Far be it from me to slag all hospital food, whether it’s served in France, North America, or anywhere else. I know it’s a tough job preparing edible food at a reasonable cost for clients who are either ill or just plain cranky, or both.
And I’ve recently had some good dishes while in a French clinic — like my paella on Friday, with well-cooked chicken, mussels, chorizo, peppers, plus nicely coloured and properly spiced rice. Huzzah! And this morning’s fresh croissant for breakfast, which easily rated a 9 out of 10.
However, much of hospital food is (let’s be honest) pretty dreadful. And since I’ve been eating a fair bit of it since Sunday, April 13, I think I’m qualified to share some thoughts. In my usually positive manner, I’ll even offer some surprising ideas and tips you may want to try out at your next dinner party. (Okay, probably not.)
In this posting, I’ll share some of what I’ve observed about the food that’s been offered in two different medical settings, one in Toulouse and one in Montfaucon. The Montfaucon clinic is where I’m now getting physio therapy (very good) and attentive medical care (very good) after spinal surgery (also very good). Montfaucon is in the Lot, and it’s about a 40-kilometre drive from our village of Daglan, in the Dordogne.
But on to the food, starting with soup, which is virtually a staple at every French meal but breakfast.
Consommé? What’s that? You probably thought, as I did, that consommé refers to a clear soup. Silly us! In Toulouse, I was served “consommé” of mixed vegetables that looked and sort of tasted like split pea soup. Certainly it was that thick. (Tip: Don’t be fussed if your homemade consommé doesn’t seem too clear; serve it anyway!)
Thick? You want thick? Have you ever mowed your lawn too soon after a rain, and found that all the finely chopped grass was jammed up into the wheel wells of your mower? That’s about the thickness of a “soup” I was served in Toulouse. It was greenish, and looked as if had been plopped into my bowl with a trowel. A small amount of greenish liquid in the bottom of the bowl was the only indication that soup had been the intended outcome. (Tip: Don’t even think about it.)
Quantity? You want quantity? I’m no expert (obviously) but the amount of food on offer in our cafeteria at lunchtime is amazing. I would have thought that relatively sedentary (and often elderly) patients wouldn’t want too much food, but I’ve clearly misjudged the French appetite. Little old ladies and skinny old guys will have a dish of chopped veggies as an entrée, then a bowl of soup, then a roll, then a main course like pig kidneys (really) or baked fish, served with pasta or rice or potatoes, then a piece of cheese, then a small yoghurt, and then a dessert like a fruit salad or apple compote or pudding. And then a piece of fresh fruit, like an apple or banana or pear. And then a coffee (at lunch only). Yikes!
“Truth” in labelling. Even on manufactured foods, like those little plastic tubs of condiments served with meals, things are not always what they are supposed to be. A classic case is the food maker who labels breakfast spreads as “confiture” — which means “jam” — when they are clearly gelées. In other words, the confiture de fraises has no little chunks of strawberries cooked into a nice thick spread; instead, it’s a fairly clear but vaguely strawberry-tasting jelly that (naturally) wants to leap off your knife and head for the table or floor. (I am not a jelly person.)
New super materials. As an entrée, I quite like the classic dish of hard-boiled eggs served with mayonnaise; properly tarted up, this is known as œufs à la Russe. So I was happy to see a hard-boiled egg, with mayonnaise, offered as an entrée at the Toulouse clinic. But then I had to use a knife to force open the aluminum packet of mayonnaise and spritz some of it onto an egg that, I believe, may have been the first super material made by hard-boiling something. I’m not sure how long this egg was boiled — 30 minutes? 3 hours? 30 hours? Whatever time it took, the process changed the egg into something like a cross between rubber and Kevlar. Cut in half, and then stitched together with titanium cable, a few dozen of these eggs could make a nice protective coating for a radial tire. (Tip: Possibly an idea worth pursuing by tire manufacturers.)
Simplicity in recipes. Sometimes in our daily lives, we spend a bit too much time with complicated recipes. Here we can learn from the hospital kitchen, where simplicity is sometimes demonstrated pretty conclusively. Case in point: rice pilaff, which consists of nothing more than steamed rice with a bit of chopped parsley. Pushing the boundaries: My favourite example of a truly simple recipe was for Rice Creole — which consisted solely of steamed rice. That was it — no sauce, no nothing. Now in fairness, maybe the hospital staff kept the sauce away from me, fearing that I couldn’t handle the spiciness. Or maybe they just forgot. In any case, it was pretty good plain rice. (Tip: At your next dinner party, try something similar. Like: Spaghetti bolognese, but without any sauce. A potential money-saver!)
When all is said and done, I’m actually surviving quite well. I’ve adjusted to breakfast being nothing more than a large bowl of coffee with a roll or croissant; I keep a bottle of prune-and-fig juice in my little refrigerator so I can have a glass with breakfast. Lunch is in the cafeteria, where I can minimize the number of items on my tray. (Yoghurt and cheese? I don’t think so.) And dinner is in my room, made up of what my wife Jan has brought me — a sandwich on a croissant; carrot or celery sticks; some potato chips; maybe an apple.
Admittedly, Jan and I are starting to think ahead — to the restaurants we will be visiting once my physiotherapy has ended. We expect there will be quite a few.