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When Ordering Seafood in France

Marche St Martin

I grew up in the landlocked states of Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Minnesota. The only fish I ate growing up were usually out of the frozen food section of the supermarket, breaded and fried. So I can empathize with those of you who are a bit hesitant when it comes to seafood.

It took me about 15 years of living in France (including almost four years on the Côte d’Azur) before I could feel comfortable eating seafood. Oysters, octopus, mussels, lobster, scallops, crabs, fish of every color, and even shrimp.

Yes, shrimp.

I’ve eaten enough meals with my American tour clients to know that shrimp is often the “least scary” seafood on the French menu. Et pourtant…

In France, unless it says décortiqué (peeled/shelled) on the menu next to your shrimp, it’s going to come the way that the majority of the French eat it: with the head and legs still attached (but, merci dieu, not moving). I was eating last week with a lovely family when the gambas (giant shrimp) dish arrived at the table for the youngest son, its beady little eyes defiantly staring down the 12 year old

My bad. I should have warned them. So many dishes in France don’t come exactly the way that Americans are used to seeing them. In Antibes, the fish freshly caught in the Mediterranean were usually served grilled, yet otherwise completely intact, head, tail and all. I would try and de-bone it myself, without much success, effectively mutilating my dinner. The servers loved seeing me struggle, and would come over and demonstrate how to swiftly remove the head and the entire skeleton in three expert movements. I’m still perfecting my de-boning technique, but at least I don’t completely embarrass myself.

Now the shrimp, unlike the fish, require something that the French don’t usually use at the dinner table: fingers. “Just grab its head and rip it off,” I said to the 12 year old. “Then tear off the feet. They come off pretty easy,” I assured him. His look of terror prompted mom to take over. She daintily grabbed one of the gambas and pulled at the head, releasing a stream of oily butter onto her white shirt.

Okay, Plan B.

Sometimes being a foreigner has its benefits. The French assume we know nothing (sometimes they’re right), so they’re willing to humor us from time to time. I signaled the waitress, who came over immediately. I explained, in French, that the family are American and have never seen shrimp served with the head and feet before. “Just tell them to use their hands to pull them off,” she said. “They tried,” I replied. Then, with my most pathetic, pleading face, I asked if perhaps, it it’s not too much trouble, if the chef could perhaps do it for the young boy.

She hesitated a moment and then, shrugging her shoulders, said she’d give it a try. The dish was whisked back to the kitchen. A few moments later we could hear laughter. At least they were amused. The gambas returned, denuded in a bed of lettuce, their sauce in a little dish on the side.

“This,” I said to my happy clients, “is a good example of when you can give the waitress an American-sized tip.”

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  • I often find myself making the same faux pas. Being English and living now in Paris I often get mistaken for not knowing anything about food – living in nation of supposedly ‘beans,sausages and eggs’ and ‘over cooked beef’ eaters. I’m so glad you found a forgiving waitress, that’s not always easy to come by! Personally I’m not adverse to the French way of eating ‘crevettes’ only that it takes so much effort for so little reward, after negotiating the decapitating and deshelling you’re left with a 3cm piece of meat. Delicious though!

  • "my husband dared me to try a muscle" – Jen surely meant a mussel! lol As a Corsica living in the UK I am amazed people still discover seafood. I had to explain to my wife that shrimps were actually crawling scavengers! not sure she was impressed though

  • Seafood is delicious and fresh with heads and all. We eat seafood with heads on n America as well. Low country boil in Savanah, Lobster boil in New England, Crayfish boil in New Orleans….

  • Although I’ve been able to shell and eat shrimps since I was 15 (had to living in Australia), I’ve never been able to eat oysters or muscles (or any seafood that looks gooey). However on honeymoon in Corsica last week my husband dared me to try a muscle, mostly because our ‘Salade fruits de la mer’ was too good to miss out, plus I make him eat tofu all the time! Anyway, so I was brave and tried a muscle…and it was OK! I lived. I might even try more as long as they are drenched in a buttery garlic sauce and come with frites!

  • I learned on my very first trip to France that if if doesn’t state ‘fillet’, it will be the whole fish. On the other hand, if you know how to fillet it as you eat it, it’s probably the best fish you’ll ever eat.