“So French.” It’s a compliment. For just about any other nation, it would probably be accompanied by a roll of the eyes and a groan – “So Australian.”, “So British”, “So American.” But the French have somehow put a stamp on their style, bonding it to the country’s name with a cordon bleu and wrapping them both up in antique lace that still manages to fit in a modern society.
It seems to me that the French can make anything beautiful. Does it go without effort? As much as I would like to think that décor is in the blood, I don’t believe this is so. The French are artists – each and every one of them, to some small degree, and it’s not entirely nature, but also nurture. It seems that for as long as the French have been calling their sons Louis, taste, or goût, has been instilled in progeny.
In Australia, we “set the table”. In french, the term translates as “perform art of the table”. They don’t have “knick-knacks” or “trinkets”, they have “objects of art”. Even waiters and truckies only hang original paintings, and every little part of visible life is selected with care. I discovered that even street art is distinctly polished and a la mode in Saint-Remy de Provence.
In 2010, UNESCO declared that L’art de la table was an intangible cultural treasure that needed to be preserved and protected. It’s more than just the food, and it’s more than just the table setting. It’s an observance of all the elements that go into the perfect meal – the order of courses, the balance of the wine, the presentation, the service, gastronomy at every level. And it doesn’t have to be fancy – it just has to be perfect.
I remember, once, trying to leave a friend’s apartment in the 5th in Paris with a plastic bag full of picnic items for the Luxembourg gardens. She was horrified. It did not matter that our plates were paper, our lunch was bread and ham, or our wine was a three-euro screwcap. The whole prospect of walking down the street with a plastic bag in hand was abhorrent. We finally left the house with a basket, rug, napkins, and a change of outfit for me – us Australians just really don’t know how to dress for a picnic. I remember laughing and asking why it mattered. She had looked as shocked as she first had when eyeing the plastic bag. “We just. Don’t. Do. That.” She had said. Mauvais goût on my behalf (bad taste).
It’s one of the reasons France appeals so strongly to tourists. Of course, there’s natural beauty, but it’s no better than many surrounding countries. It’s the way they wrap it up – the perfectly sculpted vineyards, the tidy ruined castles, the wooden shuttered windows, the excessive use of crystal glassware and table linen, aperitifs, digestifs, the breaking of bread over a lined basket, the merging of beauty, quirk and history in every single view. I find that every time I cast my eye in a different direction, the view is framed like a purposeful photograph.
France truly is an object d’art.