited to the French desire to eat small quantities in each of several courses.
These included the usual products like mushrooms, olives and beans, extending through to frogs' legs, pate and snails. Bottles peas, carrots and roast chestnuts all begged to be taken home. The wine was mainly French so carried all those historical names like Bordeaux, St Emilon, or Loire and depicted on their labels the chateaux from which they came. Naturally the fresh fruit section was full of local produce like huge grapefruit, papaya, avocados, pineapples, bananas and breadfruit but green peppers, garlic and salad vegetables were stacked in precarious pyramids ready for the lighter meals of the warm climate.
I felt like I was swimming, as I had been about an hour before, but not looking at coloured coral and radiant fish but at shelves and food. I was bathed in a comfortable atmosphere and was staring in amazement at the range of colours, names and labels. I fantasised about someone by each product telling me about the gathering and production of each item.
A wine maker telling of the vines on stony sun drenched French hillsides and the aging of each bottle deep in the bowels of a huge chateau; a cheese maker covering the salting and storage of the Maroilles gris, or the ripening of the Cantal; or a truffle hunter recounting tales of finding those fungal nuggets. I would probably by-pass the salami and pate de foie gras makers but a round jolly baker would make up for that as he expounded on the art of easing the chocolate into 'pain de chocolat'.
On returning to New Zealand I made a point of going to a large supermarket and realized then that I had really only been seduced by those wretched marketers. The local had most of the lines but sourced from home or other places. New Zealand wines probably match the French selection I had seen; only the names don't have a mystical ring to one who is used to them.
The cheeses are nearly all there but made with stainless steel plant, and pasteurised milk in New Zealand. They're good enough to have won prizes all over the world. The fish display looked more like an accident on the wharf and lacked the colour and freshness needed but I pray that this was not a usual display. There were less small specialty tins and pots, but both the bakery and delicatessen sections were full and just as aromatic.
New colours, foreign labels, unfamiliar displays and different climatic needs had excited me to the point of leading me astray.Seduction it may have been but I have no regrets because enjoyed every minute.