Cantine is French for school cafeteria*, and it is hard to find a grown-up that doesn’t have a story or two to recount about his cantine days. These memories are often a mix of the bitter (the food was less than stellar, and the atmosphere was one of constant struggle for social survival) and the sweet (petit-suisse fights were fun, and if you knew what strings to pull, you could lay your hands on an extra serving of fries — du rab de frites), but in both cases, they are an integral part of how personalities and palates were formed.

A book called Cantines came out yesterday in France, based on these very premises. Food writers Sébastien Demorand and Emmanuel Rubin have selected sixty dishes that were served, with varying degrees of gastronomic success, at school cafeterias when we were kids — from friand au fromage (a puff pastry envelope with a creamy cheese filling) to petit salé aux lentilles (salted pork and lentils), by way of macédoine de légumes (a mayo-laden salad of peas, potatoes, and carrots) and hachis parmentier (a sort of shepherd’s pie).

They have asked their favorite chefs to revamp these dishes, and their favorite writers to dig up their memories, which appear side-by-side with each recipe. I myself have contributed a story about the little tubs of bi-flavored ice-cream (I obviously have a thing for two-flavored foods), to accompany Pierre Hermé’s rendition of it, a Tranche glacée, comme un bigoût vanille-fraise.

It is a fun and colorful book, filled with clever recipes, whimsical food styling, and lively writing — I’m not talking about my own: many of the stories are written by Demorand and Rubin, and if you’ve read their words in Zurban (now sadly defunct) or the Figaroscope, you know what I mean. Whether you are looking to recapture the flavors of your own French school lunches, or just have an anthropological interest in discovering what cantines were like, I think you will enjoy it. The book is available from, which ships abroad, and French bookstores. It is, of course, in French.

[See below for my ice-cream piece — I am unfortunately too short on time to translate it into English now, but I will if I get a chance.]

* The word cantine is also used for an office cafeteria, or as an expression to mean that a restaurant is a regular haunt of yours: “Ce resto, c’est un peu ma cantine.”

Deux goûts, sinon rien

Dans la queue qui serpente devant les portes orange de la cantine, la rumeur se répand comme une traînée de poudre acidulée (celle dans laquelle on trempe sa langue et qui pétille) : aujourd’hui, petits pots de glace bigoût. Vite, un plateau un peu poisseux, des couverts, une entrée et un plat au hasard, on tord le cou pour s’assurer qu’en bout de chaîne, il reste des provisions. Vanille-fraise, vanille-chocolat, couvercle rose layette ou marron Smecta, on attrape son dû en laissant un joli cercle mat sur la buée de l’étagère réfrigérée. On passe devant la répression des fraudes — « Une glace par personne ! C’est quoi qui coule dans ta poche ? » — et on va s’asseoir. Pendant le repas, personne ne quitte son dessert des yeux. Celui que la roulette Duralex (le plus petit numéro gravé au fond du verre) désigne pour aller remplir la carafe prend soin de confier la garde de son petit pot à un copain : qui part à la chasse perd sa glace.

Une fois le plat expédié, le petit pot a atteint sa température optimale de dégustation : petit cœur bien ferme, zone périphérique voluptueusement fondue contre la paroi de carton — y a pas à dire, la nature est bien faite. On attrape la mini-languette et on soulève le couvercle, que l’on nettoie d’un coup de langue préliminaire. Armé de la petite cuiller en plastique — les vrais connaisseurs en choisissent une rouge, c’est bien meilleur — on attaque. Cuillérées bigoût creusées le long de la division, cuillérées monochromes alternées, chacun sa stratégie. C’est doux et c’est sucré, c’est frais comme l’autre côté de l’oreiller, c’est régressif même si on ne connaît pas encore le mot.

Quand tout est fini, on racle méticuleusement la rainure du fond grâce au bout carré de la cuiller, petit bijou d’ingénierie. On soupire, on écrase le petit pot dans les restes de purée. Et on rapporte son plateau, la petite cuiller au bec en guise de mignardise.

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  • Ant

    I’m glad you didn’t translate it. There’s something quite refreshing about reading something you’ve written in French. And even though this isn’t a memory I’ve shared, it still seemed familiar somehow. I guess school cantines are much the same whichever side of the channel you’re on.

    Love the idea of la roulette Duralex.

