Migrating Words

At the beginning of the year my mother decided that we all needed to improve our French. I had learnt French at school but had dropped the subject before my final two years and had slowly forgotten the vocabulary and what little grammar I managed to comprehend. I could go into a boulangerie on holidays and buy a baguette and some croissant while speaking as quietly as possible and that was about it. Even then most of my success came from the sympathy of those behind the counter who often took one look at my shy, worried expression and picked up a baguette before holding up one finger to ask if I only wanted one. I would then rely on the green numbers popping up on the display of the till to tell me how much to pay before I disappeared with a quiet “Merci, au revoir!”

My mother on the other hand could hold entire conversations in French while my father and I stood aside and shot each other bewildered glances. She had learnt a lot of French doing courses at the Scottish French Institute, which is only ten minutes walk from our home. My father and I signed up for a Level 2 course, only just above the basics while my mother went off to ‘actualité’ to discuss French current affairs, in French.

By the summer term we had moved up to Level 3 and still had the same teacher. Since all the teachers were French we got to hear and learn how to pronounce everything properly. Our teacher spent a lot of time making sure we were all managing the pronunciation while we, on occasion, explained the meaning of English words she hadn’t come across before. There were also several discussions of Scots concepts and phrases, haggis, neeps and tatties (haggis, turnip and potatoes) being one of them. She told us of how she had worked in a local state school for a while and had been baffled by the pupils frequent cries of ‘I dinna ken, miss!’ before she eventually realised they were telling her that they didn’t understand.

There are many words that have migrated between France and Britain such as ‘le weekend’ and ‘cuisine’. This is understandable seeing as the two are closely linked in history, location and, more recently, by the channel tunnel. It does seem, however, that most of the traffic of migrating words has gone northwards rather than southwards, many of them related to cooking; soufflé, flambé, pain au chocolat, brioche, brûlée and many, many more.

Many dishes now seen in cafés and restaurants are of French origin from crème brûlée to ratatouille. When our Level 3 course came to end we went to a small French restaurant where I experienced excellent French cuisine for the first time. We ordered in French, speaking to an entirely French staff (bar one waitress from Slovakia) and I picked Coq au Vin because it was one of the few dishes on the menu that contained neither fish nor cow’s cheese. It was an excellent choice. The meat almost slid off the bone and melted in my mouth, infused with a perfect balance of French wine and herbs.

I recently decided to attempt the dish for myself. The wine we had was cheap but tasted far better any wine with a £3.99 price tag should, the bacon I bought was traditional Gloucester Old Spot and the vegetables fresh from the allotment. I had an interesting time learning how to chop up a whole chicken, bought at that week’s farmer’s market, into legs, wings, breast and various scraps. We all admired the soft purple colour the meat had after marinating in wine overnight. I could have cooked it for longer, or rather started earlier, to get the meat to that beautiful melt in the mouth stage but even without that effect it tasted right and I was proud to be able to say ‘I can make Coq au Vin’.

Coq au Vin

3 large pieces of chicken (I used 1 breast, 1 leg and 1 wing)
500ml red wine
1tbsp olive oil
150g bacon, chopped
2 shallots, chopped
2 onions, chopped
200g mushrooms, chopped
1 clove finely chopped garlic
3tbsp flour
2 bay leaves
sea salt
ground pepper

Put the chicken in a bowl with the wine and bay leaves and leave to marinade overnight.

Remove the chicken and pat dry with kitchen paper. Keep the wine in the bowl for later.

Heat the olive oil in a large pot, then add the bacon and fry until crisp. Add the onions and shallots and cook until softened before adding the mushrooms.

Cook for a few minutes then remove from the pot and set aside.

Cook the chicken in the same pot until golden all over. Reduce heat and add the flour, turning the chicken to coat it.

Return the vegetables and bacon to the pan and add the wine. Season with thyme, salt and pepper and bring to boil.

Reduce the heat a little and cook covered until the meat is tender.

We ate it with roast potatoes and salad but it’s would work alone or with other vegetables.


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