France is the country par excellence for fine wining and dining, a paradise on earth for gourmets. French cuisine, French wines and French cheeses, as well as the traditional baguettes and croissants are famous worldwide.
Contemporary French cuisine is one of contrasts. One can still trace the customs of the Gauls in the festive meals that take place today at weddings and other celebrations. But French cuisine is also influenced by foreign cuisines. At the same time, there has been a return to culinary roots and the authenticity of regional produce in the last decade.
French cuisine may be chic and fashionable but above all it remains simple and natural, a far cry from the complexity it is often associated with. As Curnonsky, the most famous food writer in the 20th century in France and dubbed the Prince of Gastronomy, once said, «Good cuisine is when things taste of what they are.»
In France, chefs are celebrated and may be decorated by the President. Gastronomy is so important that it is a matter of state.
The Origins of French Gastronomy
Paris, a pivotal city of 17th century Europe, played a large part in making French gastronomy known abroad as varied, elegant and refined. During the 18th and 19th centuries, many European kings and aristocrats employed French cooks. Nowadays, French chefs are still very much sought after, and ensure that the key skills of French gastronomy are passed on to the next generations.
The real boom in French cuisine is often attributed to our famous King Louis XIV, the Sun King, who lived in Versailles and ruled from 1661 until his death in 1715. He is often presented as the promoter of haute cuisine and undoubtedly gave gastronomy its national supremacy. He introduced the concept of dining in a series of courses, and at each meal had a great number of dishes brought in successive waves.
Louis XIV ate in public, with a crowd filling his antechamber to witness his meals. He cultivated the art of conversing at the dining table, and today French people naturally discuss the merits of the food they eat during meals. This is a practice which is deemed inappropriate in some other countries and may surprise the unprepared foreign visitor.
The other major factor in the development of French gastronomy was the opening of the first eating establishment in Paris in 1765. Many cooks followed this new path, and over a few years many restaurants were set up.
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Three main types of cuisine can be distinguished. Cuisine bourgeoise refers to the rich cuisine which consisted of never-ending banquets under the Third Republic (1870-1940) and resulted in the creation of the classic French dishes. Many of these dishes are rich and sometimes require the rather complex cooking techniques often associated with French cuisine. Haute cuisine is part of this category and is a highly complicated and refined way of preparing food. Many foreigners mistakenly believe that all French meals involve such complex cooking and unhealthy ingredients. In fact, this type of cooking is seldom used and is reserved for special occasions.
Nouvelle cuisine, promoting lighter, flavourful and innovative dishes, emerged in the 1970s, largely due to the focus on health and diet at the time and as a reaction to traditional cuisine. Presentation is a characteristic feature of nouvelle cuisine, with dishes served in a decorative manner. It has had a great influence on cooking styles worldwide.
Towards the end of the 1980s, French cuisine returned to cuisine du terroir (a term that translates very loosely to “regional cuisine”). It features high quality local produce, authentic regional specialties and traditional dishes. Regional cooking styles and ingredients differ greatly from one part of France to another. However, traditional rustic cooking and the forgotten flavours of locally grown ingredients are common themes central to cuisine du terroir.
The French are also curious when it comes to foreign cuisines. The rise of foreign cuisines in France in the last few decades is undoubtedly linked to the innovative frame of mind celebrated by nouvelle cuisine. Fast-food chains have quickly developed since the 1980s, but the tradition for leisurely meals and social dinners is strong and unlikely to be given up by the French in a hurry.
© copyright Christelle Le Ru - French Fare (CLR Books, 2006)
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