The Institution of Lunch: Salads
For us, a large part of learning about and experiencing another country and culture is trying the local food. This is very evident when you look at my notebooks, as at least a quarter of the entries are about cafes, restaurants, or meals—with pictures of food and even diagrams of how something was plated, or how a salad was assembled on the plate. Another large entry is discussions about markets and the fresh produce there, or about special shopping streets. We also go into the local supermarkets to check out what’s on offer, the prices etc. And sometimes we stay in an apartment, and then it’s really fun to go shopping for groceries to cook some of our own meals.
In France especially, food and eating are a big part of the culture and of people’s lives and meals are important, especially lunch (le dejeuner). Many people eat their main meal at lunch time, and many work places have a cafeteria that serves a real 3-course meal. But, lots of people like to go out for lunch, because it’s a sociable time and most French people would be horrified if you suggested they sit in front of their computer and eat a take-out meal alone. Virtually every eating place, from very simple to fancy, will have a set lunch menu—a formule with a plat du jour (a meat and vegetable of some sort) for a very reasonable price. There are all kinds of special coupons (cheques/tickets) that help subsidize lunch (and other meals?—I’m not sure) and places will have those logos on their windows if they accept the cheques.
Many parking areas will also be free at lunch time, usually between 12 noon and 2pm. We happily discovered this in Dinan and Quimper in Brittany, where we could park from 11am-3pm and only pay a few euros. In some smaller towns, lunch is only served between certain times (often 12 noon-2 or 2:30pm) and the café may close then, or only serve drinks and snacks. We’ve been caught a few times, as in the bigger cities most places serve continuously—service continu—and we hadn’t planned the timing properly. For example, in Locmariaquer (near Auray in Brittany) where we were visiting the ancient dolmens and only emerged at 2:25pm. Another day we arrived in Morlaix in north Brittany at 1:30pm, confident we were okay for lunch. But no—turns out they stop serving at 1:30pm! Luckily, we did find a creperie that was still open.
We love lunch in France, but not usually for that plat du jour: we love the salades composes, big salads composed on the plate. There are standards, like Caesar, Nicoise, or Nordique, but often there’ll be a local or regional one, or the chef will have his/her own variation, and those are very special.
It’s a lot of fun to look at a few menus posted outside a café/bistrot/brasserie, and to decide which one to choose. But, sometimes we pick a galette and crepes, which are also verypopular, especially in Brittany. Whatever it is, we know it’ll be delicious.
We also love lunch in France (or anywhere we are traveling actually) because we are away from home and our usual hectic routines. We can be more relaxed most days and not feel guilty if we take a long, leisurely lunch (and have a small pichet of wine, usually rose)!
So, on most of our days in France, where and what to eat for lunch, and then later the same for dinner, are important questions that can anchor the day and help us plan an itinerary.
Because of this genuine interest in food, and in the quality of meals and the pairing of food and wine and cheeses, the French also have wonderful markets, and many times roaming around a local market will be a main activity for part of the day. Paris has many wonderful outdoor and indoor markets that are on different days of the week, and most other smaller towns have their own market on one day of the week (or perhaps two). Markets can probably be an entry in their own right later.