  • Christy

    I, too, enjoyed reading your writing in French. I was doing so well, too, until the very last word! Have to look that one up!

    Amazing, isn’t it, that the little tubs of ice cream in the US are such a hit with kids too. It’s a bit like the cupcake phenomenon – you don’t have to share with anyone, you don’t have to wait for someone to cut/scoop you some, etc. I remember those days and loved them, although now I much prefer a bit of Chubby Hubby or even just a really good vanilla!

  • School cantines are nevertheless quite different in other parts of Europe. I remember – from my youth deep in comunist Poland – awful milk soups, kinds of very untasty gulash, cold eggs in mayo sauce and ever present hot dogs in tomato sauce. Of course, there were a few remarkable things like pancakes with cotagge cheese, different kinds of dumplings (“leniwe” made of white cheese!) and fried chicken livers with apples:)

  • Macédoines de légumes, rien qu’en y pensant j’ai la nausée!

  • My friend works near Musee Andre Jacquemart and calls their beautiful café her ‘cantine’…lucky her.

  • stéphanie

    oh la la clotilde, j’ai retrouvé toutes mes sensations “cantinesques” avec ce texte !!!

  • Erin

    We were given things that vaguely resembled pizza, hot ham and cheese, and the totally inedible sloppy joes. None of this had any nutritional value what so ever, so my dad made our lunches. Thank goodness.

  • Even if the cantine food was bad– I bet it couldn’t be nearly as bad as lunch room food in the US. All I remember is greasy, day old pizza and the only vegetables they ever served were frozen peas and mashed potatoes… ahh, but I did have a place in my heart for the processed chocolate brownie/cake thing!!!

  • The Duralex glass, that ice-cream you mention and that almost forgot… You managed to capture the essence of the cantine, refresh my memory, and make me quite nostalgic! Thanks and congrads for your piece.

  • I am also wondering if someone mentioned the “gobage de Flamby” in the book :)

  • roho

    Wow – I’m so impressed by your school lunches! We did, however, have some awesome things in our US cafeterias. Almost 30 years later, my 2 brothers and I STILL talk about the huge, soft yeast rolls drowning in melted butter that we used to buy in grade school. I used to save my nickels and have one every day, even though I usually brought my lunch.

  • My wife is a teacher at the school I attended when I was young…I don’t think I’d want to replicate those recpies in any way shape or form!! lol

  • What a wonderful idea for a book…gives me many ideas for my own playfulness in the kitchen…Thanks for sharing!

  • Alisa

    This is very great!
    Maïa and I will both enjoy reading this! But there is something you should know; all of those typical dishes you listed above that “were” served at the Cantine, STILL ARE! Of the group you list, my girls find the macédoine to be the biggest offense to their taste buds.

  • Maïa

    Et bien moi j’étais à la cantine avec la grande Clotilde, et pour de vrai.

    Et Toc!

  • Mary

    For those who don’t know French, here’s my quick attempt at a translation for you:

    Two for one ?

    In the line that snakes in front of the orange doors of the school cafeteria, the rumor is spreading like a stripe of tart powder (the fizzy kind you dip your tongue in): today is two-flavored ice cream day. Quick…a sticky tray, silverware, grab some food, rubber-necking to see if at the end of the chain there”ll still be some left. Vanilla-strawberry, vanilla-chocolate, baby pink or brown topped Smecta, you claim yours leaving a pretty, opaque circle of frost on the refrigerated shelf. You go by the cheat patrol – “One ice cream per person! What”s that dripping in your pocket?” – and you sit down. During the meal, everyone keeps their eyes on their dessert. When the Duralex roulette picks you (the little number on the bottom of the glass) to refill the pitcher, you”re careful to entrust your little cup to a friend: you leave it, you lose it.

    Once you”ve finished your food, the little cup has come up to optimal tasting temperature: the heart is firm, the peripheral zone is voluptuously melted against the outside wall of cardboard – there”s no arguing, nature is perfect. You take hold of the tiny tongue, open the top and start by cleaning it with a quick lick of the tongue. Armed with the little plastic spoon – true connoisseurs choose a red one, they”re better – you attack. Bi-flavored spoonfuls dug along the divide, alternating monochromatic ones, to each a different strategy. It”s smooth and it”s sweet, it”s cool like the other side of the pillow, it”s regressive even if you don”t yet know that word.

