During this long hot summer we’ve had plenty of friends from abroad visiting us; not surprisingly at some stage the topic of conversation has been food, in some form or another. Almost without exception this in turn has lead to discussions about French school lunches. Despite everybody proclaiming to know that the French system is indeed excellent, everyone, without exception, has been both astounded and fascinated when I explain exactly what the children eat for lunch and how the meal is taken. The quality of school lunches in France is just so high it’s about time I explained a little more to those of you who have never stood outside French school gates!
A broad look at basic French education will show there is both primary and secondary education, the latter starting when children are about 11 years old when they go to Collège for four years (this is the equivalent of the USA’s Middle School). This is then followed by Lycée which in France covers the last three years of school (similar to the four years of high school in the USA or two years of sixth form in the UK). We can regale people with tales from all three regimes as we have children in Primaire, Collège and Lycée!
The lunch system in France is much the same throughout the country, although I am sure there are subtle variations here and there. This is what happens at the schools our children attend. At all age levels children can stay at school to eat or they can go home; there are no allowances for a packed lunch. Gigi is now the only one of our children left at the Ecole Primaire (primary school) in the village, a tiny, but I might add quite brilliant, school where the lunches are known to be so excellent that 60 of the 67 students eat there, a fact which I think speaks for itself. Lunches are not rushed and they’re served in two sittings as the dining-room is small and can only seat about 30. The tables are for four to six people and are laid with proper cutlery, glasses, table-napkins and baskets of bread. Each day the children keep their same places, and once everyone is seated upon entering the dining-room they are then served their first course. This is followed by the main course and then cheese and finally dessert. It is just as if they were in a restaurant except they are always offered second helpings of the main course.
Every four weeks the menu is sent home with the children so parents can study it in advance. You can then be quite sure when preparing the evening meal that you are not duplicating something the children have eaten at lunch! It’s obvious that a balanced diet is the most important consideration at all times.
I have translated this menu for you as best as I can, some things are difficult to put into one or two words. What I always find fascinating is the cheese, every day it is a different variety! (There is no school in France on Wednesday afternoons, hence no lunch menu for that day).
SCHOOL RESTAURANT – September 2016
Thursday 1 September – Cucumber in Vinaigrette; Fried Fish with Green and White Beans; Cheese (Carré Frais); Fresh Fruit.
Friday 2 September – Melon; Roast Chicken and French Fries; Cheese (Pyrénées); Chocolate Mousse.
Monday 5 September – Carrots in Vinaigrette; Filet of Fish dusted in Flour and Pan fried in Butter with Rice; Cheese (Morbier); Cream Puffs.
Tuesday 6 September – Tuna Pasta Salad with Vinaigrette on the side; Chicken Nuggets with Courgette Gratin; Cheese (Fraidou); Fresh Fruit.
Thursday 8 September – Tomatoes and Sweetcorn; Similar to an English Cottage Pie with Ground Beef and Potato with a Green Salad; Cheese (Goats); Panna Cotta with a Fruit Coulis.
Friday 9 September – Cheese Crêpe; Turkey Filet with Apple and French Beans; Cheese (Emmental); Similar to a Strawberry Trifle!
Monday 12 September – Egg Mayonnaise; Sausages with Lentils; Cheese (Camembert); Compote of Seasonal Fruits.
Tuesday 13 September – Melon; Grilled Ham with Peas and Carrots; Cheese (Carré Frais); Caramel Flan.
Thursday 15 September – Saucisson (dry cured sausage); Hake (Fish) in a Sorrel Sauce with Cauliflower and Potato Gratin; Cheese (Gouda); Fruit Salad.
Friday 16 September – “American Menu” – Tomatoes and Sweetcorn Vinaigrette; Cheeseburger with French Fries; Brownies.
Monday 19 September – Beetroot Vinaigrette; Slow cooked Beef with Tomatoes (like a casserole) with Carrots cooked with Cumin; Natural sweetened Yoghurt; A crusty type of Cake.
