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Mouthing Off

French kissed: I've just returned from a two-week vacation in France, and, boy, am I pissed to be back.

Spending most of the time in Provence--and primarily eating meals we cooked in the kitchen of the house we'd rented--gave us a native's perspective on the day-to-day procuring of quality ingredients from local markets and grocery stores. I don't know why people in this country care so little about the food with which they fuel their bodies, but the difference in philosophies--and food items--was astonishing.

At some point in our recent past, U.S. agriculture was placed at the bottom of the priority list, well below technologically advanced industries that make loads of money. But what is there to spend our money on? Tomatoes that are now bred for their shelf life and tough skins rather than flavor? Eggs that are a week old by the time we buy them? Fish that's been iced down for two days before going through six middlemen to get to Denver?

The joy of eating a veritable mobile of mussels still clinging to seaweed dripping with the salty water of the Mediterranean, the unbelievable pleasure of slurping down a mound of buttery haricot verts that a farmer picked young and tender just that morning, the happiness that comes from spreading a slick of soft, ripe goat cheese so fresh it's been wrapped in nothing but wax paper wet with whey--these are the things that make life worth living, a fact that the French have known forever but one that Americans have forgotten (although some still pretend to know it). One of those stupid studies that companies in this country are always doing recently reported that, when offered the choice of living better or living longer, the majority of us chose living better. But can we live better on produce genetically altered for shipping durability?

You get the point, so instead of my belaboring it, let me share a few illustrative experiences. At first it was a little hard to get used to the way the French--and particularly the French in Provence--slice their daily bread. There's no such thing as a big breakfast of eggs and bacon, hash browns and toast with jelly; instead, they eat croissants or pain au chocolat with coffee. (Juice is not a big priority, probably because they eat so many fresh fruits at other times.) Then lunch is at noon, when every business other than restaurants closes down until about 3 p.m. After that, it's nearly impossible to get a meal out before 8 p.m., which is when everyone sits down to a three-hour meal. The breakfast part was the toughest for me, because I love eggs, but the French make up for it by offering omelettes at lunch and dinner right next to steaks and pizzas. Pizzas are huge, but they're not the kind we're used to: These are limp, squishy crusts barely coated with tomato-pasty sauce and, for a country that eats an average of sixty pounds of cheese a year per person, surprisingly little cheese.

The best way to get to know France and its food, though, is to buy the produce and cook it yourself. Although we'd been to France before, we hadn't lived in a small town and gotten the chance to really absorb the local atmosphere. People there plan their lives around the markets, which exist in every French town. We knew we could make a quick drive to get whatever we needed from which market in which town--but only until noon, when just about every market closed for the day. Until that hour, the markets were full of people haggling over the price of whatever produce they wanted, then handing it over to be weighed, then throwing their purchases into large baskets (they don't believe in having to recycle bags). Everything that we bought at these markets was mouth-droppingly flavorful--and so fresh that most of the time we didn't use sauces or even butter, because we didn't want to mask the main ingredient.

In addition to markets, French towns also have shops for nearly every food specialty. So you go to a poissonnerie for seafood; a charcuterie for deli items and gourmet carry-out, including pates and terrines; a boucherie for butchered items such as rabbit, chicken, beef and lamb, as well as fantastic house-made sausages filled with local herbs; a patisserie for pastries; and a boulangerie for bread. There's some overlap--sometimes places are both patisseries and boulangeries--but the bottom line is that the people running these shops are experts in their respected fields. There are few supermarket chains, and people go to them only when the markets are closed.

With all of this shopping and cooking, though, we did manage to eat out a few times. Our most notable meal was at a Michelin-rated one-star spot called Le Raisin, which sits in a tiny town called Pont-de-Veaux, about halfway between Provence and Paris, just north of Lyons. For about $30 per person, we ate a seven-course prix-fixe meal that started with foie gras and escargots and continued through salads, entrees, a cheese course with dozens to choose from and a twenty-choice dessert cart. The whole thing took nearly four hours, and by the time we ended, with port and Calvados, we were ready to give up U.S. citizenship.

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