The language of food and wine

20 August 2007 

When Thea Crowden told everybody she had spent the last Friday evening ‘cutting a lot of cheese’, she did not necessarily mean that she’d merrily farted the night away. Au contraire, it was merely one of the typical type of gaffes one make when learning a new language.

Thea was in fact hosting a wine and cheese night for us students who are studying an intensive summer French course in Montpellier. And even if she had dropped the odd stinker every now and again, at any rate, she has been not alone in making the odd gaffe.

More than one person has confessed a desire to ‘really want to eat a crap (crepe)’, and the other day I inadvertently called my teacher a bitch while trying to describe some seafood: It was a case of scallop versus ‘salope’.

The course is intensive: 24 hours per week of classes including Saturdays, with all day excursions to outlying towns and sites on Sundays. But even more intensive is the lifestyle: 40 students mostly in the 20-years-old bracket, living in college dorms the size and smell of a shoebox.

My first introduction to this was on the first day when Evan, one of numerous young Americans here stuck his head through a window and yelled: ‘Hey dude, what’s your name? Come up later for a beer’. He then rocketed a water bomb at my feet. 

At nights the French course students frequent a variety of non-French nightspots around Montpellier. The charming medieval town was once home to Nostradamus, but even he could probably not have predicted that bars with names such as ‘Oxymore’, Shakespeare or Barbe Rousse could actually be popular with anyone.

Oxymore may as well shorten its name to ‘The Moron’ in honour of the clients it regularly pulls, especially for retro Saturdays. Then it plays Western pop hits from the 80s and 90s, in apparent ode to the time when Western music was as bad as French pop is now.

Shakespeare is one of many English/Irish bars (what’s the difference, really?), hosts a quiz on Tuesdays, and is most popular each night from 7-8.30 each when it’s time for ‘Happy hour and a half’. 

Meanwhile, you literally cannot get admitted into Barbe Rousse unless you want to drink rum. I tried to talk my way in last Saturday with : “Je voudrais un biere”, and was knocked back until I said the magic words of: “D’accord, je voudrais un rhum”.  Inside, the decor is that of a pirate ship, with rum barrels, thick ropes and lots of hos, though the overcrowding is more like a slave ship.

Of course, before the parties, there’s always the wine and cheese. While France is a haven for food and wine fanatics, the Shoppi supermarket in Boutennet is a haven for tightarses: Wine and champagne for 1.20 Euros and slabs of beer for 8 Euros. We made San Grias last Friday, and the bottles of fruit juice were more expensive than the alcohol. As an added bonus, all the Shoppi staff look like they’ve just come out of a Princess Diana look-alike competition. Blow waves and mascara are alive and well in the south of France.

A dining place whose popularity can be due solely to its 3 Euro price tag and proximity to the college dorms (not more than 200 metres) is the university Resto. Food here would be more at home in Soviet Russia, as it’s always either a riddle, a mystery or a total enigma.

The worst meal so far was seafood hidden in béchamel sauce which I was able to stomach until my friend told me it wasn’t actually mashed potato. And I keep going back!

Craps look pretty good by comparison.