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French Food and Culture

FRENCH FOOD AND CULTURE

Impossible. Impossible to think of France without at once being pleasantly assaulted with a sensuous vision of velvety wines and tempting French foods. Is this reputation a carefully nurtured legend or does it indeed have some basis in fact?

A great cuisine can only be developed where there are suitable and abundant natural resources, diligent and imaginative cooks, and enough sensitively appreciative palates to taste and enjoy the results. It would seem that France can give a nod to each point.

Watered by numerous rivers, blessed with a temperate climate and fertile soil, the rolling plains and valleys of France are dotted with orchards and vineyards, yield grains and varieties of delicate vegetables, and nurture cattle, sheep, and fowl in such abundance that, under normal conditions, France is actually self-sufficient in foodstuffs. Farmers, fishermen, and sheepherders have learned from centuries of diligent care and lessons handed down from one generation to the next how to coax the finest quality from their produce, be it grapes or chickens. And in a nation that can honor a chef with the Legion d’Honneur it is not surprising that the taste for fine wines begins with the very young at the family table, and the arts of the kitchen begin near maman.

Few nations boast culinary food histories, gastronomic maps, and qualities of foods and wines that set world standards. Such is the case for France. Any library of cookbooks, while acknowledging most world cuisines, will have the weightiest shelves of books on French cookery and cuisines. Not surprising when one glances at such tomes as Curnonsky’s Cuisine et Vins de France, Brillat-Savarin’s La Physiologie du Gout, the epic 2,984-recipe collection of Auguste Escoffier, or the meticulous cataloging of French food, techniques, and recipes by Antonin Careme. And it is indisputable that France’s brandies and wines have set world standards and her cheeses defy imitation.

But it was not always so.

It was Auguste Escoffier who said: “When we examine the story of a nation’s eating habits … then we find an outline of the nation’s history”. French food history might begin with the meats boiled in huge pots together with fish and vegetables, or with whole wild boars spit-roasted and served with an assorted garnish of game and fowl. It was the comparatively civilized Romans who introduced their own spices, wine, and wheat to the Gauls. And in those early days before the Common Era, not only new foods but table manners also proved to be a novelty. The Romans taught the Gauls to drink from cups instead of from human skulls and to seat themselves at rough tables instead of squatting on the ground. But there was an exchange too. The Romans enjoyed milk-fed snails, oysters, and foie gras made from the artificially enlarged livers of geese, and they in turn introduced these new luxuries “back home.” But it was many years before both Romans and Gauls learned to eat with anything but their fingers, their teeth, and possibly a sword.

Charlemagne is credited with being the first French gourmet in the history of French cuisine, ruling his feudal empire while dining on four-course meals and savoring the smoothness of Brie cheese, which he had “discovered” in a little abbey near Paris. He is also credited with helping establish France’s wine industry, planting many orchards, and even developing fish ponds teeming with eels, carp, and pike. He left his intellectual mark as well, founding numerous schools and becoming a patron of scholars and artists as well as a devout Christian. In the late 700s C.E., Charlemagne struck a very early blow to male chauvinism when he allowed women to share his dinner table – a previously unheard-of circumstance.

The Dark Ages echo the plight of peoples all over Europe: gluttony and luxury for the upper-class few and almost unparalleled misery, poverty, and near starvation for the masses. Wars, diseases, and meager crops that failed resulted in the people scrounging for food from roots, barks, and even mixing earth with flour to make bread, and as a last resort the eating of human flesh.

France’s “sense of mission” was perhaps born in the eleventh century with the Crusades. The First Crusade was made up totally of French knights inspired to annihilate all of Christendom’s enemies, and as they marched under the theme “God wills it”, they massacred populations, destroyed towns, and even plundered Jerusalem. They did, however, also find time to enjoy dishes made with rice, and brought back to France not only rice but many oriental spices: cinnamon, cloves, thyme, aniseed, and bay leaves. At the same time, the feudal system was disintegrating, and while some peasants retained small plots of land, many others moved toward the towns. While small markets sprang up, storage, transportation, and food preservation were hardly adequate. The arrival and the use of spices greatly enhanced the palatability of available and inexpensive food such as whale meat.

The Middle Ages were characterized by gargantuan feasts and gross table manners: eating with hands, belching, and tossing scraps on the floor were all commonplace. However, many ate simply and bread and soup was a common meal. Joan of Arc is said to have enjoyed soups so much that she was known to eat five different soups at one meal and nothing else. Perhaps as a further influence from the Middle East, candied fruits, sugared nuts, and other sweetmeats became popular and Auvergne gained fame for its fine-quality dragees (sugared almonds). About the same time, a growing interest in French food and its preparation was indicated by the publication of the first cookery books in French: Menagier de Paris, and Taillevent’s Viandier.

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