France – Houskeeping – Part 1

FRENCH housekeeping may be described as the glorification of simplicity, a supreme economy of time, outlay, and worry. Nothing more conspicuously exemplifies the ply of the French mind. In no other field is so well evidenced French love of method, economy, and mental repose.

I will first describe a day’s housekeeping in Paris, the household consisting of nine or ten persons, four of whom are domestics, less than half the number that would be found necessary in England. Having sent cups of tea or coffee and rolls upstairs, and prepared coffee for the kitchen, the cook is free to go to market. Her fellow-servants help themselves to coffee from the hob and bread from the cup-board, each washing up his or her bowl when emptied. The milkwoman has deposited her can of milk, the baker has brought the day’s huge supply of bread. No one will have business with the kitchen bell till next morning.

French meals, it must be remembered, are practically reduced to two ; no elaborate breakfasts after English fashion, no nursery or school-room dinners, no afternoon teas. The wet-nurse dismissed, Bébé takes its place at the family board. The fashionable world certainly indulges in what is called a ” five o’clock,” but rarely, if ever, at home. The tea restaurant is a favourite rendezvous, and tea-drinking is strictly confined to its patronesses. In modest, middle-class homes, the pleasantest meal of the day with us is quite unknown.

We will now follow our cook on her errands. Having taken orders from the mistress, she sets forth provided with two capacious baskets or string bags. As there are no tradesmen to call for orders, neither fishmonger, green-grocer, butcher, nor grocer, she can take matters easily, which in all likelihood she does. The French temperament is not given to flurry and bustle, and a daily marketer will naturally have a vast acquaintance.

But our cook will ofttimes fill her panniers nearer home than even at the nearest market.

A pictorial and heart-rejoicing sight is the Paris street barrow, ambulatory cornucopia piled high with fruit, flowers, and vegetables, the fertility of the most fertile country of Europe here focused on the city pavement. Small wonder if the caterer halts before one of these, tempted by freshest of green things in season—salads, herbs for flavouring, sorrel for soup, asparagus, artichokes or peas for her entremets. A halt, too, she will very likely make at a fruit barrow, providing herself with the dining-room dessert luscious little wild strawberries (fraises de quatre saisons), melons, figs, whatever happens to be at its best.

But the day’s provision of meat, poultry, fish, butter, and eggs has to be found room for, and in all probability she will conclude her purchases at the market, her joint or joints of meat wrapped in paper being consigned to the bottom of a pannier, lighter commodities lying on the top. Both receptacles being filled to the brim, she returns home, doubtless with aching arms, but well pleased to have enjoyed the fresh air and opportunities of chat. Thus it will be seen that in a French household the process is not, as with ourselves, one of elaboration, but the very reverse. The day’s budget becomes as much a thing of the past as the day itself. There is no fagot of little red books for the mistress to look over and settle once a week, no possibility of erroneous entries, no percentage paid for the booking and sending of goods.

And our cook, having only four meals to prepare, instead of her English colleague’s half-score, can concentrate all her energies upon these.

The dinner, in French domestic economy, is as the sun to the planets. Every other operation is made subservient to it, every other incident revolves round it. For with our French neighbours the principal repast of the day is not merely a meal, it is a dinner. This nice distinction is happily indicated by the following story. A French friend was describing to me the fare of an English country inn and praising the day’s fish, roast duck, and pudding ; ” But,” she added as a rider, ” it was a meal, not a dinner.”

The mid-day déjeuner, now called lunch in fashionable society, is comparatively an insignificant affair, not deemed worthy of a tablecloth ! Lunch, even in wealthy houses, is served on the bare table, and I must say that highly polished oak, mahogany, or walnut admirably set off plate, crystal, and flowers. We are all more or less slaves to conventionality and habit, and the things we deem be-coming and appropriate are most often the things with which we are familiar.

That nice distinction just quoted indicates the relative importance of dinner in France and England. The minute care, indeed, bestowed upon the preparation of food by our neighbours is almost incomprehensible among ourselves. French folks, alike the moderately well off and the rich, are never satisfied with a meal. They must end the day wail a dinner.

Irrespective of economy both in catering and cookery, it may safely be averred that the one French extravagance to set against a thousand English extravagances is the dinner. It is the only case of addition instead of subtraction when balancing French and English item* of daily expenditure. And the charm of French dinners, like the beauty of Frenchwomen, to quote Michelet, is made up of little nothings. The very notion of preparing so many elaborate trifles for the family board would drive an English cook mad. But ” Lucullus dines with Lucullus ” is a French motto of universal acceptance. Plutarch tells us that the great Roman art collector and epicure thus admonished his house steward, who, knowing one day that his master was to dine alone, served up what my French friend would call a meal, not a dinner.

Michelet says somewhere that the French workman, who cornes home tired and perhaps depressed from his day’s work, is straightway put in good humour by his plateful of hot soup. For ” Lucullus dines with Lucullus ” is a maxim of the good housewife in the humblest as well as the upper ranks.

Those well-filled panniers represent one kind of economy, the national genius for cookery implies another. In buying direct from the market a certain percentage is saved. Again, a French cook turns any and every thing to advantage, and many a culinary chef d’oeuvre is the result of care and skill rather than rare or costly ingredients. With just a pinch of savoury herbs and a clear fire, a cook will turn shreds of cold meat into deliciously appetizing morsels, gastronomic discrimination on the part of her patrons keeping up the standard of excellence. If I were asked to point out the leading characteristic of the French mind, I should unhesitatingly say that it is the critical faculty, and to this faculty we owe not only the unrivalled French cuisine, but pleasures of the table generally. Here is one instance in point. One quite ripe melon, to the uninitiated, tastes very much like another. But a French country gentleman knows better. Whenever a melon of superlative flavour is served, he orders the seeds to be set aside for planting. Thus the superlative kind is propagated. The critical faculty warring with mediocrity and incompleteness is ever alert in France.

