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The French Gastronomic Meal

In France, eating is not just about satisfying hunger; it’s about taking the time to share meals with others. When you’re at the Foodist, you’ll likely spend most of your time standing in the kitchen preparing a dish or taking a walk to a local market to pick up ingredients. But in the end, we’ll sit down together to share a meal, just as the French do. After all, if our classes were simply about technique, you’d be missing out on an important part of our culture.

Our beloved French gastronomic meal earned its place on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, which makes it so that the government supports and cultivates the tradition of gathering around the table. UNESCO captures this essence when defining the French gastronomic meal as a customary social practice for celebrating important moments in the lives of individuals and groups, such as births, weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, achievements, and reunions. It’s all about coming together, the selection of dishes, purchasing of local goods, and pairings with wine, while also taking into consideration specific actions like smelling and tasting of the items on the table or relating to the food and talking about the dishes with each other.

It’s a tradition that has lasting power in the home. You’ll be hard pressed to find kids who don’t come running to the table after the ceremonious call of “À table,” announcing that dinner is ready. French parents still strictly obey the rule that they, too, grew up with, because the tradition of mealtime is not to be broken.

Sharing a meal is about more than house rules and good manners; it’s about paying respect and giving attention to people you care about. It’s about conversation and interacting with one another – asking about the synthèse in class today or how mamie, grandma, is doing. It’s a moment of escape from technology and separate rooms to come together in a distraction-free zone to share stories and make memories ¬over a common factor – food.

And it’s not just the French home that the tradition is protected. In a world where lunch can be practically be delivered right to your cubicle, the French have been able to resist the workaholic habit of eating in front of a screen.

You’ll see it first-hand in Paris at the bank, for example. Head in a minute too late, and you’ll be greeted with a locked door and a clock indicating the time of the employees’ return. No point waiting out the re-opening at a nearby café; by 12:32, every table will be occupied by workers grabbing a bite – and likely even a drink – with their colleagues, soaking up their time away from the trials and tribulations of le taf, or work.

You may read this and think, “French workers take hour-long lunch breaks every day? How lazy! They must get nothing done!” Au contraire, hungry worker. In fact, France is consistently ranked one of the highest – if not the highest – countries in terms of productivity of workers even with their preference for longer meals.

So now that you understand the importance of the French meal in a cultural context, the most important thing for you to do when you visit Paris is to take part in it yourself. Join in on a celebration, and join in on the festivities. Instead of breaking midday for a quick bite, plan to spend as much time at lunch as you would at dinner back home. And lastly, find a spot where you can happily lounge for three hours as you sip wine and crack the roof of your crème brûlée; the best part about sitting in a French restaurant: as long as you’ve ordered something, no one’s ushering you out.

A Very Short History of French Cooking

The history of French cooking traditionally starts in the early Middle Ages with the elaboration of culinary treaties and cursory recipes. However, to get a clearer picture of how French cuisine got kick-started into History, let us bypass the Dark Ages and focus on some of the sweeping changes that occurred during the Renaissance.

First off, French dishes were generally acid before a sugar-mania hit the country in the 16th century – sugar was put in water, wine and even on fish and meat! This trend helped bring about a fundamental change in French eating habits in later years: a clear distinction was made between salty and sweet dishes, and dessert was consistently served at the end of the meal. Additionally, butter was slowly becoming a staple of French cooking, although it took some time for this foodstuff to cease being considered “poor people fat”. The refinement of French cuisine and these culinary changes are generally attributed to the arrival of Catherine de’ Medici and her band of genius Florentine cooks at French court!

French food truly became a model for other cuisines in the 17th century, in great part because of Louis XIV’s magnetism and the allure of his new playground, Versailles. Once again, let us jump forward to what I consider to be the heart of the matter – the 18th century. First off, people started eating with forks in this century! Although the fork was a common utensil in places like Italy, the French thought for a long time that this was a silly way to eat, and mostly used their fingers. During this “siècle des Lumières” (the Enlightenment) cuisine became a hot button topic, subject of intellectual debate and writing within France: food was described as an art form and discussed in terms of harmony, chemistry, and spirituality.

