When I was first asked if I could provide a room to a French student undertaking an internship on a local farm, I hesitated. Like many parents, once my own children left the nest, I settled into a different routine. I come and go as I please, watch whatever I feel like on TV and eat meals whenever I like. Did I really want to change that? Also, there was the not-insignificant issue of my pass Leaving Cert French being all but forgotten.
I decided to give it a go and now - several students later - I’m glad I did. I’ve always been a great believer in the notion that everyone we meet can be an opportunity to learn something or have a new experience. I’ve certainly learned a lot from these students - though sadly, not how to speak better French, as they need to improve their English, which means they only wish to speak English with me.
I panicked when I realised I had to serve them breakfast and an evening meal, as I didnt think my culinary skills would be up to standard. I enjoy cooking, but I’ve had no formal training. I didnt even do domestic science in school. When I asked about food allergies or disliked foods, the various answers have led me to believe that my assumptions about the French palate were not too far off the mark.
I’m not sure how many Irish students would list any of the following as foods they did not like as if they were part of a normal diet: foie gras, beef cheek, duck heart, veal, oysters and frogs legs.
After much angst, I decided that instead of trying to compete with French cuisine, I would highlight the best of Irish food. In fairness, it’s a particular passion of mine - so not exactly a hardship.
Breakfast is easy as we produce such great yogurts here. I serve them with fresh fruit from the garden or freezer alongside my own brown bread and jam. One student, who had spent a few weeks in England, said he couldn’t eat the breakfast there as it was “meat, meat and more meat.” I obviously didn’t offer him a full Irish!
After the first evening meal of shepherd’s pie - made with Connemara lamb and vegetables from my own garden - was devoured, I started to relax and trust the quality ingredients we have here to be the star of the show. I’ve also learned that the cheese course comes before dessert in France, that they really, really like a sweet treat with coffee at 4pm, and - actually - in general, really like sweet treats full stop.
My apple cakes or rhubarb tarts may not have been to pâtisserie standard, but their sweet tooths prevailed and all were enjoyed.
Over dinner each evening we had great chats about France, food and families with Google translate - the extra “person” at the table. One student told me of the nine course Christmas dinner his 83 year-old grandmother and her younger (78 and 76) sisters prepare each year. The three ladies don’t even sit down to eat with the family - they eat in the kitchen.
I was amused to hear that they frequently have friends over to dinner during term time. One told me he would not serve the wine that a guest brings, as he would have chosen the wines to match the meal he is serving. When I was a student, it was Blue Nun or Black Tower - whichever was on offer. I would have had no idea how to pair a wine with a meal. I’m not sure I do now!
They also know their cheese, and when I brought two students to a cheese shop in Galway, it was like watching children in a toy shop. With much sniffing, they eventually chose six for the cheese board. I was very proud to see five of the six were Irish farmhouse cheeses.
I waved the last one off this week with an au revoir, the recipe for my brown bread, a pot of blackberry jam and an appreciation for the food we produce here. CL