Ever since I checked into a clinic in Toulouse on April 13, for back surgery that took place the next day, family members and friends and readers of Radio Free Daglan have been asking kindly how I am doing. (Fine, thank you.) And several have asked about the food I’m being served, wondering if French hospital food is up to the standard of well, French food. Sadly, the answer is no.
A few days ago, when my wife Jan discussed my ongoing experience with a friend who’s a retired doctor, he confirmed: “Oh yes, French hospital food has always been known for being terrible.” (In the spirit of balanced reporting, a friend who had surgery in Périgueux last year says the food at her clinic was quite good.)
Just to orient you, Toulouse is a large city about 180 or 190 kilometres south of our village of Daglan, and I’m here because my surgeon came highly recommended. He has indeed been great, and so has the care and attention I’ve received — regular blood pressure readings, regular blood tests, careful medication, and on and on. No complaints, and much praise.
But the food is another matter. In fact, I’d say that the food here has been as bad as what I’ve experienced in North American hospitals — ranging from under-seasoned to just plain weird. Without meaning to depress you, let’s have a review of the kitchen’s output.
Out of all proportion. For one thing, portion sizes seem all over the map. My worst visual image is the memory of a dinner plate on which sat a piece of meat (I’ve long since forgotten what it was) with fully half of the plate piled high with soggy, way-overcooked green beans. Even if they had been good, I would have eaten a quarter or maybe half of them.
Plastic makes perfect … While it’s not fashionable to like plastic-wrapped, prepared foods, sometimes they can be a godsend — given the alternative. So I’ve had a fair number of little plastic containers of yoghurt, apple sauce, soft cheeses, and so on.
… but not always perfect. After one dinner, I cleverly stashed away a cellophane-wrapped hunk of pain d’épice (gingerbread), thinking it would make a nice breakfast the next morning. Wrong. It was cut too thick; was incredibly dry; and was virtually tasteless.
Bread? Just like Tuscany! If you’ve ever been to Tuscany, you’ll remember how tasteless the bread is there, because it lacks salt. Same thing here. Every lunch and every dinner, I get a large roll, which I never eat. It’s also hard, and dry. The French may “need” their bread, but I don’t.
Breakfast choices. There’s typically a choice of three things at breakfast — coffee, tea or hot chocolate. Except for today (croissants on Sunday!), your drink comes with a large, tasteless bun or roll, plus a pat of butter and some (nice, plastic-enclosed) jam. With my vast powers of persuasion, I’ve convinced the staff that I also need an apple juice with breakfast, and that seems to have been accepted, finally. But I believe I’m seen as one of those crazy North-American-or-British breakfast lovers.
Regional specialties. One of my favourite foods of southwest France is cassoulet, the stew of flavourful white beans with meats like sausage (yum!) and confit de canard (yum yum!). I know several restaurants where it’s worth ordering, but as for the hospital, not so much.
Fresh (meaning uncooked) does work. Several times I’ve been offered a piece of fresh fruit for dessert, and that’s generally been fine — an apple, a banana, a kiwi fruit, an orange. It would be better if the orange were an eating orange instead of a juice orange, but it’s still a great change from something that the kitchen had tried to improve.
Now I’ll give you a look at a slightly untypical meal (because it was fairly good). For today’s lunch, the salad was a traditional French salad of finely chopped white cabbage, with a small mince of ham and cheese. Not bad. The main course was billed as sauté porc aux pruneaux, which pleased me because pork with prunes is not only a French classic but also a personal favourite. As you’ll see from this photo, the prunes were well hidden, and may have been no more than the few dark flecks appearing in the sauce. Seemed more like “pork in a barbecue sauce,” but it was tasty, and the pork was reasonably tender. Here’s my plate:
And here’s the rest of the lunch — the cabbage salad in the foreground (which I did finish), and then the roll and a beignet for dessert, neither of which I touched. I also was given a (plastic-wrapped) thin piece of blue cheese, which I didn’t eat because I tend to like blue cheeses only if they come with a decent piece of bread.
Of course, there was the ever-present tumbler of water.
Wine? Surely you jest. Haven’t had a drop since lunch at Le Petit Paris in Daglan on Sunday, April 13. It’s been a while, but I’m focussed on getting better. (Okay, and with the occasional whine about food.)