The 1789 Revolution upset the social and political foundations of France, and while many lost their heads (not just the king, but also some of the revolutionaries that led the Reign of Terror like Maximilien Robespierre), the country’s culinary arts flourished! The advent of the restaurant and the restaurateur after the Revolution in France marks a crucial step in the evolution of French cuisine. New dynamics were forged that still inform our culinary experiences today: the chef is accountable to his clients and works to gain favorable critiques to attract more patrons.

French cuisine became more accessible in other ways: by the end of the 17th century and well into the 18th, cookbooks on “cuisine bourgeoise” became very popular in France. This cuisine, typically buttery, rich in meat, sauces and cooked for hours in simmering jus (juices), was an adaption of aristocratic food served at court. Regional dishes like coq-au-vin (rooster with wine), boeuf bourguignon (beef stew), bouillabaisse (fish stew) and gratin dauphinois (potato and crème fraîche dish), as well as the mother sauces made from roux like béchamel, hollandaise or the espagnole, are all examples of this cuisine.

The 19th and early 20th centuries were instrumental in establishing the role and status of chefs in French society, as well as setting a strict, codified rationale to kitchen work. For instance, instead of working from start to finish on a specific dish, cooks had an “assembly-line” style role in preparing and making food. Georges Auguste Escoffier, influenced by Marie-Antoine Carême, is famous for bringing about these time-saving reforms that completely revolutionized the inner-working of haute cuisine French kitchens. He became a world renown celebrity chef, employed in major cities all over the globe. His Guide Culinaire became a bible of sorts that established culinary “rules” and ensured a uniform education for future chefs. It was also in the 19th century that Le Cordon Bleu, the iconic school of culinary arts, started offering classes.

The era of what is called “nouvelle cuisine” came about in the 1960s when Henri Gault of Paris-Presse sharply criticized French cuisine, calling it stagnant and unchanged since the Second World War. He partly blamed the Michelin star system which he believed encouraged complacency and hindered innovation and creativity. He would famously criticize the starred restaurants and laud the navarin dishes (lamb or mutton stew) of “lowly” auberges (inns)! With his colleague Christian Millau, the first Gault et Millau guide came out in 1972. They celebrated simpler, lighter, modern and creative foods that had shorter cooking times and more nutritional value – the opposite of cuisine bourgeoise! These men helped bring famous chefs like Joël Robuchon, Gaston Lenôtre, and Paul Bocuse to the attention of the French public. This movement also inspired a food science trend: molecular gastronomy managed to turn the French chef into a chemist and give him the tools to create new tastes and radically expand the world of culinary possibilities!

Undeniably, French cuisine has lost some of its hegemonic power: there are simply too many interesting newcomers on the international scene of haute cuisine that outrank the current slew of French chefs. However, I believe that the continued success of French cuisine today is not negligible. For instance, accomplished American chef Thomas Keller, who has notoriously been awarded three star Michelin ratings in two of his restaurants in the United States, mainly serves French food and has named one of his most successful restaurants “The French Laundry”. It remains to be seen whether the prestige and allure of French gastronomy will endure. Who knows what revolutionary dish the new generation of French chefs might cook up?

The French Paradox

The Parisian woman has quite the stereotyped reputation– slender, fashionable, and confident. So how do you rectify the fact that she lives in a country whose cheese and bread industries are world-renowned, which is ranked #3 for number of McDonalds per capita, but also at #128 for obesity?

Welcome to the French paradox, a coin termed in the 1980s to describe the culture that has low coronary heart disease despite a diet high in saturated fats. While you head home from your stay in Paris in a croissant coma and some tighter-than-usual fitting jeans, you may wonder how the French continue to indulge in their high fat and carbohydrate diets. Is it a record-setting metabolism? Does the amount of red wine they drink have a positive health effect?

The truth is, the French eat differently than you think they do – differently than you may even eat as a tourist in Paris. It can be reduced down to a few key reasons.