I now turn to the subject of household management generally. Here, also, we shall find startling divergences.

A distinctive feature in French households is, as I have said, the amount of indoor work done by men. When the great novelist Zola met his death so tragically, it will be remembered that two men-servants—one of these a valet de chambre, or house-servant—had prepared the house for the return of master and mistress. Apparently no woman was kept except, perhaps, madame’s maid. This is often the case.

In England the proportion of men to women indoor servants is as one to three or four ; in France the reverse is the case, parlour-maids being unknown, and the one femme de chambre being ladies’ as well as housemaid. The work mainly falls upon the men. They sweep, dust, and, in short, supply the place of our neat maidens in spotless cotton gowns. The fact is, had French valets no sweeping or dusting, they would often have to sit for hours with their hands before them. One element entailing a large staff of servants here is absent in a French house. This is the staying guest, the uninterrupted succession of visitors. Outside private hotels and the handsome fiats of the fashionable quarters, there is indeed no room in Parisian households for friends. The words “dine and sleep” or ” week-end ” visits have not found their way into French dictionaries, nor have dine-and-sleep or week-end guests yet become a French institution. Of family parties in chateaux and country houses I shall have something to say further on. It is easy thus to understand why three or for servants suffice, whilst in England a dozen would be needed for people of similar means and position. Descending the social or rather financial scale, coming to incomes of hundreds rather than thousands a year, we must still subtract and subtract. Where three or four maids are kept in England, a general servant is kept in France, and where a maid-of-all-work is put up with here, French housewives do without a Tilly Slowboy or even a Marchioness.

Whilst officials, alike civilian and military, receive much lower pay in France than in England, whilst professional earnings are much less, we must remember that taxation is higher and commodities of all kinds are dearer across the water than among ourselves. But economy is not always a matter of strict obligation. What we call putting the best foot foremost does not often trouble our neighbours, They prefer to look ahead and provide against untoward eventualities.

A habit of parsimony is sometimes whimsically displayed.

The home is an Englishwoman’s fetish, her idol. Both the wife of an artisan and the mistress of a mansion will be perpetually renovating and beautifying her interior. Like themselves, decoration and upholstery must be in the fashion.

In France the furnishing and fitting up of a house is done for once and for all. It is a matter of finality. English middle-class folks, who eat Sunday’s sirloin cold for dinner on Monday and perhaps Tuesday, spend more upon their homes in a twelvemonth than French folks of the same standing throughout the entire course of their wedded lives.

May not the fact of so little being spent upon the house occasionally arise in this way ? The husband has the absolute control, not only of his own income, but of his wife’s, and many men would prefer shabby carpets and curtains to what might appear to them as unnecessary outlay.

The French character, to quote that original writer and sturdy Anglophile, M. Demolins, is not apt at spending. Here, he says, his country-people must go to school to the Anglo-Saxon.

Even where elementary comfort, even bodily health, is concerned, thrift is the first consideration. When Rabelais jovially apostrophizes un beau et clair feu, ” a good bright fire,” he expresses the national appreciation of a luxury, for outside rich homes a fire is regarded rather as an indulgence than as a necessity. Fuel in France is economized after a fashion wholly inconceivable to an English mind. When a French lady pays visits or goes abroad shopping, her fire is let out and relighted on her return. Many women fairly well-off make a woollen shawl and a foot-warmer do duty for a fire, except perhaps when it is freezing indoors.

I once spent a winter at Nantes, and during my stay kept my bed with bronchitis for a week.

“You have burnt as much fuel during your week in bed as would suffice many a family for the whole winter,” said the lady with whom I was lodging, to me. Yet Nantes enjoys an exceptionally mild climate. What my consumption of wood would have been at Dijon I cannot conceive.

Housekeeping implies mention of the housekeeper. A Frenchwoman is the direct antithesis of a German Hausfrau. She is not, like Martha, troubled from morning till night about many things. Dust and cobwebs do not bring a Frenchwoman’s grey hairs with sorrow to the grave. The scrupulosity attained in English houses by the usual army of house and parlour maids is never aspired to by French matrons.

Some years since I lunched with acquaintances in a fine country house, rather a modern chateau, within an hour and a half by road and rail of Dijon. The house-party, all members or connections of master and mistress, numbered twelve. It was the long vacation, and a further indication of the sumptuary scale is afforded by the existence of a private chapel. Whether or no a priest was attached to the house as a private chaplain I know not. There was the chapel, a new, handsome little building, standing in the park.

As I chatted with my hostess on the terrace after lunch, the topic of housekeeping came up.

“A rather onerous position,” I said, “that of mistress here ? ”

She smiled. “So I imagined it must be when, on the death of my husband’s parents, we came to this place. But I made up my mind not to let things trouble me—in fact to let the house keep itself, which it does, and does well enough.”

“Admirably,” I ventured to add ; and, indeed, my experience convinces me that most French houses keep themselves. The German Speisekammer, or store-room, in which a Hausfrau spends half her day, does not exist in French dwellings. A Frenchwoman, moreover, is far too much the companion of her husband to have leisure for such absorption in spices, jams, and the rest.