Friday, February 19, 2010

Slow Food in France!

I'm sorry, I know you're busy, but this letter needs to be read slowly. In much the same way, it needs to be written slowly - which is why this mug of coffee on the table beside me is intended to slow me down.

Why all this emphasis on slow? It's because of an absorbing book that I'm reading, 'In Praise of Slow', by Carl Honore. He quotes the words of Ghandi, 'there's more to life than increasing its speed', and the more read the more I agree.

Honore's research covers every aspect of our speed mania, from our round-the-clock culture to ever faster music. Did you know that whereas Liszt wrote of taking almost an hour to play Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata, some pianists now play the same piece in thirty-five minutes?
Why the speed . . . ? Is this what Beethoven had in mind?
Fast food is one aspect of the cult of speed that we all easily recognise. But I was intrigued to learn did that the Slow Food movement is already well-established in Europe. The French and the Italians, in particular, have too much respect for what they eat to be wholly seduced by the concept of fast food.

I wonder . . . thinking of France . . . and thinking of food . . . . have you time to share a story . . . a slow story ?

Years ago, when I was in the film industry, I was approached by the studio at Elstree to see if I would join the crew for a feature film to be shot near Orleans in France. The actor Brian Forbes had turned Producer and this was to be his first production.

When we reached France I learned that the Production Office had changed its usual policy. The normal procedure, when going on location, was to take a firm of caterers with a catering van. From hot bacon rolls at dawn, to hot mugs of soup at sundown, the caterers kept everyone warm and well fed. On this occasion it seemed that the Production Office had decided to economise. Rather than being accompanied by an expensive team from Elstree, we would be fed by French caterers based in Orleans.

On the first day of filming we were surprised to see a large table being erected near the catering van. We normally queued up at the serving hatch. Nonetheless, this seemed an attractive alternative, particularly when the table was covered in a large, checked cloth and ringed with chairs. The morning's shooting schedule completed, we seated ourselves, curious and hungry, to see what was on offer.

What none of us had anticipated was the prolonged feast that was to follow. The French caterers took considerable pride in their cuisine and were determined to uphold the culinary reputation of their country.
The weather was pleasantly warm . . . the air languid . . . the atmosphere convivial . . . we were only too willing to relax and enjoy ourselves. This wasn't our normal fast fare, this was newly-baked bread . . . delicious cheeses . . . succulent local dishes . . . steaming pasta . . . crisp salads . . . freshly-picked fruit . . . aromatic coffee . . . and did I mention the wine? No matter that the various courses took time to put in an appearance . . . no matter that our lunch-break was ticking by . . . this was France . . . we were economising with a French caterer . . . what did an extended lunch-break matter?

A week into the shoot we were already a day behind schedule. Rather concerned, the Production Manager rescheduled the future programme. At the end of two weeks, plans were being made to see whether the hotel rooms could be booked for a unspecified extension. At the end of a very enjoyable month, the Production Office in Elstree decided that something had to be done. A team of caterers was sent to Orleans from England. With lingering regret, cast and crew watched the French caterers depart!

The shooting finished very quickly after this policy change. Back to a diet of fast food, we settled down to hard graft and soon returned to Elstree.
And the film? No, it wasn't very good . . . but those wonderful, leisurely, communal meals in the sunshine . . . I'll never forget them!
Slow Food . . . ? I'm all in favour!

Now . . . where did I put that mug of instant coffee . . . ?