Tuesday 20 September – Cucumber Vinaigrette; Grilled Sausages with Mashed Potato; Cheese (Carré d’As); Fresh Fruit.
Thursday 22 September – Potato Salad; Filet of fried Hake (Fish) with French Beans cooked in Butter; Cheese (Bleu); Apricot Mousse.
Friday 23 September – Grated Carrots in Vinaigrette; Roast Pork with White Beans in Tomato Sauce; Cheese (St Nectaire); Fresh Fruit.
Produits Frais – Fresh Products
Plats Complets Préparés de façon traditionnelle et Patisseries – Dishes and Pastries Prepared in the Traditional Way
Produits Issus de L’Agriculture Biologique – Organic Produce
“The Chef and his team wish you Bon Appétit!”
You will note that the Fresh Fruits, Melon, Salads and some other items are organic and clearly marked as such. The district takes immense pride in their menus. Each month they add a special menu for a day, this month it is an American Menu, Gigi and her friends are already so excited about this, burgers and brownies or broonie as they pronounce them in French! Next month they have a Medieval Menu!
In Collège and Lycée the children are given a little more leeway. A menu is sent home for the month by email. The food is served in a traditional canteen style setting. Each student takes a tray, they first pick out their starter, usually there is a choice of two. For the main course there are always four different things and they can choose a single dish or a combination of any two; beef, rice, lentils, courgettes, carrots, fish, chicken, ham and pasta are frequently on the menu. They can choose a yoghurt, a piece of fresh fruit and a portion of cheese too. For dessert there is always further fresh fruit or two or three small sweet choices. There is always French bread! They collect their own knife and fork, but everything else is handed to them on china plates. Jugs of water and glasses are already at the tables which seat from four to twelve.
The canteen in Lycée is much the same except there is an even greater choice and there is also a panini bar and a free vending machine with sodas. Again children are given the choice of paying to eat at school or going home for lunch and again about 95% remain at school. Incidentally we choose at the beginning of the school year for our children to eat at school every day and are then sent a bill accordingly. They cannot take in money and pay on a casual basis.
Another thing everyone loves about school lunches in France is that they are unhurried, no one has to eat at speed, plenty of time is allocated and afterwards there is a long and healthy recess. At the Primary school lunch is around 30 minutes and then there is a further 1 hour recess, always outside, even in the rain when they play under the covered area. In Collège and Lycée there is again an hour and a half in total, they leave the canteen whenever they have finished eating. Occasionally an extra class is added which means lunch is cut to 40 minutes, in which case they are given a priority pass to enter the canteen first. In Collège recess is always outside in the large courtyard. In Lycée they don’t have to eat in the canteen, they may take their trays outside to eat at the tables in the very pretty gardens.
Of course the French still eat fast food, they love McDonald’s, a McDo as the French say, but at the same time lunch is very much an unspoken part of their education, the choice at a later stage in life is their’s but they are getting the right start. As much food as possible is sourced from local growers and they eat what is in season hence at the moment there is plenty of melon on the menu.
Which leads me onto figs, we are inundated with figs, I cannot find enough people to give them away to. We pick them and eat them daily.
Even the dogs are getting bored of waiting in the courtyard garden whilst we gather them!
I’ve made endless jars of fig jam
and we have dried them for the first time, cutting them in half and then laying them out on trays before drying them slowly in the oven at 100C/212F for about twelve hours.
The other fruits making their presence firmly known at the moment are grapes. We have one very old vine covering the east facing stone wall of the courtyard garden, these are green grapes, sweet and juicy and very handy to snack on whilst picking figs!
Down by the vegetable garden we have a dozen or so old, well established, vines which produce delicious purple grapes, they are very slightly more tart to taste than the green ones, but I would be hard pushed to say which I prefer.
A fairly wordy post, I apologise, but I am not allowed to photograph inside the school canteen or dining room understandably, but none the less I thought you might find this interesting and perhaps more than just a little thought provoking. Bon Appétit!