Bottoms up! Or not
This week, I’ve been thinking about why I drink less since we moved to France than I did in London, even though breakfast wine is perfectly acceptable. Plus, an on-the-go meatball recipe.
I am writing this in my notebook, on the terrace of our local bar. There is the hum and bustle of greetings, rumbling conversation, gentle laughter. Behind me, a woman is drinking a cloudy yellow glass of Ricard, her little black and white dog on her lap. To my left, two middle-aged couples are sharing a bottle of the local Picpoul de Pinet. In the middle of the terrace, a large group is drinking glasses of beer. By the door to the bar, a couple of old men drink small glasses of cognac and smoke companionably. It’s 10am and it's market day.
At my chichi farmer’s market in London, refreshments were largely restricted to single-estate coffee beans and kombucha, or water kefir if you were feeling particularly hedonistic while still invested in sparkling gut health. Conspicuous early-morning alcohol consumption might just cause your friends to stage an intervention.
But here we are, and tables of perfectly well-coiffed ladies are enjoying their copanionable breakfast wine without a hint of embarrassment or shame, chatting over the business of the week with their friends, surrounded by shopping baskets and wheelie trolleys filled with wholesome vegetables and loaves of good bread.
So by all means, have your breakfast rosé or Ricard on market day, but don’t fall over your basket.
You don’t see this scene quite so much on other days. Tuesday, market day, is the big day for crack-of-dawn (ok, crack-of-ten) liveners, but no one would frown or tut at the sight of a warming glass of red in front of you - in place of a café crème - any other day of the week. What would get them talking is any sign of public drunkenness. The Anglo-Saxon concept of binge-drinking-as-bonding is deeply frowned upon. To drink
beyond your capacity to control yourself is seen as terribly gauche, to become loud and leary in public, an anathema. The preparation of a delicious, well-made aperitif before a meal, a good glass of wine during, is an essential part of the art de vivre, those small, daily rituals threaded through life that elevate the simplest of activities into pleasure. So by all means, have your breakfast rosé or Ricard on market day, but don’t fall over your basket.
That’s the press release, at least. The French drink more than almost every other European country and while wine consumption has halved over the last 40 years – in part due to tight drink-driving regulations – at 41,000 people a year, it still accounts for the second largest number of preventable deaths after smoking.
Attempts to get the French to drink less has a long and chequered history. In the mid-1950s, Prime Minister Pierre Mendès France headed a controversial campaign, the aim of which was to encourage people to drink less than a litre of wine per meal. If at all possible. Do your best. In order to try and break the cultural and financial dependence French society had on the wine trade, Mendès France was photographed drinking milk at formal dinners, an unforgivable faux pas.
Philosopher Roland Barthes called wine France’s ‘totemic drink’. In Mythologies in 1957, he wrote: ‘Wine is seen by the French as something that belongs to them, as much as their three hundred and sixty types of cheese’. He believed that wine was so important to French culture, that anyone who spurned it could never truly be accepted. Certainly, a lot of the criticism of Mendès France was deeply antisemitic, centring on the milk-drinking minister’s Jewish faith, and claims that he was not ‘truly French’.
The hold of wine remains strong in the French imagination as much as in the glass. A recent study showed that 96 per cent of the people polled believed wine is part of France’s cultural identity.
In 1956, Mendès France did, however, succeed in banning the under 14s from drinking alcohol with their school lunches – until then, they were allowed half a litre of wine, beer or cider with their food. There are tales that some parents were so incensed, they gave their children a little pre-school booze, rather like the parents, who, during Jamie Oliver’s campaign against Turkey Twizzlers, came along at lunchtime and pushed burgers through the railings. It wasn’t until 1981 that lunchtime wine was snatched from the hands of thirsty school students under 18.
The hold of wine remains strong in the French imagination as much as in the glass. A recent study showed that 96 per cent of the people polled believed wine is part of France’s cultural identity, and 86 per cent thought it was integral to the French way of life. It accounts for 58 per cent of all alcohol consumed. And in certain quarters at least – a little in the manner of your well-intentioned granny, who might put ham in a salad for a vegetarian because ‘It’s not really meat’ – wine is seen as ‘not really alcohol’, more as an essential accompaniment to a meal. Any meal.
The fastidious and rather buttoned-up President Emmanuel Macron proudly admits to enjoying wine with lunch and dinner and caused a stir a couple of years ago when he dismissed the very unFrench idea of dry January. His agriculture minister, Didier Guillaume admitted binge-drinking was a problem before saying, ‘Wine isn't alcohol like the others…I've never seen, to my knowledge — unfortunately, perhaps — a youngster leaving a nightclub drunk because they drank Côtes-du-Rhône, Crozes-Hermitage or Costières-de-Nîmes’.
There are signs though, that times are changing. While binge drinking is becoming more of a problem, on the whole young people drink far less than their elders. Only 2.3 percent of 18 to 24 year olds drink alcohol every day, compared to 26 per cent of 65 to 75 year olds. When I sit in our local café, I am more likely to see groups of young people chatting over glasses of Coke Zero or mint syrup mixed with water than chugging back beer or wine. And it’s not a cost issue, as fizzy drinks are usually more expensive than glasses of local red.
One aspect on which everyone seems to be agreed though is that if you’re drinking wine, it should be French, ideally from down the road. While the Languedoc may once have been known for volume rather than quality, in the past few decades affordable land prices and a great climate have brought young and innovative wine makers here from all over the world, and the quality has improved considerably. The Spar shop in the village has, next to the rolls of loo paper and tins of peas, a Twelfth Century cave almost entirely full of wines from the region. In our nearest large supermarket, there are whole aisles of Languedoc wines, with some space given over to other French wines, and a few grudging corners for wines from the rest of the world, obviously viewed as minority appeal. The message is, to bastardise the famous saying of Michael Pollen, drink wine, not too much, mostly local.
A votre santé!
Putting-up-the-lights spiced Turkish-ish meatballs with French tomato sauce
This weekend, we’re putting up lights on the outside of the house, decorating the tree (it takes up half the sitting room, so it’ll take a while), and working in the garden so we need something that will warm us up and is easy to pull together. In the next few weeks, most of us will probably have days like these, so this is a great recipe to keep in your repertoire. It’s easy to double it up to eat one, freeze one, or to serve for a crowd, too.
Sometimes, I miss the Turkish restaurants of our old neighbourhood and walking down Stoke Newington High Street, breathing in the smells of roast lamb, cumin and garlic. These ‘meatballs’, really ovals, are seasoned with the herbs and spices used in Turkish köfte. The tomato sauce is cooked slowly in the way they do in this part of France, until it’s very rich and thick and has lost its bright red colour. I’ve torn mozzarella over the top and put thinly sliced potatoes at the bottom, so you can serve it as a one-pot dish. Or, of course I will never stand in your way if you want to double-carb your dinner – it’s cold out there – and serve it with rice.