First, cooking is meant to be from scratch. Sure, there are some conveniences these days that make preparing a weeknight meal for a family of 5 a synch. But most of the time, people are eating as diverse a diet as possible and cooking from scratch, not using processed foods.

What makes this rule easiest to abide by is the emphasis on seasonal cooking. While French innovators helped back the anti-seasonalist gardening and airtight food preservation movements, today, farmers markets and programs like CSAs have flooded Paris with seasonal produce. They’ve encouraged Parisians to give up their plastic-wrapped, pre-cut veggies and revert back to exploratory cooking – that fun moment when you receive a celeri rave, celery root, in your basket and get to experiment with how to use it.

While the French paradox involves the food and ingredients themselves, it’s also about the act of eating. While some may love their “family style” buffets, the French style of meals is part of what keeps them healthier than the rest. By keeping the serving dishes off the table and rather presenting each person with an individual serving, the French eat only what is served to them and rarely partake in the American tradition of “seconds.”

Further than serving size, the time it takes to serve multiple courses allows for a longer meal, which not only makes it a perfect time to catch up with one another, but also curbs the appetite more obviously. The sacred 2-hour long dinner allows the body to understand when it’s actually full; that’s why after a few courses of fresh vegetables and hearty protein, a typical French dessert is a small piece of cheese or fruit.

And if a French person is not sitting at a dining table, it’s unlikely they think about eating at all. Walking while eating is cliché in Paris, and a French grandma may even tell you so if she catches you. And if it’s not mealtime, it’s simply not time to eat. Snacking is a somewhat foreign concept still to the French, and while this means they’re eating less, it also means they’re less likely to be eating processed goods full of sugar.

In Paris, having a meal like the French is a perfect way to assimilate to the culture you’re visiting. There is no time limit on your sun-kissed table on the café patio; unless it’s in the heat of the lunchtime rush, as long as you order something, the waiter will let you take up residence there until closing. Part of the joy of having a meal in a café or brasserie is just that: that you can take your time, take a break, and partake in the famous Parisian past time of people watching.

So you see, you don’t need to hold yourself to the new fad American diet to prepare yourself for a trip to France – or ever. If you learn anything about the way the French eat, it’s that it should be done sitting down, and it should be good food. The French paradox may be a myth, but following these rules, you may realize that regularly consuming cheese isn’t as much of a plague-ridden idea as some in your home country might suggest. The key is: eat the least amount of processed food you can, vary up the selection, and eat less. I.e. don’t eat an entire wheel of Camembert in one sitting (you can trust us on that one).

The Mothers and Fathers of French Sauces

In August 2016, the New York Times published an article that outlined our generation’s “New Mother Sauces”: yogurt sauce, pepper sauce, herb sauce, tahini sauce and pesto. While it remains to be seen if these so-called new mothers will go down in culinary history, the original sauces of French cuisine nevertheless remain popular classics in restaurants and private kitchens alike.

Take mayonnaise, for instance. Americans spent 1.86 billion dollars on the stuff in 2015, mostly as a sandwich spread, while Russians consumed 11 pounds per person that same year as a condiment for all types of food! Millenials world-wide are dunking their fries in it, and the Japanese have been spreading it on their pizzas for ages. How have sauces like mayonnaise become so ubiquitous today?

I would like to think that it has something to do with the cornerstone of all things sauce-related: the much venerated “mother sauces” of French cuisine – the espagnole (brown sauce), velouté, béchamel (white sauce), tomate, and hollandaise. These are the mothers of all sauces: they can be adapted in infinite ways to create delicious offspring, like mayonnaise!

There are two key father figures in the history of French sauces: Marie-Antoine Carême and Georges Auguste Escoffier. 19th century chef Marie-Antoine Carême revolutionized culinary history by publishing a textbook/comprehensive guide to French cooking for future chefs called The Art of French Cooking in the Nineteenth Century. In it, he highlighted what he called the grandes (big) sauces – the espagnole, velouté, allemande and béchamel – and the petites (small) sauces – all of the possible variations that can be subsequently created (like demi glace or béarnaise for example).

