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Mastering the Art of French Cooking

Updated on August 27, 2010

The food of France is everywhere given a top rating. Actually, there is no single "French cuisine", for France has marked variety in the treatment of foodstuff, with many pockets of specialized cookery that preserve their gastronomic independence. For example, each province has its pot-au-feu (boiled dinner). There are dozens of fish soups and chowders. Gascony infuses dishes with a hint of Spain. The substantial cassoulets of northern regions are unmistakably German. There is no milk, cream, butter, or cheese quite so good as Normandy's. Paris is renowned for the onion soup made famous in its market section- a thin broth, full of cooked onions and topped by cheese on toasted rounds of bread. In the Bordeaux area, cooked onions are served in a rich blend of milk, egg yolks, and heavy cream. Few people, even among the French, have sampled the whole gamut of regional specialties.

It is this colorful complex of individualized cuisines that makes France a land of joyous adventure for the tasting tourist. Most regional dishes can be found, scrupulously duplicated, in one or another Paris restaurant, lacking only the nuances of their origin. But Paris cannot reproduce the hot, herbal scent of Provence, with its golden aioli (garlic mayonnaise) and its incendiary sauce called rouille. Nor do delicate, whiskery shrimps taste as good in the city as on a blustery day on the wild Brittany coast.

Image by Julien Tromeur
Image by Julien Tromeur

Haute Cuisine

What the term "French cooking" brings immediately to mind today is haute cuisine, as contrasted with "family" or "bourgeois" cooking. Ideally, haute cuisine is the distilled experience of chefs expressed in flawless examples of classic French dishes: consommees; purees; wine stews, such as boeuf bourguignon or coq-au-vin; pot-au-feu, of which every chef has his own version; blanquette de veau; and the popular mousse au chocolat. Standard fare in most fine hotels and restaurants, haute cuisine has provided a vocabulary of cooking and service terms that are familiar to most people interested in good food- a la carte, bechamel, fondue, hollandaise, and table d'hote, to name only a few. Unfortunately, it is also the basis for the stylized mediocrity of so-called "French" restaurants throughout the world.

What distinguishes French cooking in general, and haute cuisine in particular, are high quality materials, mastery of proven techniques, and a recognition of time as an element indispensable to the production of fine fare. France, with its topographical variety, has many combinations of soil and climate for the production of excellent food. The abundant yield of splendid dairy farms, fertile fields, teeming rivers and seas amply fills the national larder. From French vineyards come the finest wines and brandies in the world.

In France, with its limited area and efficient transportation system, there is no temptation to ship unripe fruit to market. Nor have French farmers adopted large-scale production methods that tempt others to delay a harvest past its prime in the hope of greater volume of sale. As a result, les primeurs (tender young beans, peas, artichokes, and carrots; red-ripe tomatoes; and luscious berries and fruits) are sold at their delicate peak of perfection. The flavorsome pre-sale {salt-marsh-grazed) lamb does not, inevitably, grow to coarse muttonhood. Conversely, wine and cheese, allowed to age, attain their "moment of truth."

The training of a professional cook in France is rigorous. They often will spend two to three years in a hotel school, followed by one or two years of apprenticeship in the disciplined frenzy of a prestige restaurant kitchen. There are classic procedures, sometimes involving finicky details, that every apprentice must master to become professional.

Most important among these procedures is the preparation of cooking liquids, such as foundation stocks or "court" bouillons- "without which," the great classic chef Auguste Escoffier (1847-1935) insisted, "nothing can be done." To make a meat stock, for instance, bones are browned, dry, in a pan in a hot oven. When brown, carrots and onions are added, seasoned, and also browned. The whole is then simmered in water to cover and continually skimmed until the liquid is greatly reduced. Finally the mixture is cooled and de-fatted.

Such procedures cannot be hurried. The serious cook considers time a tool with which he learns the exact temperature of the melted butter to be added to the beaten eggs for hollandaise. sauce (hot but not too hot to finger-test); the use of the bouquet garni, the little bag of dried or fresh herbs that contributes "Frenchness" to so many dishes; or the use of a fouette (wire whip) that produces greater volume than a rotary beater for whipping cream or egg whites.

"Chef's pride" is another significant ingredient of French cooking. Although a chef's clientele is quick to detect the lazy substitute, the makeshift sauce, it is also quick to praise a success. These are not the big spenders but people who know, distinguish, and comment- civilized diners who honor the chef.

French Meals

Meal patterns run pretty much to formula all over France. Breakfast is the standard pot of hot chocolate or cafe au lait (hot coffee with a pot of hot milk); yeast rolls, brioches (cakelike buns of yeast dough, light with eggs), croissants, or other fresh breads from the morning's baking; jam or marmalade.

Lunch, in many places the main meal of the day, starts with hors d'oeuvre, usually a few cold appetizers: thin slices of one or more of the smoked meats that France produces in amazing variety, anchovies, olives, and raw mushrooms marinated in oil. There also might be celeri remoulade (raw celery in a mayonnaise flavored with capers, chopped pickles, and shallots), often radishes with butter, and always crisp-crusted bread. Sometimes only one item, such as sausage accompanied by cooked potatoes sliced warm in an oil-and-lemon dressing, is served. Certain restaurants specialize in enormous hors d'oeuvre assortments, while others offer only one or two hot specialties, such as crepes (very thin pancakes, filled or sauced or both) or small brioches, still warm from the baking yet mysteriously stuffed with cold pate de joie gras (goose liver pate).

