Sylvains father likes to think of himself as an amateur wine buff, and has a large cave filled with several thousand bottles of wine. Luckily for us, he can't drink it all, and each time we visit, we return with several boxes of very good wine which needs-to-be-drunk-immediately-otherwise-it-won't-be-good-anymore-here-have-another-case-no-we-really-have-enough-no-i-insist-oh-ok. This means that we very rarely need to buy wine, except when we're visiting certain regions of France and can't help but bring it back with us (our visit to Alsace last summer? 8 cases!), and when I need wine for cooking. Goodness knows it would be grounds for divorce if I dared use my FILs precious wine for cooking.
It's actually an advantage, because wine bottles here are confusing. They're covered in details about where the wine was grown, what region, what wineyard, what year, etc. etc. etc. To amateurs of wine this is not a problem (and many a French person will be able to decipher labels with ease, I think it's in their genes), but for a foreigner it can be intimidating.
When I arrived here, I knew that Very Good Red Wine was supposed to come from Bordeaux. But stand in front of the Bordeaux aisle at the supermarket or your local Nicolas and it's not easy to make a choice. Australian bottles of wine are labelled primarily with the name of the producer and then type of wine - Shiraz, Cabernet, etc. Here, whilst you're inundated with information about the former, it's virtually impossible to know the latter.
When, whilst examining a bottle of wine at dinner one evening, I voiced my confusion about the type of wine it was supposed to be, Sylvain's mother explained to me that you just know.
I replied, "but how?"
She responded with a shrug, "well... you just know..."
I'm not the only one who has a problem with wine labels. The Powers That Be here in France have recognised that such labels are very intimidating to the competetive overseas markets (it's clear what one will choose that when presented with a choice of a clearly labelled bottle of australian or californian wine and a confusing French one), and are setting about rectifying this problem. I understand that they're suggesting to the winegrowers to simplify their labels - either that, or they will continue to see the repercussions in their diminishing sales.
I have the same problem with certain French foods. Look on a menu in a standard Brasserie and they'll almost certainly feature several of the many magificent typical French dishes. The problem is that the French are so used to these dishes, and they know what they are. Unless you're in a touristy restaurant, there will rarely be a little line of text underneath the menu item saying exactly what is in it.
One of my first work lunches consisted of a group of us going to a local Brasserie. I spotted the item, "Blanquette de veau".
I asked my colleagues,"What is a Blanquette?"
"Veal!" they replied.
"I like veal," I thought. "Let's give it a go!"
My plate arrived, piled with pasta, veal and covered in a mushroom sauce.
Mushrooms are my most loathed food, and nary a mushroom passes my lips if I can help it.
"You never said there were mushrooms in it," I exclaimed in horror. "It wasn't written on the menu!"
"But that's what a Blanquette is, madame," my colleagues and the waiter explained.
"But how was I supposed to know?" I argued. "You never said there were mushrooms in it when I asked."
"That's just what it is," they replied.
I ate the rice that hadn't been touched the sauce, pushed the pieces of veal around the plate half-heartedly, and when we left the restaurant, I went and bought a sandwich.
The French are reknowned the world over for their knowledge of good food and their good wine. But they're not always willing to share it.