His contribution to French sauce history is only second to his impact on culinary history. Notably, through his particularly artful and careful presentation of dishes, he played a large role in transforming the culinary craft into an art form. His dessert innovations set nineteenth-century Paris ablaze: he created pièces montées that looked like miniature exotic gardens or antique palaces. Well-read in matters of art and architecture, these realistic looking landscapes were extremely ornate and completely edible!

Most remarkably, Carême was instrumental in ushering forth the idea that specific sauces and French cuisine were actually the mother sauces of a universal cuisine. For example, although the espagnole and the allemande were imported to France, it was thought at the time that they were sufficiently altered to be considered truly “French”. Since Carême, the idea of basic quintessentially French sauces, soups, or broths has lived on, and spread from France to the world.

A century after Carême, world renowned French chef Escoffier made his mark in both France and abroad, working at the Hotel Ritz (Paris), the Carlton Hotel (London), and the Savoy Hotel (London). Not only is he praised for simplifying recipes and developing the kitchen brigade system (which organized kitchen work), but he also created legendary dishes like the pêche melba, a peach pastry named after the highly celebrated Australian singer Nellie Melba. Moreover, legend has it that the Kaiser Wilhem II, while traveling on the ship SS Imperator, was so impressed by the French chef’s skills, that he said “I am the Emperor of Germany, but you are the Emperor of Chefs”.

Escoffier contributed to French sauce history by publishing a book in which he adds tomato sauce to Carême’s list and relegated the allemande to a subset of velouté. More importantly, he used the title “mother sauces” to identify the group. It barely matters that Esoffier may or may not have been the first to coin the term; indeed, his artful self-promotion through his book A Guide to Modern Cookery has ensured his lasting posterity in history books and cooking manuals alike.

Today, while most chefs and professionals sing the praises of these five sauces, others have nevertheless ventured towards innovation. To do this, they have snubbed one of the key ingredients of the typical French sauces – roux, a mixture of flour and fat (typically butter). In a world where most people diet, sauces have turned to so-called lighter dressings and seasonal ingredients.

Indeed, while Eggs Benedict remain a personal favorite – it has a winning combination of poached eggs, English muffin, bacon and creamy hollandaise sauce (egg yolks, lemon, stick of butter, pinch of salt and cayenne pepper whisked together) – you can’t seriously call it a “light” or healthy dish! Same goes for macaroni and cheese, which a savory nutmeg flavored béchamel sauce can instantly make decadently delicious and particularly filling. These sauces also have a common ingredient, not particularly suited for those of us with lower metabolisms: melted butter!

I doubt the original “mothers” will ever be fully dethroned. Their versatility is key to their perennial success: after mastering the basic cooking techniques required to make them, you can create infinite variations and even adapt them to different cultures and contexts. When opting for either of these 5 mother sauces, you can follow the recipe or add a secret ingredient. In any case, your meal will be tastier for it!

IS THERE SUCH AS THING AS “PARISIAN FOOD”?

Did you know that the steak frites is the dish most associated with Parisian cuisine? Besides the iconic beret and baguette, savoring a steak frites (preferably in a cozy bistro) seems to be another well-anchored aspect of Parisian lore. However, grilled meat typically eaten saignante (undercooked or done rare) with a side of fried potatoes is not a Parisian invention – it’s actually English!

French chefs traditionally cooked meat for longer periods of time in a bouillon (broth). As such, regional dishes like boeuf bourguignon, coq-au-vin, or bouillabaisse, all examples of one pot meals, have typically been more common in Paris. Moreover, meats were not typically eaten “on their own”: more often than not, they were prepared as a stew, braised, or served with an Escoffier style sauce.

If I had to pick a dish to represent Parisian gastronomy, I would single out a stew called the gibelotte. To make this dish, rabbit is cooked in white wine with onions, lardons, a roux sauce and a bouquet garni of herbs. In the medieval times, l’Île-de-France (the region surrounding Paris) was home to the greatest vineyards in France, before Burgundy and the other famed French wine regions! As such, Parisian recipes have traditionally called for white wine, creating dishes that have a slight acid tang. Moreover, a deliberate plan was set to harvest rabbit in the 1830s in order to provide more meat to the masses at a cheaper price. Rabbit became so popular, it was present in both Parisian markets and restaurants.

