When it comes to national pride the Italians and the French are quite similar. Both nations boast that they are the best. While talking with my Italian friends I’ve observed that this means ‘the best’ at everything. They have the best food, the best drivers, the prettiest women, the best education. But it seems the stickler is always the food. And that’s where the French believe that they have the edge. They are the same in that sense. But their attitudes when it comes to proving this claim is quite different.
In order to prove my point, I have two contrasting experiences to share. The first was when I was working in Italy. One evening, a colleague of mine took me to a restaurant he knew for dinner. He was a proud Italian and quite typically Italian in a lot of ways; confident, quick to smile, quicker to laugh and incredibly opinionated. But when we arrived that evening, I soon realised it was a seafood restaurant.
“You know I’m vegetarian. Right?”
“No worries. I know the chef. And he’s the best.”
The best. Of course. Because I was in Italy, with an Italian and everything was the best of the best. A vegetarian in a seafood restaurant. How embarrassing.
When the waitress came over to ask for our orders, I let my colleague take the reins. And he launched into what seemed to be a long, very charming anecdote (all in Italian of course) with this woman who was absolutely delighted by it. He briefly turned and gestured to me, I nodded awkwardly, and she disappeared into the kitchen.
When she returned, she reassured me that the chef was excited for this challenge and was there anything I didn’t like. I was stunned. In most situations like this, someone half-heartedly suggests something already on the menu with most of the ingredients taken out or I have to apologetically ask if they can make some plain pasta but not today.
My Italian colleague was absolutely chuffed with himself. And while he tucked into all his seafood dreams – he had been to this restaurant many times – the waitress served me my very own vegetarian creation. It was a potato gratin with truffle shavings on top, accompanied by fresh salad. Not having been educated at Eton, I had never tried truffles before. It was heavenly and the gratin was light and creamy.
Expecting some classic Italian pasta or pizza to be casually thrust in front of the fussy customer, this was a dream. Italian food is some of the best in the world and they really do love to show off to the best of their abilities.
Then we have the French
In stark contrast, the French already know that their food is the best and therefore, they don’t have to prove it to you. Home to the Michelin star system, Le Cordon Bleu cookery school and world renowned for its wines and cheeses. You’ll get what you’re given, and you’ll agree that it is the best.
This means if you try to make any slight change to suit your dietary requirements, you aren’t met with the same excitement I found in Italy. Why change the recipe if it’s already the best of the best? Even the simplest of requests can be met with complete bemusement.
My parents came to visit me in France, and I took them for a night out in Rennes. We walked around the centre, saw the sights etc and then made a dash for the nearest terrace for an aperitif. When the waiter came over to take our order, I asked him about the wine on my parents behalf and then followed it up by saying,
“Nous sommes végétariens. Serait-il possible de prendre le fromage sans la charcuterie?”
I was essentially asking for some cheese to go with our wine and the only thing I could see on their menu was the charcuterie board that came with cheese. He gave me a very strange look and I assumed my French was wrong, so I tried to say it a couple of different ways.
He replied that he wasn’t sure if that was possible. Laughing, I told him he could just take the meat off the plate and we would have the cheese that was left. He really hesitated. I had visibly upset him. I even said we would pay full price if he would kindly see what he could do. Yes, I’m too polite, I’m British.
Finally, he mumbled something about talking to his colleague and walked away. My parents asked me what was wrong. I had no idea. Our wine arrived no problem and about 5 minutes later a cheese board followed. And it was lovely, 4 or 5 different cheeses, olives, and bread. Perfect. I thanked him far too many times when he brought it over but honestly, his face was a picture. He looked at me once he’d put it on the table as if to say,
“Are you sure you don’t want the meat? Something isn’t right about this.”
How dare we enjoy French cheese without gracing our tongues with its finest cold cuts of meat? Hilarious.
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A travel and lifestyle blog. By me, Lydia. I'm based in Brittany, France and I am here to share an honest and informative account of my life here.