Tuesday, 31 July 2012

The Tripe will out

So, why am I thinking about tripe?

On Sunday night, Pink and I collected ‘la baby-sitter francaise’ (‘la BF’) from the airport: a quiet and very sweet girl, the daughter of a friend of a friend, who is staying with us for 3 weeks in what is hopefully going to be a mutually beneficial arrangement. She will provide me with some child care and we will speak English with her.

The visit didn’t get off to a hugely successful start from my perspective as I arrived at Southampton airport to realise that there was no flight due in from Perpignan (the airport I had anticipated she would fly from) and that it was some weeks, nay months, since I had seen a photo of her... I managed to quash increasingly panicked visions of having to leg it back to Heathrow, or some other airport, while an angry French Madame hounded me on the phone (I have no idea if her mother is likely to be an angry French Madame, but I suppose I’d be pretty mad if someone left my teenage daughter stranded at a foreign airport), and my fears were unfounded as she eventually appeared on the flight from Beziers. Anyway, despite that, and her not surfacing till approximately 10.30 in the morning, the visit seems to be going well. Blue, who behaved beyond embarrassingly last summer when we had a different BF to stay with us, appears to have taken a shine to her (or, at least, decided not to take against her) and Pink is positively enthralled, especially as she produced presents of untold glory (vis wooden bead jewellery) on arrival.

I hope la BF will feel welcome and enjoy her time with us. Her English is just about OK, and she is keen (she has brought an English novel to read with her), but I remember what it was like. I spent several happy summers from the age of 18 with a lovely but chaotic family with 6 children, travelling between Paris, Carcassone and, latterly, Nantes. Thanks to those visits, I can fend off amorous French builders, translate most of Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd, make steak & kidney pie in the searing heat of a midi summer, cope with 6 consecutive cases of chicken pox – 3 concurrent , and deal with trigger-happy gendarmes when a number plate falls off your car at a peage while travelling on the autoroute du soleil with too many kids in the car (2 hiding under blankets in the boot) and a cold box full of illegally harvested escargots de Bourgogne chomping on thyme and rosemary on their way to being roasted with garlic butter. In case you ever find yourselves in a similar situation, the answer is, sadly, cleavage...

and I can still speak pretty fluent French.

But until you find your feet (or your boobs) it can be totally bewildering. Being immersed in someone else’s family is tiring enough, let alone having to do it all in a different language.

And here is the point of my post (there was one). I have many wonderful food memories from those trips to France – the father in particular seemed to delight in seeing what he could entice ‘l’anglaise’ to eat. One night he came home with a side of salmon which he proceeded to nail to a board and cook against an open fire – Finnish style, he assured me. I have eaten snails 4 different ways, beautiful sardines – proper enormous ones, fresh from the sea and BBQ’d with their heads on so that you crunch through everything, and many other delicacies. And as much as he delighted in producing these delicacies, I prided myself on being able to rise to the challenge without flinching.

But one day, it all fell apart. Picture if you will, a blisteringly hot day: 8.30 a.m. and the cicadas were already rasping. We were camped out chez les grandparents in their beautiful country house outside Carcassone (shady terrace along the front of the house, pool in the garden). There was some excitement at the prospect of the lunch to be served up that day, and a huge earthenware casserole was produced from the freezer and ceremoniously carried into the kitchen. It was ‘des tripes’ (pronounced ‘treep’, with that roll of the ‘r’). Had I misunderstood? This was my 3rd or 4th visit to the family, and I was fairly confident with my French by then. At least twice during the morning, I was advised about the recipe and the fact that it was a regional delicacy. I had to deal with an ‘it’s so unfair’ conversation with various of the kids in my care about why the adults would get des tripes, but they would only have chicken. I was going to have to eat it.

By now, the casserole was defrosting and heating slowly on the stove (no respecters of English food safety rules, these), and as I walked passed the kitchen, I would get a waft...

it looked a little like this

Now I should probably explain that when I was a child, my mother used to feed me (and the dog) tripe and onions which she cooked in milk. My Dad was at sea. Apparently, I used to wolf it down. But then he stopped being at sea and started being at home, and things changed. I am advised by my mother (not that she’s bitter or anything) that he used to walk around making retching noises whenever she cooked it, and she soon stopped. According to her, however, I never showed any signs of not liking tripe.

And yet there I stood some 20 years later, literally frozen with panic. I was going to be presented with a plate of tripe casserole, and I just couldn’t face it. In the heat, I began to feel nauseous and sweaty at my hairline. I’d like to be able to tell you that I managed to overcome what must only have been a psychological reaction, learned from my Dad, but I couldn’t do it. And while I have a twinge of regret that I can’t regale you with some shocking but hilarious vomiting over grandmere incident, I must confess that I had to wimp out. Just before lunch was served, I had to try and explain that I simply couldn’t eat ‘des tripes’. I tried 2 or 3 times to express quite how deep this total inability to even try the dish was – I tried to communicate that I wasn’t just being a little fussy, but my language skills deserted me. All I could manage was a garbled “je ne peux pas manger des tripes” before running to the bathroom to splash cold water over my face.

All was fine. I got chicken and, to the delight of the 2 oldest children, my portion of tripes was shared between them, but I’m never quite sure that they really understood.

So if in the next 3 weeks, I start muttering about cooking something that you think will freak out la BF, stop me. I have already tried to explain to her that if there is anything she doesn’t like or doesn’t want to eat, she must tell me. But I’m not sure she has understood...

Is there anything that you really and honestly can’t eat? Any great stories? Did you actually vomit over grandmere? I’d love to hear them...


  1. Fantastic post. I had an incident on my French Exchange with a globe artichoke. I didn't hate it, I just had no idea how to eat it. How my French family laughed!! Anyway, back to tripe. I hate the stuff. When I was small I would accompany my Grandmother to the market where she would buy vast quantities of the stuff for the men in our family who would eat it with vinegar. Bleurgh...

  2. Wow R, you've had some pretty amazing french experiences. I am envious you can speak french fluently - I'm struggling and don't want the kids to be as useless as me. Think an exchange is a great idea. I stayed with a family near Paris for two weeks when I was 15. They practised their english on me so I learnt nothing. I was a vegetarian at the time, it was the 80's and they really didn't get it. I was given meat like everyone else, just a smaller amount. It took me a few days to convince them I didn't want meat AT ALL. There's no way I could eat tripe.

    1. I've been really lucky with all things French although my first exchange was a disaster. I am having to make sure i only speak English to la BF so she practices her English lots, but it's tempting to speak French, Still we've got a week in Normandy coming up, soplenty of opportunity to eat cheese, drink wine and parler francais (maybe) I try to get the kids interested but I have varying degrees of success... I will be packing them off as soon as they are old enough :-)

  3. The French certainly appreciate les tripes! http://itripes.fr/laTriperie/index.php
    Love life. Love tripe.


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