    When it”s all gone, you meticulously scrape the groove at the bottom thanks to the squared-off edge of the spoon, little jewel of engineering. You sigh, you squish the cup into your leftover mashed potatoes. And you take back your tray, the little spoon at your lips like a mignardise.

  • Hi Clotilde,
    I love your text. Your writing in french is as good as your writing in english. Quel talent :-)

  • Alors moi aussi j’écris en Français si c’est comme ça! Même au fin fond de la Belgique il me semble que les cantines sont conformes à cette description, si ce n’est qu’on se souvient plutôt des toasts aux champignons, du gratin de chou-fleur, du fromage râpé sur les pâtes ou du repas de la Saint Nicolas ;-) Au dessert, même combat… les petits pots de glace! Sinon j’avoue que ça n’a rien à voir mais je suis passé à la “Red Wheelbarrow” acheter “More Home cooking” de Laurie Colwin. Très agréable. Dans Clotilde, il y a Laurie, non? ;-)

  • That’s such a sweet story – it reminds me of my repas à la cantine: ‘beurk’ except for the petits pots de glace.


  • Jen

    Wow, as a student of French, I was able to catch the gist of the story, but then after reading Mary’s (thank you!) translation I was shocked to see that your story exactly matches my recollection of the proper technique even down to licking the cover and getting them at the proper semi-melted temperature.

    I do remember that despite how horrid most school lunches were in NYC there was a brief period when they sold potato knishes for 25 cents extra in the late 80’s. That is my fondest memory. And of course, nothing was ever nutritional. Thanks again.

  • so powerful and moving memories, les petits pots de glace bi-gout, and the Duralex glasses thing !!! i liked to mix the two flavors (vanilla and chocolate of course!) when the ice was soft enough, it became all creamy, hum :)
    as you said, we are all marked forever by our cantine years !
    very nice writing, as always…

  • My primary school cafeteria (in Australia) was known as the ‘canteen’, and you couldn’t just go up and buy your lunch, oh no sir! Your parents had to write your order on a brown paper bag, which you handed over to your teacher at the start of the day with the correct money, and that was delivered to the canteen ladies, who would spend the morning assembling the lunches. The food would then be delivered to the classroom at lunchtime in a laundry basket (I have no idea why). You could get pies and pasties from our town’s bakery, plus freshly made salad sandwhiches and flavoured milk… and that was it! Oh, and in summer there was frozen yoghurts on sticks that you could buy for 15 cents. Those were the days!

  • Totalement d’accord avec toi : tout est meilleur avec une cuillère rouge, c’est prouvé !

  • berkeley girl

    Your piece brought back memories of the many cafeteria lunches I had at the resto-u when I studied abroad in Grenoble. I remember well the petit sale aux lentilles, the steak hache, macedoine des legumes (so that’s what that strange mayonnaise thing is called!), always accompanied by a choice of a drink, yogurt, or dessert. Cheaper than American college cafeteria food, better or worse depending on the American college. Now if only I could my memory of the French language was as good as my food memories!
    -berkeley girl

  • I used to love those ice cream too! well done for the text you wrote about them, it’s really subtle and cute: I like it a lot.

  • rainey

    My school didn’t have a cafeteria but some of my very best cookie recipes come from a column that sometimes runs in the LA Times. They’re the cookies that people write in for from their memories of Los Angeles’ school cafeterias.

    As for the ice cream, I’m a decent bit older than you but my memory of the little individual pots is much the same. Particularly the cleaning the tops with our tongues. ;> Ours, tho, came with little flat wooden spoons in glassine envelopes. Part of the experience. I can still remember the flavor of the wood and how you could draw air through their fibers along with the flavor of the ice cream.

  • Ah le fameux verre Duralex ; Nous disions que le numéro au fond du verre représentait notre âge et avec cela on jouait au bébé, à la jeune femme (le préféré bien sur), à la mamie (au dessus de 35ans à mon avis ;)) )….

  • Lea

    Our cafeteria served ice cream only a handful of times—and, yes, I still remember how the taste of the wooden spoon mingled with the creamy texture of the treat.

    My best memory: One day when I was seven or eight the cafeteria served Italian ice. I was confused—it looked funny! But one taste, and…mmmmmm. It was only that one time, though. The distributor must’ve dropped off the wrong boxes. :)

    Some U.S. school systems are trying to improve school lunches, using more local produce, serving more fruits and veggies. I’ve written about it here and here, along with links to articles.

