Students explore culture of food in France
March 10, 2010
Every January, scores of LaGrange College students travel the nation and the world, exploring content beyond of their majors through personal, hands-on experience. Courses include on-campus projects, independent research, internships and study-travel experiences.
In 2010, one class traveled to France to study that country’s culture of food and its link to sustainability efforts. The students wrote a blog about their experiences (as did students from five other classes
). Here is their story, including some of their online reflections
Gems of discovery
It was their first Sunday morning in Paris.
While fellow Jan Term classmates opted for shopping and sightseeing, Demetrice Tuttle and Alie Jones decided to attend a church service.
After locating the address of a Protestant church nearby, they and the group’s driver set out to find it.
“It was cold and foggy and the rain was misting down,” Demetrice says. “We tried to use our GPS but we kept getting lost.”
Finally, they found the church inside a small conference room in a local hotel. As they waited for the driver to park the car, they could hear the congregation singing.
“There we were, our first morning in Paris, listening to ‘How Great Thou Art’ being sung in French,” he says. “After the service, we were greeted with such warm hugs and ‘Bonjours’ – it was an experience I will always treasure.”
For everyone in the “French Food-Culture and Sustainability” class, it was those little gems of discovery that will stay with them forever.
First things first
Before boarding a plane for France, the group met to discuss their itinerary and goals for the trip with their instructor and guide, Dr. Elizabeth Appleby.
“We want you to learn about eating in a sustainable way,” she says. “How we eat is important to the sustainability of our environment, and French eating habits go right along with that.”
The group welcomed a guest speaker—Patrick Terrail, a Frenchman whose family owns the 400-year-old Parisian landmark restaurant La Tour d’Argent. Also the former owner of the famed Ma Maison restaurant in Beverly Hills, he now lives in nearby Hogansville.
Terrail spoke about France’s love affair with food. The French are aware of every ingredient in their cuisine, he said, and place great importance on locally grown game and produce.
He offered words of advice and urged the students to observe everything around them, and most of all, to enjoy the food and drink of his homeland.
Bonjour, La France
After an uneventful flight from Atlanta, the group landed in Tours and checked into their hotel. That night, they were treated to a tour of the historic city.
“We grabbed a couple of baguettes from a local boulangerie and tore pieces from the skinny loaves as we walked, just as the French do,” Leora Pettit says.
The weather was a bit of a surprise, though.
“The natives told us that is was freakishly cold while we were there,” Demetrice says. “We even got hit with a snowstorm.”
But the cold didn’t deter the travelers, thanks in part to their moms.
“Thanks to our wise mothers, who stuffed our suitcases with long johns, we were able to enjoy the third to sixteenth century ruins,” Leora says.
Everywhere they went, the students found delicious food. Even the morning breakfasts at the hotels were a hit.
“We ate croissants with Nutella (a chocolate and hazelnut spread), yogurt and applesauce, as well as fresh juice and café au lait,” says Heather Peake. “Now, I will tell you that I am not a fan of applesauce, but this was unlike anything I’ve ever eaten before. It was exceptionally crisp, fresh and wonderful.”
She says the students were encouraged to eat like the French.
“That meant grabbing bread or a sandwich, walking and eating,” she says. “During most times of the day, you will see the French walking with a baguette or sandwich.”
At the four-star Chateau d’Artigny, the group was given a treat. They spent a couple of hours with the chateau’s head chef, Francis Maignaut. He explained how each meal is meticulously planned, from the table setting to the final bite of food. Each ingredient is produced by local farmers and comes fresh.
“If they don’t have a fresh ingredient in stock, it’s not on the menu for the evening,” Demetrice says. “It is a simple formula—take the food from raw to cooked, and transform a good product into great food.”
But the tour didn’t end in the chateau’s kitchen.
“He even took us to a local, closed market where he buys the high quality food for his restaurant,” Leora says.
On the last day of the trip, the group visited La Tour d’Argent and was given a personal tour by the late owner’s wife, Mrs. Claude Terrail. She shared the history of the restaurant. They also learned a bit of movie trivia: The fine restaurant featured in the animated hit “Ratatouille” was based on La Tour d’Argent.
They ended their visit at a sister restaurant located across the street.
“It was the crowning dining experience of our trip,” Leora says.
Food and sustainability
Chase Hall says he was impressed with how the French approach food in a sustainable way.
“They use every part of the animal product for food (a popular dish was grilled pig intestines stuffed with pig intestines),” he says. “They also eat anything from chicken feet to blood; the whole animal is consumed.”
