Somewhere in the bowels of this blog is a piece about a meal of ‘Boeuf de Tartare avec un oeuf’ (beef tartar), I was unwittingly exposed to while in France. It was in the city of Montpelier to be precise… It caused some hilarity when my ignorance about the world of ‘gastronomigue de France’ was so mercilessly and brutally shown up.
A few weeks before this momentous and shameful event we had flown into Marseille only to be marooned at the airport. The French farmers were angry again and had surrounded the airport with their tractors, sharpened scythes and red faces.
No one could get in or out. We had organized a French Citroen to be rented some weeks before in Australia. We were given the keys at the Marseille Hire-car desk but apart from opening the doors and sitting in the car, we could not drive anywhere thanks to the boycott. I turned the key and tried the engine. A few times going brrrm, brrrrrooom, but that’s about all. The car was brand new and had just done a few hundred meters. It was also the smallest car we had ever sat in, more like putting on a jacket than stepping in a car, but it was automatic. For me having to change driving on the right, automatic was tres important.
One farmer took pity on us. Nothing has ever beaten the sheer friendliness and French ‘fraternite and egalite’ of that farmer ever since. Perhaps he recognized the farmer in me? Anyway, he moved his tractor and beckoned a friend of his to lead us to freedom. Alors, alors he kept saying. We drove over a small kerb and along the edge of the runways passing countless stranded planes, followed by a dirt track and voila, we were near the highway towards Montpellier. He waved goodbye and we shouted ‘merci beaucoup’, followed by a heartfelt ‘au revoir. I had exhausted just about all my French.
A few weeks after:
We were seated in a below footpath restaurant on a cobbled stone narrow street in Montpellier. The atmosphere was muted as were the lights. Couples were holding hands and whispering sweet nothingness while picking at their greens and patate de frites… Helvi ordered a sensible filet mignon done rare, and I softly asked for a beef tartar done ‘medium’ s’il vous plait. The Garcon laughed heartily. I did not think it was that funny.
Helvi, ‘why do you always play the fool? Pardonez moi, I asked? She answered me, ‘beef tartar is raw meat’. No, it’s not. It is beef very rare and tenderized as it used to traditionally done under the horse saddles of wild Mongolian Tartars in pursuit of Cossacks deep inside the Crimea. It is the rarest of meat but only just cooked for a minute or so.
The horrible truth was soon delivered to our table. Helvi was right. A massive blob of raw mince and a raw quivering egg on top was facing me across from a triumphant Helvi. I told you, she sweetly smiled. I don’t know why I thought it was tender steak, but we all sometimes carry lifelong misconceptions, don’t we? I genuinely thought the term ‘beef tartar’ came from an historical fact.
Helvi also drove home another truth about those wild Tartars riding on horses and saddles laden with steaks underneath. “They ride their horses bareback, no saddles.” Can you even imagine riding a horse that way sitting bare-bum on your steak tenderizing it all day? They eat a lot of cabbage as well, she added mischievously?
It just never stops.