    – L

  • Indeed, rab de frites is a national sport of ours.
    You did not mention, though, that the apex of the week in French school cantines is the French national dish, religiously served on Wednesdays… the couscous.

  • It’s great to see people still recall their old eating adventures, especially school ones!

    Reminds me of the countless food fights we had. Think I may need to pick myself up a copy of this book…. good shout!


  • Ah, les gobages de Flamby! Et la macedoine de legumes! Je suis peut etre une des seules a aimer ca1 Non, sans mentir, avec le celery remoulade dans des coupes plastique! Nostalgie quand tu nous tient!

  • Lalex

    J’ai eu la chance de pouvoir rentrer chez moi le midi pour déjeuner pendant toute ma scolarité. Je n’ai donc eu l’honneur de découvrir les “cantines” qu’à la fac, où la nourriture était totalement sordide. J’ai pu ainsi vivre l’étrange expérience de ne rien manger et de grossir quand même…

  • Nicolle

    Oh Clotilde, you have no idea the foods we Americans suffered through in our school cafeterias (at least the public schools). It was inedible. Even the pizza was frightening.

  • Molly Murray

    I am sad that there arent pictures on the archives pages anymore, Clotilde. I liked when I could browse through history as if it was this month.

  • Griffin

    I wonder at these Proustian memories, if madeleines were what Proust had at his cantine?!

    I live for the day when you write your first novel. You are a wonderful warm writer and it’s like having chocolate fudge cake reading your words. Or to put it another way, not reading you would be like having a broken pencil – pointless!

  • Joli!

    Parfois nous les profs avaient droit à deux glaces, si la dame de cantine était de bonne humeur…

  • The book sounds like great fun :)
    I’ve heard friends rant on about the joys and horrors of Petit Swiss and never quite got it. I even went out and bought some to see if it would happen to me.
    AH HA It was the school cantine that was lacking!

  • The topic of cantines always elicits boos and hisses at my house as my daughter has “suffered” through lunches at two different schools. She just returned to classes yesterday and the cantine offered two menu options: chicken legs accompanied by cauliflower OR hamburger steak along side spinach….gack! Surely, even in France, these are not the foods of fond cantine memories? One might have thought that the first day offerings would be a bit more titillating to the palette?

    I remember her tales of primary school where the nuns would patrol the trays to be returned and send back offenders who did not eat a sufficient amount. My daughter and her pals took to slipping morsels of what they deemed inedible onto the floor or hiding the bits in empty yogurt containers stuffed with a used serviette. Ah! The creativity of youth! Anything not avoid eating cordon bleu…

  • L

    Loved the piece Clotilde. And how funny; growing up in a small town in Finland I recall us in elementary school always checking the little number on the bottom of the Duralex glasses. We believed they revealed your “true age”. Fascinating to find out that they intrigued kids around the world then…

  • During our vacation in France I lured my husband to Draguignan, so I had a chance to get to a bookstore and buy the book. Though the bookstore was rather small, I was successful. I have yet to try out the recipes (and translate them from French before that), but what I read so far sounds great. Plus, the pictures are amazing.

  • Rachel

    This made me laugh and cringe in equal measure, especially because I discovered French cantine food at a later age than most – 23! I was an assistante d’anglais for a year in two schools in Tours, and although I usually ate lunch at home between classes, every so often I’d have lunch in the cantine with some of the other teachers and assistant(e)s. Being a vegetarian, the choice was very limited, and let’s just say that

    1. I’ve eaten enough drastically overcooked gratin de chou-fleur to last a lifetime and
    2. No other word in the French language inspires as much fear and loathing in me as macedoine!! (even four years later I still shudder at the mere sight and sound of it…)

    On the upside, I never got caught in the crossfire of a bataille des petites suisses and indeed, the ice cream is definitely one of the highlights of cantine cuisine!

  • Marika

    I didn’t use the school cafeteria until I was in high school.I had 2 hours to wait before I had to catch the train to go home, so I walked 10 minutes to the Teacher’s College lunch room (menza, we called it) where we sat 10 to a long table, and were served by students. The worst thing I have ever ate was lima been soup, that was served once a week. The smell was gross, the taste was awful. I still can not look at lima beens.

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