A decade later, when chicken became the cheaper choice, it was again typically cooked in vinegar and wine sauces. Today, Parisians and, more generally, the French, are known for their especially savory vinaigrette dressings for salads (my favorites being those that mix multiple vinegars (balsamic and cider for example), mustard, oil and shallots).

It is also no coincidence that there is a firmly established culture of eating bread in Paris. The city was strategically located in an area populated by grain fields. Pâtisseries and boulangeries remain major Parisian hallmarks: you cannot walk around Paris, or France for that matter, without coming stumbling on a boulangerie. Popular chain stores like the Eric Kayser boulangeries have been able to develop in the city alongside neighborhood boulangeries, testifying to the enduring culture of bread and baked goods like croissant and pain au chocolat in France.

When potatoes started being grown in French fields in the 19th century, this new foodstuff was not immediately embraced by the people, who clearly preferred bread. Pandering to the masses, recipes were even published to help cooks make bread loaves out of potatoes!

The history of Parisian culinary history was especially marked by the advent of restaurants in France, which were first born in Paris in the 18th century. Before restaurants, bouchers, pâtissiers, rôtissiers, charcutiers, wine merchants and other specialized salespeople could not sell cooked meals for seated customers. When restaurants became legalized, they first spread like wildfire through the Palais-Royal neighborhood in Paris (near the Louvre and the rue de Rivoli): Parisians flocked to these new establishments, impressed by their cleanliness, even sometimes awed by the decorations, and the fact that you had access to a menu with prices. Quickly, Paris became known as the place to find delicious foods.

When I am asked what is a safe dish to order at a typical brasserie or café, I invariably answer: the croque-monsieur. It is the Parisian sandwich par excellence, and it rarely disappoints: made with ham, cheese, and sometimes creamy béchamel sauce, it is often served with a side salad. Deceptively simple, and perfect for brunch, you can be sure your meal is made on the spot! Also, you cannot go wrong with an entrecôte or steak with a side of fries. It does not matter that steak frites isn’t actually a hallmark of Parisian cuisine: it has become a Parisian dish thanks to restaurants like Le Relais de L’Entrecôte (Boulevard Montparnasse and Rue Marbeuf) or Le Relais de Venise (Boulevard Pereire). They are so successful today, they don’t even bother serving other dishes!

When discussing Parisian cuisine, Versailles is unavoidable. Louis XIV moved his court in the 17th century from the Louvre Palace in Paris to Versailles, which was initially only a hunting lodge. The feasts, cooking techniques and trends emerging from the court informed the rest of the country on what and how to eat. Today, Versailles would like to remain a synonym of excellent cuisine. For example, you can treat yourself to Lenôtre macarons and delectable meals at the elegant restaurant La Cour des Senteurs just outside of the château. Also, Alain Ducasse, the first chef to have three different Michelin-starred restaurants in three cities, has opened a café within the château called Ore. You might have head of Ducasse’s restaurant on the second floor of the Tour Eiffel, which offers three, five of six course meals of haute cuisine! From personal experience (and confirmed by Tripadvisor enthusiasts), it is one of the most romantic restaurants in Paris.

In the memoir My Life in France, television star, celebrated cookbook writer and master chef Julia Child muses that her first meal in France in 1948 (oysters, sole meunière, a salad with a “lightly acidic vinaigrette”, and a dessert of fromage blanc), although full of surprises like drinking wine at lunch (“the trick is moderation”), was the most exciting meal of her life. Discovering French food was transformative: she became a passionate foodie and changed careers when she was 30 years old! In the same way, eating and looking for the finest restaurants in Paris can be inspiring. It can be as exciting as climbing the Eiffel Tower, gallivanting around Montmartre, discovering the Marais, shopping in the Saint-Germain-des-Près area, or gawking at the artworks in the old train station that has now become the Musée d’Orsay!