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Friday, 13 February, 1998, 16:43 GMT
Bon Appetit - A taste of cruelty
Kevin Connolly
BBC correspondent Kevin Connolly reports from Paris and, not surprisingly, loves French cuisine. However, there are some aspects of French cooking which make an Englishman's eyebrows rise. So one day, after a good meal, Kevin sat back and wrote down his impressions of the French love affair with food. Over the next weeks, BBC News will publish online the four parts of his report, starting with "A taste of cruelty":

The drone of the light aircraft's engines stuttered and fluctuated in the choppy tropical air. A flock of brilliant red and blue birds disturbed by the sudden turbulence rose from the treetops of the rain forest and dived and wheeled away like petals caught in a storm.

Seen from above, the green roof of the jungle in the trackless lands where French Guyana meets northern Brazil is so smoothly shaped and densely packed it looks like a head of broccoli.

You hope of course, as the plane yo-yos into its descent, that one of the world's great wildernesses will provoke some slightly more profound reflection than that, but soon the flight is swallowed up in the gloom where the forest meets the evening cloud and you are down.

I used to think the Russians were the world champions at naming things after people - some friends of mine in Moscow even lived in a street named after Lenin's little brother - but then I had never been to Maripasoula before. It is in truth no more than a crowded clearing on the banks of the slow-moving Maroni River, but it has a Mayor's office and a kind of police station.

The airport consists of a long strip of erratically mown grass and a shelter fashioned from four sawn-off telegraph poles with a thatched roof built across the top. Nonetheless, it proudly bears the name of Lucien Vauchel, a minor civil servant. You wonder idly who in Paris is paid to decide that someone is important enough to have something named after them, and yet irrelevant enough that it should be the featureless airfield in this god-forsaken outpost of empire.

Once it was a prison colony where until the late 1950s France sent its criminals into penal servitude in the mosquito-ridden jungles of South America.

One of the books I had brought with me to while away the sleepless nights under the mosquito netting was "Papillon", the celebrated story of escape and endurance written by one of the few men to break out of France's brutal camps. You might remember the film of the book, which starred Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman and which was repeated on telly so often when I was growing up people of my generation thought it was a serial.

It had appealed to me in a posey kind of way to read the book in the place that inspired it. You see the idea - you read "Anna Karenina " in Russia or "Of Mice and Men" in California, although come to think of it maybe Disneyland would be more appropriate for "Of Mice and Men".

I lay down to sleep in a bungalow by the river where the nocturnal sounds of insects the size of Alsatian dogs drilled into the dark, sweaty silence. This is a country of 1950s black and white horror movie wildlife. A mosquito bite on my foot left me with a lump so big I could not fasten my shoe over it.

And the damaged stuffed spider I brought home as a present for my son turned out to be so rare our local museum had it photographed when we took it round for repairs to its broken legs.

Quickly, though, "Papillon" became more annoying than even the buzzing, sweltering, velvety darkness. The author, as they used to say in Ireland, was behind the door when modesty was given out. I suppose nowadays you would have to put it differently but, whatever, when they programmed his personality software the self-effacement chip went down.

If you have never read the book, he was a crook condemned - wrongfully of course - to a lifetime of penal servitude in the French tropical prison colony, which included the offshore isolation unit at Devil's Island. If he is to be believed, he made one of history's great escapes, followed by one of this century's great ocean voyages by open boat. The only problem is, he cannot help telling you so himself.

"Quickly, the others came to see me as a natural leader ... Within seconds I had fashioned a viable navigational tool from the top of a bean tin ... She was a simple girl from the tribe who couldn't help falling in love with me."

Food fit for a president

Tiring of all this, I rummaged in my overnight bag for alternative reading material. All I had was a recipe book sent to me to review, called 'A table avec Jacques Chirac', a guide to the cooking and eating habits of a president known to measure foreign leaders by their capacities with a knife and fork.

The index included a reference to Maripasoula where the great man had once paid a visit (surely the most expensive votes ever gathered in the history of democracy) and dined off freshly caught sautéed alligator.