He notes that the French use little to no artificial preservatives or ingredients. And they buy their produce from local, family-owned shops and dairy products from local farmers.
“This aids in sustaining the local economy, as well.”
The French government maintains a strict code that requires all food be traceable back to its origins, for quality control, he says.
Sites along the way
The group toured the usual sites around Paris, including Notre Dame, Versailles, the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. They also ventured outside the city to several chateaux, including the Chateau d’Ambroise, where Leonardo da Vinci lived for the last three years of his life. At the Chateau de Villandry, the LaGrange group was given a personal tour by one of the estate’s gardeners. Although it was winter, the grounds were lovely, says Jennifer Wiggins.
“I liked those gardens better than the ones at Versailles. Versailles is so huge, but I could see and appreciate the gardens at Chateau de Villandry better.”
A visit to the town of Mont-Saint-Michel and its 1,000-year-old monastery brought chills to one student.
“Words cannot describe the awe one feels...,” Alie says. “To think that men built this place with medieval technology is absolutely mind-boggling. Once you cross over the drawbridge onto the island, everything is either up to the heavens or down to the sea.”
Side trips varied from the Vouvray vineyard that’s been in the same family for seven generations to a nuclear power plant in the Loire Valley.
Learning about the great care and pride that goes into producing the wines helped the students better appreciate the role of wine in French food and culture.
“The atmosphere was perfect … creating a new appreciation for the fine dining experience (in France),” Alie says.
The study of sustainability in the country would not be complete without a visit to a nuclear power plant.
“According to the French, nuclear energy is a viable and economical resource that doesn’t emit carbon dioxide or greenhouse gases,” Jennifer says. “Many people in France believe that nuclear energy is positive, clean energy enabled by natural resources that already exist to sustain and protect France’s future. Nuclear energy is coupled with solar, wind and tidal energy.”
The ties that bind
A visit to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial seems to have touched everyone’s hearts.
“Exploring the beaches of Normandy was by far one of the most memorable
experiences of my life,” says Catherine Magbee. “I feel privileged to have been able to step back into history and explore one of America’s great ties to France.”
She says she was especially struck that Utah Beach had been left just the way it was after D-Day.
“There were still big holes and craters all around,” she says. “And later, at Omaha Beach, I looked at the cliffs that the soldiers had to climb and I was amazed to think of what they had to go through.”
Later, Demetrice, Alie, Jennifer and Dr. Appleby were invited to help take down the cemetery flags at the end of the day.
“Back home, I had witnessed the raising and lowering of the U.S. flag many times,” Jennifer says. “But nothing compares to being able to do this honor on foreign soil. Being able to be a part of something special away from home renewed my patriotic spirit and allowed my classmates and me to reflect on all that we cherish in the name of freedom.”
On the last day of Jan term, the class reconvenes on the Hill. Once again, Terrail visits and queries the students about their experiences.
“What did you buy?” he asks.
“I brought back about a hundred dollars worth of chocolate,” Chase says to the laughter of his classmates.
“I think everyone bought hats,” says Dr. Appleby.
“I’m wearing mine today,” Jennifer says, sporting a chic white cap.
What was your favorite memory?
“We practically had the Eiffel Tower to ourselves,” Demetrice says. “It was at night, and foggy. The tower glowed in the fog—you couldn’t even see the top. It was so beautiful.”
Then Terrail asks the question that gets the fastest response.
“Was there anything I told you would happen that you didn’t believe would happen?”
“Yes!” Heather says. “You told us we were going to France and that we would eat and eat and eat and not gain a pound. Well, we went and we ate and ate. When I got home, I got on the scales and I had not gained a pound, not even an ounce. I never would have believed it.”
Terrail explains one big reason is the French’s approach to food.
“Everything is fresh and local,” he said. “There are no additives and no preservatives.”
Dr. Appleby adds her own explanation.
“And we were always on the move,” she says with a smile. “Lots of walking.”
As the students reflect on their trip, one sentiment is clear. They all want to return.
“I’d like to go back and visit the farms and follow the process of the produce from planting to selling,” Chase says.
“I want to explore the countryside,” Leora says. “I loved driving through the small towns and villages and looking at the architecture. You saw very few new buildings because they have such great respect for their own history.”
Terrail offers one final bit of advice.
“You can go to all the colleges you want, but there is nothing better for your education than travel,” he says. “It is the accumulation of what you’ve learned in the classroom.”