Friday, 13 January 2012

A French Fish Tale

The fish looked up at me with a wide, goggly eye.

It stretched right across the plate with its tail flopping limply over the edge. I stared back at it, my mouth hanging open in horror as I studied its glistening scales and its crusty little fins.

A slice of lemon shone like a sun over its lifeless body, and the smell of garlic, herbs, hit my nostrils for the first time.

'Voila,' said Janik, beaming with pleasure.

She smiled, waiting for me to gush with joy about the culinary delight that lay before me.

But it was breakfast time. I'd only ever had cornflakes at breakfast. With cold milk and a sprinkling of sugar.  I had woken up that morning thinking that I would enjoy a change - fresh croissants, warm baguette, butter and jam...but here was a fish. A whole one. Oh. My. God.

I laughed. Quite a high pitched, nervous little laugh. My mind was searching frantically for the right words.

She clapped her hands. 'Voila - Andre attrapé ce poisson hier. J'ai fait cuire juste pour vous,' she beamed, breaking the awkward silence that hung around the room along with the smell of my breakfast.

I considered the idea of eating just the lemon and leaving the fish, but thought that might look bad. So I came up with a plan.

'I....don' for breakfast,' I managed to say. It was the best I could do. The only fish I'd ever eaten before was in the shape of fingers - no choky bones and coated in golden breadcrumbs with chips. I'd never seen a whole fish on a plate before. I didn't think it was possible.

But this was France. I was only 14, and I had just stayed the night with Janik and Andre, the owners of a campsite in Les Arcs in the south. They were our friends and we visited every summer - a three day epic drive from Newcastle in dad's Citroen 2CV.

He had thought it would 'do me good' to experience a taste of proper french life. I cursed him in my head as I gazed at the fish, and imagined him chortling with laughter over his breakfast of croissants, baguette and red wine.

Janik's disappointed face was unbearable. Andre's prize catch had been prepared specially for the awkward, skinny little English guest. She looked at me - hurt and crestfallen.

I begged her in my head to take the ghastly creature away. I knew it was incredibly rude. I felt dreadful. Anglo Franco relations destroyed in an instant by a 14 year old girl over fish for breakfast.

Silently, Janik removed the plate. 'Voulez-vous du pain?' she asked kindly.

I desperately wanted du pain. Bread. With butter. And jam. But I had said that I didn't eat anything at breakfast. If I suddenly said 'ooh yes please,' it would have looked really bad. So I stuck to my story...'Oh no thank you. I just can't eat anything at breakfast time...'

I starved for the rest of the morning, and counted the minutes to when my dad would come to rescue me.

Unsurprisingly, and thankfully, I was never asked back...but whenever I see a fish, I think of that morning in the South of France, and have a damned good laugh - just as my dad did, and still does every time we recall my embarrassing French Fish Tale....