People ask me sometimes what I miss from my home country that I can’t get here. Actually, people who have never lived abroad almost never ask that — I think it’s hard to imagine a grocery store that stocks different products, or a dryer without a vent. But people who have been through this before understand that one of the downsides, even if a small one, of not living where you were born is the fact that certain things just can’t be had.
When we lived in Germany before, I had access on post to the commissary (grocery store) and PX (like Wal-Mart). There were a few products that I had bought at home that the commissary didn’t stock, but for the most part, everything American was available. And if you couldn’t get it from the PX, there was always Amazon, which had some kind of deal with the military postal system. If you ordered a Halloween costume from Spirit Halloween, it would take 4-6 weeks to get there, but if you ordered it from Amazon, it would get there in two weeks, tops. And pretty much anything can be had from Amazon. So at least that part of life didn’t look very different — we still had Charmin toilet paper and Hellman’s mayonnaise.
This time, things are different. I don’t have access to a commissary or PX, and many products on Amazon.com aren’t available for shipment to France, and shipping costs are prohibitive anyway. There is an Amazon.fr, but it’s a completely different site with a different selection of products, and predictably, it doesn’t carry many English-language products. This affects not just books and movies, but also computers — did you know that French computers have a keyboard with the letters in a different order? QWERTY is not an international norm. It doesn’t seem like this would be a big deal, until you try to type on one. Our grocery store has a tiny section of “international” products, but they’re all aimed at the local British expat community, so it’s great if you want things like Marmite or lemon curd. So when I go back to the States, I stock up on things that I’ve discovered matter to me that I can’t get here. Last time I just bought a second suitcase at Target to haul everything back.
Given what we do for a living, I guess it’s not surprising that food items rank at the top of list of things that I miss. You would think that everything could be had in France, and there’s no doubt that in balance, I prefer having easy access to artisanal charcuterie and cheeses, amazing wines, boulangeries with the best breads and pastries in the world, etc. I could go on and on, and it’s a good thing that I lose weight during the high season, because during the off season, I’m really fattening up.
But you’d be surprised at what you can’t find. Take salt, for example. Salt is critical to us; it goes in literally everything we make at the restaurant. Of course salt is available in France, and if you want a nice Maldon flaky sea salt for finishing, that can be found at the grocery store, or even at Metro, the restaurant wholesale warehouse. But try to find Kosher salt. I like Kosher for the grainage of it, it melts quickly, and I’m used to the feel of it in my fingers when I’m seasoning. It doesn’t have iodine in it, which affects flavor. I knew that maybe we wouldn’t be able to find the same brand, but it never occurred to me that as a type of salt, Kosher wouldn’t be available. But we can’t find it anywhere. Flexibility is required when relocating to a new country, so I thought, I can do this, I’ll just find a substitute. First I bought a sea salt that turned out to be too moist, and it wouldn’t sprinkle evenly out of my fingers. Fast forward to 15 containers of different types of salt in my pantry, and I came back from the U.S. with six pounds of Morton Kosher salt in my second suitcase. There would have been more if the suitcase hadn’t been full of books.
Bacon is another problem. They do have a product here called bacon. It’s labeled “Bacon,” which is an English word if I’m not mistaken, and it comes in packages of five slices. Yes, five, so that’s a serving size of one, I guess. But when the package is opened, you can see immediately that nothing is right. The strips are too narrow and are paper thin. They’re also super-lean, so they don’t cook right in the pan because not enough fat is rendering, leaving you with overcooked spots and raw spots. And when you taste it, that’s all wrong too, because it’s way under-salted and under-smoked. When my son cooked bacon for himself the first time here in France, he came to the restaurant and said, “What was that? That wasn’t bacon. That bacon is a lie.” The last package I bought didn’t even look like bacon.
That was the last straw. I knew from buying lardons, which is like thick-cut bacon already cut into small pieces for cooking, that there had to be a bacon-like product out there, because lardons taste like bacon, just in pieces.
I scoured the refrigerated sections looking for un-cut-up lardons, but couldn’t find anything like it. Then one day at the market in Moutiers, I needed lardons for a pasta dish and bought some poitrine fume (fume = smoked; it also comes unsmoked, but who would want that?) at a meat stall. Dominik said that it was pork belly, but it looks just like bacon, or close to it. It is from the belly of a pig, but doesn’t have the ultra-thick rind of fat on top that I associate with pork belly as we see it in the U.S. I cut it up and fried it as the sauce base that night, and I learned the hard way that the skin layer on top isn’t edible. I also didn’t notice that there were pieces of cartilage, because there isn’t cartilage in bacon. But I bought another batch of poitrine at the Super U and fried it up this morning for breakfast. And guess what — it’s BACON, people! It’s un-cut-up lardons. It’s salty and smoky and unctuous with fat and everything that bacon is supposed to be. And you can buy it in whatever weight you want — a half-kilo is just about a pound, so I don’t feel weird checking out at the grocery store with six or eight packages of bacon.
So you do have to trim the skin off and cut out the cartilage, but there’s not much I won’t do for the smell of bacon frying in the morning.
Copyright 2018, Rachel Howard