When Hélène suggested a food swap between her international readers, I signed up immediately. This would be my “secret Santa” event, I decided—one of the downsides of freelancing is that I can’t really host my own Christmas party.
I was paired with Axèle who, as I discovered a Google search later, didn’t have a blog. Damn. That was inconvenient. How was I supposed to cyber-stalk her, then?
Like back in middle school when we were randomly assigned penpals, I sent her a short email introducing myself. I was already planning my shopping list for the agreed budget of $30. From a practical perspective, I wasn’t aiming for an unforgettable culinary experience but for fun, “exotic” packaged snacks. Indeed, I wouldn’t trust Canada Post to deliver most of my favourite Canadian or discovered-in-Canada treats, like pecan pie, a real burger, sweet potatoes, carrot cake, muffin or cream cheese.
On my shopping list were Oreo cookies, Kraft Mac & Cheese, peanut butter, crackers … and whatever Axèle would feel like trying.
Axèle replied and introduced herself. She was from Bordeaux and she had worked as an au pair in the US in the early 2000s so she was somewhat familiar with North American food.
“Do you have any allergies? Do you follow a special diet?” I asked right away as we all do in North America when food options are discussed.
On full Canadian mode, I had forgotten a small detail. French don’t have food allergies or special diet—they have fucking principles. Yes, French take food very seriously.
Axèle hated what North Americans call “treats” and what French call “junk food.” She had tried peanut butter before and she claimed it tasted like chalk. She found Oreo and most cookies were “just sugar with a hint of chocolate.” “These sticky foods have colours that Mother Nature didn’t invent,” she wrote after reading the two links I had sent her on common grocery items found here. “I can’t see myself eating any of this. I liked mac & cheese in my twenties when I didn’t know any better but I can make a much tastier pasta dish now.” She did remember she liked Eggo’s cinnamon waffles but I couldn’t ship her a few easily—although as I pointed out, as long as the mailing would stay in Canada, the product would remain frozen considering the dire winter weather.
On her side, she was frustrated by my disdain for wine (Bordeaux is one of the main wine-growing regions) and my unfamiliarity with the “produits du terroir,” typical regional products. She suggested sending homemade food but I reminded her customs may not let it through. “Oh yeah? What are they going to do about it?” she replied, outraged like French are when their food rights are being violated. “Er … seize it?” I replied.
I told Axèle we were a multicultural family and I asked if she would be willing to explore Chinese delicacies. She didn’t seem to love the idea because, as she put it, she was okay with Chinese food but she didn’t like the country much for environmental and human rights reasons.
“Is there anything specific you had in mind when you signed up for the swap?” I begged.
“Du sirop d’érable!” she wrote.
Ah. We were getting somewhere. Maple syrup. That was a start. She was also curious about beef jerky.
I went to the Byward Market to buy maple candies and maple butter produced locally, in Quebec. These are the treats I usually bring to France and my family loves them. I bought beef jerky and I added a pack of dehydrated poutine mix, more for fun than for real culinary enjoyment. Then I bought a lipstick from Blistex, a brand I love, and I added a set of chopsticks and spoon for a Chinese touch.
I wrote a postcard, mailed my packaged and waited.
Even though I completed the challenge first, Axèle’s package was delivered much faster. La Poste 1—Canada Post 0.
The carton box looked big and I immediately felt self-conscious about the lighter padded envelope I had mailed a week earlier.
After assuring Mark the package wasn’t “from Santa” and that it was “work stuff,” I opened it in my room.
Here what she sent me:
- Four different blends of spices from Bedros
- Poulain dark chocolate
- Galettes St Michel
- Coquelines from LU (a strawberry-filled madeleine typically eaten by kids for goûter, deeply comforting!)
- Pâtés Lou Gascoun, a regional product from south-west France
- A funny book that was very popular in France recently
- A personal letter
Like I told her, Axèle completely delivered. I loved her package and the food she included.
Meanwhile, my package took a long detour but eventually arrived in Bordeaux. The first thing Axèle emailed me was a picture of the mess in her kitchen: “I spilled your spices all over the floor when I opened the package!” she said.
I assumed she was talking about the poutine mix but I’m still confused how the sealed pouch opened during transit.
Axèle found the chopsticks and spoon set funny—“you couldn’t help it, could you!” she wrote. As for the food, I don’t have yet her verdict on beef jerky but the maple treats were surprisingly a miss. “It tastes … strange,” she explained. “A bit like this Nước chấm Vietnamese sauce. It’s kind of savoury and sweet at the same time. Super weird.”
I wish I could have given Axèle a culinary epiphany but I reminded myself I had a home-ice advantage over her. I’m French, I know what French food tastes like. I was bound to like what she would send. However, I knew fairly little about Axèle’s own background and international experience with food.
Food is highly cultural and taste is very personal. What’s spicy for one person is bland for another, what’s best enjoyed cold for one person should absolutely be cooked for another, etc.
Lesson learned, not everyone loves maple syrup. Sorry Canada.
Thank you Hélène for brainstorming this swap and pairing everyone and thank you Axèle for your emails, your package and your comments!