There are many things to love about France. Everybody knows about the scenery, the café culture; the fact everyone appears to be so chic. There’s the joie de vivre, the wine and the food, but well, have you considered … crisps?
“Chips” (pronounced “sheep”, or even “sheeps”), as they are called here, arrived from the USA late in the 19th century. It was actually the French who introduced them to the UK, early in the 20th century, where the British named them “crisps” to avoid confusing them with “French fried potatoes” or “chips” (pronounced “chips”). Are you still with me?
The other day, I was wandering down the snacks aisle of E Leclerc in Limoux – the largest and best supermarché within a sensible distance of Puivert – when it struck me I wasn’t simply looking at a selection of crisps. There was the usual choice of traditional, hand-cooked, ridged and reconstituted genres; but what struck me most was the veritable gallery of flavours. Row-upon-row, shelf-after-shelf of different seasonings were laid out before me, with something for everyone.
Don’t misunderstand me, in the UK there is a pretty decent choice – but the French have elevated the game to a completely different level. Forget the simplicity, or even naïveté, of staples such as Ready Salted, Cheese and Onion, and Salt and Vinegar. Indeed, let’s also disregard the more sophisticated Mature Cheddar and Red Onion, Bacon and Maple Syrup or Goat’s Cheese and Caramelised Onion. I’ll even implore you to overlook Worcestershire Sauce and Sundried Tomato; because, we have “cèpes” flavour!
Cèpes flavour trumps everything. It is the smart-bomb of crisp flavourings. It destroys all others. It’s a blanket attack – no stealth, no subtlety, just an explosion of wonder on the tongue. And the most surprising thing is that cèpe (in English “cep”) is a type of mushroom!
Mushrooms and Pharmacies
In France, mushrooms are considered mysterious and wonderful – there are about 35,000 types; with most freely available in woodland, fields, on river-banks and in other out-of-the-way places. But how many edible species are there? How many poisonous ones are there? How should I know? The answer is simple. Having picked your mushrooms (or other fungi), take them along to your pharmacist, who is trained to recognise which are local delights, and which will kill you. Just bowl up with your basket and the pharmacien(ne) will sort them for you – free of charge.
A warning here: picking your own wild produce is something shrouded in secrecy. It is considered quite impertinent to ask where somebody harvests their mushrooms, or other foraged items. While out walking the other day, Marianne and I bumped into one of our neighbours, who proudly showed us the bag of blackberries she had just picked. “Where did you find those?”, I innocently asked. “Oh, here and there,” she answered, rather stiffly. Lesson learned.
Anyway, back to the humble cep. Well, to start with, “humble” pays it something of a disservice. The cep is a flavoursome thing, found in woodland. Prized in soups, pasta and risotto it goes by a multitude of names around Europe, from the Ancient Roman “hog mushroom”, to “the noble mushroom” of Austria, and “squirrel’s bread” in Holland. It is low in fat and carbohydrates and high in protein – with a flavour “nutty and slightly meaty, a smooth, creamy texture and a distinctive aroma reminiscent of sourdough”. In other words, it’s nutritious and delicious.
Now, time to return to the subject in hand: cèpes crisps.
I first encountered these little slices of delight some months ago, while sinking a pint in the Brasserie Taproom. One of my pals had bought a packet and was offering them around. (A quick explanation is required before we proceed: it seems to be the custom, in French bars, for crisps to be sold in 125g packets – around three to four times the size of a standard UK single pack. These are supplied with a bowl to facilitate sharing. From a commercial perspective, this makes perfect sense: one person buys and shares and one or more of the others will probably want to reciprocate.) I had no idea what flavour I was being offered on this occasion, but no sooner had the first one hit my taste buds than I was hooked.
Frankly, I had never experienced anything like it. I had to try a few more. It took a while to recognise that I was – in fact – eating a mushroom-flavoured snack and to my shame, I cleaned up the rest to the exclusion of my drinking partners. “And that, your Honour, is how it all started”, as they say. There was only one solution, I approached the bar and bought another packet, which we all tucked into heartily. Nowadays, we are never without a packet or two in our cupboard, and woe betide anyone who finishes the last packet without putting them on the shopping list!
It appears it is not just me who has been seduced however; one of our gîte guests from the UK this summer (Hi, Andy!) took several packets home with him. He says he can’t wait to come back to Puivert; whether because of the quality of the accommodation or the quality of the crisps I’m not entirely sure… but I have my suspicions.
That’s all for the present, thank you so much for reading this far.
It would be remiss of me not to thank everyone who read my last blog, or to fail to express my gratitude to those who took the time to comment on or share it. Merci beaucoup, mes chers amis.
As ever, please feel free to share this mental perambulation and let me have your feedback – either in the comments section on social media or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Commenting here on the website will be available soon.
© Alan R Price, 2019