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Thanks for checking out The Aix-Files, my

blog postings inspired by my time in and around

Aix-en-Provence and the Vaucluse. The spot includes travel tips,

discoveries of local food and wine, recipes,

cultural events, interviews and historical

tidbits about Southern France. Enjoy!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

French Formalities

"Cocktail" at the Town Hall, Aix
  “Should I kiss the mayor?” This was one of the many questions I asked myself as I prepared for the “cocktail” at the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall), an event organized to welcome newcomers to Aix. As I had many tiny buttons to do up on my new French blouse, I had some time to ponder such things.

I’m still trying to figure out the tradition of kissing on both cheeks. How well should you know someone before you “faire la bise”? Which cheek do you start with? Twice or three times? Should you hold the person firmly by the shoulders, like our friends Monique and Jacques? Or lean forward, chicken-style and air-kiss with barely any skin contact? It is also very common for men to kiss if they are close friends. What really surprises me is when people “faire la bise” when they meet me for the first time.

There’s also the question of when to “tutoyer” someone. In other words, speaking to someone with the familiar “tu” form as opposed to the formal “vous” form. In any business situation, one always uses “vous”. And in the four months that we lived in Aix, we always spoke to our landlady using “vous”, even though by the end we were quite friendly.

I have been to a number of shops and businesses first thing in the morning and have watched everyone arrive, one after the other, and shake hands (men) or kiss each of their colleagues one by one before they start working. In Corsica, at breakfast at our hotel, I noticed three couples travelling together meeting for the first time that day. They went around the table and each greeted the other personally, shaking and kissing. And when I go for a hike with a group of ten or more, saying goodbye can take an awfully long time. But what do you do when you are in the company of friends mixed with new acquaintances? For example, we went to dinner at our friends’ house, Adeline and Cedric. Adeline’s parents and sister were there, too. It took some effort to remember use “tu” with our friends, but “vous” with her parents. And then at the end of the evening we hung around at the door for a very long time, because I didn’t know who to kiss.
Picnic lunch in the Verdon, bises to follow

There are also many formalities around “apéritifs”. When we arrived at the exquisite room in the Town Hall for the “cocktail”, there was an amazing array of drinks and hors d’oeuvres spread out on a long table, waiters at the ready. But everyone just stood around and chatted, no one daring to steal a bite. It turns out this is how it works. You wait until everyone has arrived, then someone offers a speech if it is a formal occasion, or someone will simply announce it is time to begin. Then everyone descends on the food platters with gusto. This also means that it is good form to arrive on time. We have been to a couple of events with larger groups, where things get very late when we have to wait for the last straggler to arrive before even ordering an apéritif.

As for the actual drinks, one is almost never offered a plain glass of wine as an apéritif, unless it is a sweet Muscat. Popular offerings include kir (a few drops of crème de cassis mixed with white wine); pastis, the licorice-flavoured drink that is mixed with water; whiskey (JB); Martini red or white (vermouth without the gin). There might also be a local specialty, such as vin de noix, or wine made from walnuts. At the truffle festival in Pernes les Fontaines they – strangely – mixed wine with cherry juice.

Apéritifs are always served with nibblies, even if it’s just olives or chips. Apéritifs at the “cocktail” were very elaborate: foie gras or smoked salmon on croutons and little puff pastries filled with or topped with things like tapenade or sausage. At the reception announcing the music line-up of the Lyric Festival of Aix the elegant appetizers even included miniature glasses (verrines) filled with couscous. At the apéritif with the mayor in our new village, La Roque sur Pernes, as part of the St. Antoine festival, they offered platters of tiny pizza squares and pissaladière.

Well, in the end, the mayor didn’t show up to the cocktail in Aix at all, so I was spared the dilemma of formalities. A representative arrived instead to give a speech. But a few weeks later Jim and I each received a personalized letter from the mayor apologizing for not being there in person and offering an explanation. Now that’s what I call formal.

Pissaladière is offered by the slice in most bakeries here, usually baked on a bread-like dough. It’s basically an onion pizza, and even though it is topped with anchovies and olives I personally find it tempting even for breakfast (but that’s just me). The toppings vary from a very tomato-ey mixture to a thick grey mass of onions, always with anchovy and a scattering of olives. I prefer a version with just a hint of tomato.

Feel free to make your own crust, but I have always had great success with pizza dough, such as from DeLuca’s in Winnipeg, or even a prepared puff pastry (pâte feuilleté). We served pissaladières at the two big going-away parties we threw before coming to France, so we feel very nostalgic about this recipe.
Thinly slice about 600 g. of onions. Add them to a large pan with some olive oil, a teaspoon of herbes de provence and a bay leaf and cook until they are meltingly tender, around 20 - 30 minutes. Meanwhile, cut a large tomato in half crosswise and grate it over a bowl to catch the juices, discarding the peel when that’s all that’s left. Add the tomato to the onion mixture during the last five minutes of cooking. Cook, stirring, until the juices are reduced. The mixture should be moist but not be watery. Remove the bay leaf. Season with salt and pepper.
Roll out your pizza dough (or puff pastry) into a rectangle and place on a large baking sheet.. Spread the onion mixture evenly on top, taking it right to the edges. Decorate it with 12 or more anchovy fillets and 12 black olives (niçoise or kalamata). Bake in a 400 degree oven until the crust is crisp and lightly golden, around 15 minutes, monitoring it carefully. Cut into squares and serve as an apéritif, either warm or at room temperature, with the drink of your choice. Bon appétit!

Frosty windows at the Town Hall, Aix
 À la prochaine,



Anonymous said...

Hi Andrea,
I thorougly enjoy your blog each time it comes. It always brightns up a dreary wet day so typical of winter in vancouver.
A charming vicarious experience is better than none.
thank you

Anonymous said...

Good morning Andrea,
LOVED receiving yr. blog this a.m.
I don't open anything else that is not a personal letter while in NZ but I DO open yr. blogs!
Re: kissing or shaking hands ... I usually wait until someone leans forward to kiss me in France. Of course I kiss my Fr. friends with ease, and I do plant a light kiss on their cheeks, as I hate the air-kiss. It seems so insincere.
Shaking hands - if in doubt extend your hand. It could be the same as in England. The woman in England is the one to decide. eg. if you are walking along a road, a man should not say gd. morning to a woman he doesn't know until she does. That is very old fashioned, but then, so are the French over some things ...........eg tutoyer, ou pas!
With older folk, I would always use vous, unless invited to tutoyer.
When in France last Feb. I used vous to my teacher, who was 26 by the way! She IMMEDIATELY asked me to use 'tu' as if I was being far too formal with vous.
If you're with young folk you could ask if you might tutoyer. They might be doing that already.
Did you buy Monet's Table?
Must look for it. Sounds delicious. To look at as well as to read.
That's it from Sandra.
NZ food is very good.
You are whetting my appetite to return to France next year sometime..