A recipe is helpfully provided should you ever find yourself on this man-eating version of the rubber chicken circuit. I read it with no particular intention of ever sawing my own way through a couple of handbags worth of hide on the way to the choicest steak, but it occurred to me here was proof, if proof were needed, that, as Britain has a special relationship with the United States, France has one with food.

A rival presidential candidate, Edouard Balladur, is contemptuously dismissed for having once presided over a meal, which consisted of steamed shellfish with, horror of horrors, mineral water instead of wine. Try to imagine any country other than France where that would be presented as a disqualification from holding one of the great offices of state.

Two recipes are presented for a robust country stew known as seven-hour leg of lamb. Mr Balladur's simple, low calorie version is detailed with scorn. Mr Chirac's version has a list of ingredients twice as long which reads as though it should only be served with a cardiac resuscitation team on standby in the room next door to you.

In France, more than anywhere else, you are what you eat and the unspoken subtext of the book is that Jacques Chirac is a 'good bloke' with tastes deeply rooted in the traditions of "la France profonde". This is the parallel France of the imagination to which the French are deeply attached, a land of apple-cheeked farmers' wives effortlessly knocking out simple but faultless three course meals twice a day.

A lasting fondness for the most basic of foods in even the most exalted of restaurants is perhaps the clearest reminder of this. It is by no means unusual to find pigs' trotters or ox cheeks in even the most expensive of places. You almost feel that in some parts of France there are enough wildlife components on the menu to give you a sporting chance of putting a whole animal back together again.

Anyone for steak and kidney pie?

In Britain we rejoice in the prosperity which has allowed us by and large to abandon the insides of animals - liver and kidneys - and slowly work our way outwards to the bits where the steaks are concealed.

The chitterling sausage, for example, is fashioned from the lower intestinal tract of some unfortunate beast and has about it - forgive me - an unmistakable smell of something's bum. I have never seen one in England, although apparently they were popular in the early part of this century, particularly the parts when global war interrupted supplies of more edible food.

But the chitterling in its French incarnation, the Andouillette, remains a daily part of life all over France, served with mustard where you might think some kind of deodorant would be more appropriate.

The taste for body parts runs very deep. At one state dinner I was served a pig's ear, nestling weirdly on a pile of warm shredded red and green cabbage. It was the oddest thing I'd ever been given, with the possible exception of a shelled tortoise I once ate in China which looked amazingly like a translucent balloon stuffed with jelly.

The ear was a much sterner test of character though, in the sense that it was all I could do not to lean down and start whispering into it confidentially.

Part of the point I suppose is that there is a certain hypocrisy about our attitude to meat-eating in the English-speaking world. We eat meat of course, but we don't like the form it takes on the plate to remind us too closely of the form it once took in the farmyard or the field.

And there are limits to what sort of meat we'll eat.

Meat is meat is meat

The French were deeply and genuinely puzzled by the agonies the British went through about the export, slaughter and consumption of veal calves a few years ago. Here the debate is about what sauce to serve with them, rather than whether or not it is morally defensible to kill them at all.

The French view is simple. If you eat meat, you eat meat and that's that.

You can't have a moral argument about exactly at what point it becomes okay to kill them. It is perhaps for that reason that the national taste here is for meat to be served very rare, bordering on the badly injured rather than the lightly cooked.

They stop short - just about - of arguing that cattle used to go around in the wild building wooden stalls in darkened rooms for themselves, but the idea that animals have any rights is politely and incredulously dismissed.

During the international row over whether or not Britain should have been exporting veal calves I interviewed a trade official in the northern port of Dieppe. He listened politely but uncomprehendingly to my lengthy explanation in French about the moral and political debate raging in Britain and the national sense of anger at the way the cattle were transported and slaughtered. There was a brief silence before he answered in perfect English: "For God's sake, they're bloody animals."

Leaving Noah's Ark

You almost get the impression that if Noah's Ark had landed in England an animal support group would have been taking a collection at the foot of the ramp as the animals edged forward onto the damp ground.

If it had landed in France, the animals would have been hiding down in the hold and trying to persuade the less obviously edible species to get off first.

