Monday, June 13, 2011

Magpie 69


A few decades ago, back when I was but a callow youth, I often thought about traveling to France.
My knowledge of the language then was -- 'ow you say? -- rudimentary. (Later I was to work in France and live in France and I became reasonably fluent, though I still manage to make my share of grammatical errors, I assure you.)
Anyway, in those days one of the things that fascinated me about that country was its cuisine. For example, I was especially interested in the dish the French called “Coquilles St. Jacques.” For some reason, the local restaurant in my American home town, although it had such gourmet specialties as cheeseburgers, didn’t have this particular item on their menu so I could only imagine what it must be like.
I began to read up on it. (Many years before Google, of course.)
“St. Jacques” is the way the French spell “St. James.” (They always had trouble with spelling. :-))

For centuries, it seems that pilgrims would make their way to the shrine of St. James in Spain, and they’d usually have a scallop shell symbol on their hat or clothes. Note the shell on St. Jim’s chest, above. There’s a legend that he had rescued a knight who had fallen into the water and who emerged covered with scallop shells.
From this came a classic French dish: St. Jim’s Shells, or Coquilles St. Jacques.
I read about this dish with great interest. I decided that when I finally got to make my trip to France I’d order it as my first authentic French meal. I learned that in its classic version some sea scallops would squat in their own half-shell, added and abetted by mushrooms and shallots and of course some white wine, all swimming in a delicious bechamel sauce and topped with bread crumbs that would brown in the oven.
I couldn’t of course be sure, but it seemed to me it might almost taste as good as a cheeseburger.

Anyway, I finally arrived in Paris: on the very first day, knowing very little French, I went to a restaurant. I was starving. I was ready to say to the waiter: “Coquilles St. Jacques – lay it on me!” I stared at the menu. I was surprised to see that it appeared nowhere on the sheet. That place offered fifty different dishes, but my favorite was definitely not there. Disappointed, I then didn’t know what to order. I wanted something typically French but I had literally no idea what any of the dishes were that were listed on that menu.
I decided to go with one of the items that seemed to be perhaps more French than anything else listed. It was "choucroute." It had such a Gallic feel to it. I could pronounce it okay, even if I didn't know what it was. I was sure it was a classic example of gourmet cuisine, a piece, as they say over there, of resistance.
When the waiter brought it to me I nearly fell off my chair. My first day in France, my first meal in a fine, expensive French restaurant, and I had not only not been able to have my St. Jim’s Shells, I had ordered -- SAUERKRAUT!
Took a few days to get over that experience. :-)

22 comments:

Shari Sunday said...

I love this story.

Kristen Haskell said...

Oh my that would be such a let down. Fantastic story and I was secretly praying that by some miracle the dish you ordered was a close second to what you wanted. I'm fairly certain it didn't even come close.

Tess Kincaid said...

This is so cool! I love the etymology here. Cute about the kraut. giggle

Kathe W. said...

oh hahah I have been at that table of yours so many many times! Whenever we travel when in doubt my sweetie will always order a Croque Monsieur- but me -? Oh no- I order specials of the day or what have you- and one time I got cold white sea snails!!! Aie yie yie.
I apologized profusely ( I did speak French ) and requested a Croque Monsieur to replace those white snails. It turns out in Brittany the French word for shrimp is also used for this regional dish. Quelle Suprise! They were very nice about it!

Brigid said...

Great story, I thought they were going to present you with a cheeseburger! Doesn't everything sound better a la Francais? Everyone's Magpies today are making me want to sit on a beach somewhere, preferably in France.

mindlovemisery said...

lol this is great I hope one day you get your dish I really enjoyed the history

Leslie: said...

The first time I ordered something to eat in France, I did okay with the food but the waitress couldn't figure out "diet Coke." Finally, she pronounced "AH! SANS SUCRE!" With a huge sigh of relief, I answered "OUI!" She was very kind about it, but sometimes the French can be quite horrified by our gaffes.

Jinksy said...

What a let down! :)

Baino said...

Haha yeh easy to do when you don't speak the lingo - I relied a lot on pointing rather than pronouncing and made sure it contained Poulet or Poisson . . .love Coquilles St Jacques too!

Sioux said...

I have been to France three times...One of my favorite places on this earth. I really enjoyed this story.

Kay L. Davies said...

Who would ever have thought someone whose name sounded like Saint Jack would turn out to be Saint James? I was sure it was Saint John.
Sigh.
I started laughing as soon as I reached the word "choucroute"! So you got a plate of sauerkraut? Quelle domage!
We had fun in France. My husband grew up in Montreal, so he has a fairly extensive vocabulary but an awful Anglophone accent. I've forgotten pretty much all the French I learned studying it for 7 years in school, but I have a good accent. LOL
— K

Kay, Alberta, Canada
An Unfittie's Guide to Adventurous Travel

Tumblewords: said...

Sometimes one just cannot trust the stuff that sounds right. ;) What an experience. I had a similar one when searching for a rich chocolate cake and came far from getting it.

Ann Grenier said...

Oops, Surprise! Nice take on the prompt, I'm still smiling.

jen revved said...

A lovely bit of flash memoir/vignette-- i've been distracted by French lately, weaving strands of it into my poems-- did you ever have the Coquille? xxxj

Berowne said...

jen r.: "Did you ever have the Coquille?"
Ah, yes, many times -- later.

Stafford Ray said...

I know what Big Ed would have done. He would have chucked the body overbeard and retrieved it a few days later, taken off the shellfish and reset the bait!

Berowne said...

Staffod Ray: "He would have chucked the body overbeard and retrieved it a few days later, taken off the shellfish and reset the bait!"
Good work, Staff'. You tied together two very disparate posts--congratulations. :-)

Oakland Daily Photo said...

Cute story. Innocents Abroad.

Lucy Westenra said...

Interesting, informative and amusing . . as usual. Thank you.

HyperCRYPTICal said...

Wonderful story - it reminds me of a visit to Bilboa. No Spanish speakers among us, we ordered something that sounded exotically Spanish - and were served squids cooked in their own ink. None of us ate it.

How squeamish - bet it would have tasted lovely!

Anna :o]

Berowne said...

Hyper: "...squids cooked in their own ink."
Yes, I remember first time I saw that phrase on a menu, "en su tinta." Made you think twice.:-)

Berowne said...

What a great collection of comments from Kristen H., Tess K., Kathe W., Brigid, Leslie, Jinksy, Baino, Sioux, Kay L. D., Tumblewords, Ann G., O D Photo and Lucy Westenra--my sincere thanks.

 
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