Most of us, when we think about France, associate it with beautiful cuisine. But it's not just in the restaurants. Great food is normal in most families. From my observation, the reason it's so great is because of the time and love that's put into every aspect of it - the food is bought with care, prepared with appreciation and served and savoured at leisure.
Let me tell you about going to the market with my friend Nicole. She and husband Jacques hosted me in June at their weekender at La Turballe, a quaint little fishing port on the Atlantic coast of Brittany.
Saturday morning found us heading to the market. What I noticed, tagging along behind a Frenchwoman, was the care with which she scrutinised the fresh produce, animatedly discussed the virtues of possible purchases with the stall-holders, and purchased with a clear view of what she wanted. Anything not absolutely fresh and top quality was discarded with speed and thinly disguised disdain.
A focused yet leisurely hour later we wheeled our booty home - lotte (monkfish), bigorneaux (winkles), langoustines (similar to a large prawn), crabs; pain (bread), lapin (rabbit), duck pâté and fresh vegetables from a beautifully displayed array of produce.
Back in the kitchen, Nicole swung into action - with occasional instructions to Jacques and me. And then it was time for the three of us to eat. First, out on the balcony to watch the boats, aperitif in hand and a platter of crusty bread and pâté.
Next came the beautiful seafood platter - a work of art displaying bigorneaux, crabs and langoustines, all still alive only an hour before. Eating was an exercise in slowing down and savouring every phase.
And so it continued. Each phase of the three course dejeuner was laid out with care and enjoyed in a leisurely way. The three of us relaxed, chatted and joked between courses. A few wines slipped smoothly down as we watched the yachts, fishing boats, seagulls and tide and laughed at our communication mistakes (my beginner French is about the same level as their English). At least an hour and a half was enjoyed at the table, with occasional forays to the kitchen for the next delicacy.
Was this a special meal, with extra time taken because they had a Kiwi friend to stay? After all, I'd done the same for them when they visited me in New Zealand during the Rugby World Cup last year. Yes, but only in part. I saw the same care put into food selection, preparation and eating with every dejeuner and dîner (dinner) in each French family I visited. And I sensed something different - an intangible quality I couldn't quite put my finger on.
A week later it was my close friends Jean-Michel and Béatrice who solved the puzzle for me (in their excellent English).
'Robyn, in France we honour both the food and the meal time. When you eat with your family, it is a time to stop work and enjoy sharing the matters of the day. We don't rush. We enjoy our food and we put importance on spending that time together. It helps to keep families connected.
'If it is a business meal, the dining experience is treated most seriously. We enjoy sharing good food before we talk business, usually in a restaurant. And much business is done in France over a meal table.'
Finally I got it. Every stage deserves focus. The French people I observed are very 'present' as they purchase, prepare, serve and then enjoy. The food is treated with respect. The serving of the food is treated with respect. And the people who sit down to enjoy the food are also treated with respect.
A meal (and the preparation of it) is not something to be rushed through so you can get to the next important task.
Here's a thought: If we 'invest' time in sharing our meal times with our loved ones, with TV and phones off, perhaps there'd be better behaved children and less social problems. What do you think?