The ducks and the geese, if they had any sense, would have been off last of all, pretending to want a final word with Noah, that kind of thing. For it is in the production of 'foie gras' - fattened liver - that the French lack of reverence for the animal kingdom is most brutally exposed.

The theory behind it is simple. If you feed a bird enough its liver swells up and eventually it dies, but in the process the organ swells, distends and transforms itself into a densely-textured, fine-flavoured mass, one of the world's most expensive delicacies.

There is an industrialised way of producing it, in which a kind of shotgun barrel is forced down the bird's throat and a cartridge of feed is fired in five or six times a day.

The liberals in the trade only feed the birds when they ask to be fed. Unfortunately, geese and ducks are slow on the uptake and left to their own devices tend to wander around saying the equivalent of: "It only seems like five minutes since we last ate." When, of course, it is only five minutes since they last ate.

The only question I have ever heard anyone in France raise about this barbaric delicacy was whether or not one slice was enough for me.

I once spent a day on a farm where it was produced and was mildly surprised to see the nine year old son of the house wandering around in the flock of tubby, lethargic, contented ducks, pretending to wince and clasp his hand to his lower back, miming liver failure for any ducks bright enough to cotton on. I suppose he must have copied the joke from his dad but I couldn't help thinking he was already unlikely to turn out to be a vegetarian.

I asked his dad later if he saw any moral problem with the cruelty and the force-feeding. He thought for a bit and said: "Well I only feed them when they're hungry. But the problem is they're hungry all the time. Still, how can anything which tastes this good be wrong?"

Saving brussels sprouts

I have seen some terrible things in the wars and earthquakes which are the journalist's stock in trade and I have wept at the world's injustices and miseries. But I have never felt as genuinely sorry for anyone as I felt for the earnest young woman who runs the French animal rights society.

I met her as we grappled with the task of bridging the chasm between the British and the French views of the rights of the veal calf. When our interview was finished and we had recognised somewhere in the torrent of emotion a clip of 20 seconds or so which fairly represented her views, she and I stood chatting while the business of filming was finished off.

I asked her what it was like working as an advocate for the rights of the animal in France. She thought for a while and said: "Try to imagine someone starting up a popular front for the liberation of the brussels sprout in Britain, and it's like being in charge of that."

Eating by the book

I finished President Chirac's recipe for a simple omelette, which calls for a dozen eggs by the way, and then his cookbook joined "Papillon" on the floor beside the bed. I turned the lights off and listened to the screaming and buzzing of night-time in the rain forest.

The following day it rained like it must have rained the day Noah built the Ark in the first place. The storm was so heavy and sustained it turned day into grey, steaming, stinging night.

Filming was impossible. It was like being in one of those souvenirs you shake to produce a snowstorm around a famous monument inside a little plastic capsule. The rain appeared to be coming from the sides and even falling upwards. There was no escaping it.

Unable to work, we sat chatting with the gendarmes for a while and talked about cars and beers and the other things men talk about with other men because they think they have to rather than because they want to. We lapsed into a companionable silence while the rain thundered and splashed into the courtyard of the police compound and in the duty office we pondered the art of making cocktails from white rum and sugar syrup.

Mooching around near the bookshelf I found a guidebook to the wildlife of French Guyana. I pulled it down and leafed through it, admiring the sensitivity and draughtsmanship of the line drawings showing sloths and mantises, monkeys and anteaters.

All were rare and lovely and, captured in those pages, had a vulnerability that made even the ugly ones seem rather beautiful. Beside about three quarters of the creatures listed there was a large, pencilled tick.

Two sergeants were looking over my shoulder by now. I told them - and I meant it - that I admired the commitment and sense of place that led them to note down the different animals they'd seen and observed.

There was a long, embarrassed silence.

One of the sergeants gently took the book from me, closed it and stopped me from making even more of a fool of myself. "They're not the ones we've seen," he said. "They're the ones we've eaten."


Kevin Connolly: Bon Appetit - A taste of cruelty (Dur: 15')
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