Eating like a French girl
Xanthe Clay is one of Britain’s most respected food writers. She writes regularly for the Telegraph and also for delicious. magazine.
I was three, playing alone in our North London garden while my elder sisters were at school, on a grey summer day. My mother appeared from the basement kitchen carrying a plate. This, she said, was a Petit Suisse for me, which I could eat like little French girls did.
Petit Suisse? I perched at the top of the steps and examined the white melamine dish, holding this exotic food, fromage frais, that I’d never heard of. There was a small white cylinder, smaller than the egg cup that held my breakfast egg, and a diminutive heap of white sugar. White and white on white. The trick was, my mother explained, to take a teaspoonful and dip it in the sugar, then eat it.
She returned to the kitchen and I was left sitting there, the concrete slab cold through my cotton dress. Better try a bit: maybe it would taste like the blocks of ice cream I knew so well, comfortingly flavoured with cardboard from the wrapper. Or those jelly-mould shaped tubs of strawberry mousse that came from the freezer in Sainsbury’s.
''Better try a bit: maybe it would taste like the blocks of ice cream I knew so well''
YUK. It wasn’t like that at all, this white stuff. It was sour and bitter, creamy but oddly dry too, the sugar gritty and curiously un-sweet in contrast. I was bemused.
“Why did you give me this?” I asked my mother, curiously rather than resentfully. She wasn’t given to spontaneous gestures or indeed proffering snacks in between meals. “Because I thought you’d like it,” came the answer. This was more confusing still. I hadn’t liked it, not one bit. But as I returned to digging in the gravel around the lilac tree, I thought about how it tasted to me, and how it tasted to those little French girls.
It was years before I ate fromage frais again, and now I rather like it. And it still makes me think.