The main course at lunch is fish, poultry, meat, or an omelet, with potatoes, rice, chestnut puree, or other starchy accompaniment, followed, in a custom wholly French, by a vegetable served as a separate course. This might be cauliflower or broccoli in a rich cheese or hollandaise sauce, or artichokes, hot or cold and garlicky. There is always a bowl of greens, with oil and vinegar (separate) to be mixed at the table. For dessert, there may be a cooked sweet, such as a flan (custard), but more commonly fruit and a choice of one or two cheeses.

The dinner menu is similar, except that hors d'oeuvre are replaced by soup. Indeed, French people consider soup almost mandatory for the evening meal. This point of view may possibly be traced to a fondness for pot-au-feu, the hearty national staple served as two courses—first the broth, then the solids. At dinner the dessert may be more elaborate than at lunch—a rich pastry, perhaps, or a mousse or sweet souffle.

In recent years black coffee, once the traditional finishing touch for a French meal, has gone out of style, and in a restaurant must be ordered specially. But wine and conversation continue postprandially. Good talk is a standard ingredient of French meals, and the gentle stimulation of wine, beer, or cider is as natural to French people as the butter on their radishes.

French people consider wine, beer, or cider essential to the proper balance of a menu. France produces hundreds of wines, 20 to 30 ciders (sweet, bitter, strong, mild, sparkling, or still), and several beers. The best-known wines abroad are, understandably, those that can be exported, but many that are too delicate to survive transportation are exquisite. For the traveler who is not a connoisseur, the safest (and usually least expensive) choice is the local product of the area he happens to be in. Note, however, that the term "Appellation Contrdlee" on wine bottle labels is not, as is sometimes assumed, an endorsement of quality but is only a guarantee that the wine was made from grapes of the area specified.

The gastronomic picture in France is, of course, changing, especially for young couples when both hold jobs. Happily, French cities are rich in moderate-price restaurants serving better food than tired young workers feel like preparing at day's end. In addition, there are boutiques where excellent cooked roasts, meat pasties (pies), salads, and sweets are sold to take out.

The majority of people, however, still follow the traditional patterns of living. Madame runs the house, markets daily, pinches the peaches and centimes, haggles, and buys in carefully calculated quantities. She may purchase "convenience foods," such as cake mixes or frozen produce, but she prefers fresh foods, not only because they are cheaper but also because they taste better.

When he can, Monsieur still goes home for lunch, to have a substantial meal and a period of relaxation before returning to the office. Although le hot dog and le (snatched) 'am-bour-gair are now available in Paris, French business people still favor the leisurely midday meal. The iborer, too, relaxes with his basic lunch of bread, cheese, and wine, sometimes supplemented by a substantial onion omelet, such as the omelette moissonneuse (harvester's omelet).

The assumption that the French family man lunches and dines superlatively every day is the invention of infatuated francophiles, but, by and large, he eats very well. Food to him is not simply "nutriment" but something a man is privileged to enjoy. Having been given a discriminating palate, he reasons, it would be folly not to use it. He always has a favorite restaurant, expects the best of it, and enjoys taking his family there to dine. Some proprietors make a feature of "family night" once a week. Al fresco family eating is also very popular in France, whether at a sidewalk cafe or in the park from a hamper.

History of French Cooking

Not least among influences favorable to French cooking has been the proximity of other peoples and, paradoxically, the wars and invasions that forcibly exposed France to many different cultures. Wherever the conquered or the conquering settled, their foods, customs, and cooking techniques were integrated with those of the indigenous population. The differences in treatment of similar or identical ingredients are great, and the French people "cherish the differences.".

The claim is often made (and often challenged) that French culinary art began with Catherine de Medicis (1519-1589), wife of Henry II and was given further impetus by Marie de Medicis (1573-1642), the second wife of Henry IV. Both queens brought their Florentine cooks to the French court. No one denies, however, that the first serious students of gastronomy were the Italian monks, who developed formulas for making wine, beer, liqueurs, cheese, and bread. The recipe for pate brisee, that shattery, buttery pastry now considered as French as the Tricolor, is said to have been stolen from an Italian cloister.

After Catherine and Marie, the culinary arts in France made only sporadic progress until the 17th century, when a rage for haute cuisine affected the whole nation. In the 18th century, under Louis XV and Louis XVI, gastronomy was further advanced by the freedom given to imaginative cooks.

Cookbooks proliferated in the 19th century, and one in particular had a permanent effect-La Cuisine classique by Urbain Dubois and Emile Bernard, in which the authors deplored the custom of serving everything at the same time, with cold dishes becoming droopy and hot ones muddily congealed. Their suggestion of having hot things passed while still hot met fierce opposition. But French traditionalists are also pragmatists, and the innovation was adopted.

Until the 19th century, there was only open-hearth cooking in the great houses, needing a man's strength to turn an ox or sheep on its spit. Then, in the 1790's, Benjamin Thompson (Count Rumford), a Massachusetts-born scientist, introduced improved methods of heating based on the "enclosed fire," and the kitchen range was born. With it, women assumed a new role in the house- and in culinary history, since, today, most Cordon Bleu cooks are women.


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    • OldRoses profile image

      Caren White 

      7 years ago

      Fascinating hub! I love to cook but don't have the time or patience for classic French cooking. I particularly enjoyed the history you provided. In my opinion, to truly understand something, you need to know the history behind it. Kudos to you for including it!


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