Milk by itself is not used as a common beverage except for very young children. Even so, it is more likely that they will join the rest of the family for the breakfast cafe au lait (sweetened coffee with hot milk) and croissants or baguettes with preserves. In the Basque area, foamy hot chocolate with whipped cream and golden warm brioche is the likely start of the day.
The French, however, make much use of milk and cream in soups and sauces. Some of the sweetest guises of milk and cream appear as soufflés, mousses, creme Anglais (a light vanilla custard sauce), and the soft pyramids of sweetened whipped cream atop desserts for special occasions.
A variety of cheeses are a frequent ingredient in casseroles and gratinee dishes as well as sauces and garnishes. There is scarcely a region in France that does not produce a cheese specialty of the highest quality either fresh or aged and made from the milk of cows, sheep, or goats or a mixture. But most important, cheese is carefully selected to complement the French meal and to serve as the finishing touch, often sharing the plate with a small portion of juicy seasonal fruit. Cheese is the French dessert staple. This is true even when followed by a special sweet.
FRUITS AND VEGETABLES
Fruits are savored for their natural beauty and fresh taste and for this reason are purchased in small quantities and in season. To end a French meal with one’s last bite of bread spread with a creamy cheese and then to add the juicy coolness of any luscious fresh fruit…. But the French also prepare fruit tarts, fruit soufflés, and fruit puddings (clafouti) as well as many types of homemade fruit wines, brandies, and clear potent liqueurs from many types of fruits.
The diligence of French cooks is similar to that of French farmers. Nothing is wasted: both manure and composts of trimmings, leaves, and kitchen wastes are returned to the earth with rhythmic precision. The reward is a seasonal delight of a great variety of fresh vegetables of every type.
Cooked vegetables are always served as a separate course, especially the first of the season. Others are cleaned and trimmed and appear at the table as the natural garnish of the meat or fish platter. All green or brightly colored vegetables are traditionally prepared by a short boiling, then after draining are plunged into icy cold water. The last step is a quick reheating just before serving by sautéing in butter. Note that the vegetable water is not poured away, but will be used as the liquid addition to soups, stews, or sauces. Vegetables may also be served with sauces, tucked into crepes, simmered in soups, or pureed into soufflés. They may also be chilled with oil, vinegar, and herbs (vinaigrette) to be served as a cold appetizer or salad. Artichokes, asparagus, green beans, green peas, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, endive (Belgian), broccoli, and spinach are special favorites. Potatoes, carrots, and tiny onions are most enjoyed lightly glazed with butter and sugar. A special vegetable melange called ratatouille smoothly blends the flavors of tomatoes, eggplant, and zucchini with garlic and onions.
Mushrooms (champignons) have a special place of honor at the French table. Finely chopped and blended with minced onions they form a flavorful thick sauce called duxelles, used alone or as the base for many other dishes. Mushrooms may be carefully sliced, chopped finely, or spirally fluted before using. They may be stewed, grilled, sautéed, or stuffed, but most elegant of all they may be served in simple splendor under a glass bell: champignons sous cloche.
Wonderful things happen to potatoes in the French kitchen, too. Although it took the writings of Parmentier to make the French take potatoes seriously as a food, they then made up for lost time. Mashed, scalloped, baked, and of course french fried, stuffed, made into crispy pancakes, hashed, rissoled – the list is almost endless. But the French top all their potato dishes with two triumphs of technique: pommes Anna and pommes soufflees. If these are not enough, the American potato and leek soup vichyssoise is based on old French food recipes for French potato soup but served chilled. The French penchant for classification is clear even on the matter of potatoes; for each different shape, seasoning, and technique, there is a separate French food recipe.
Whether it is prudence, frugality, or simply an appreciation of food, the French give fruits and vegetables a place of great distinction on the daily menu. Freshness and care in cookery assure optimum nutritional content.
MEATS AND ALTERNATES
From the boucherie come the cuts of beef, pork, lamb, and veal as well as brains, liver, tripe, kidneys, tongue, and heart: meats as well as innards, each prepared with common-sense thriftiness. Charcuteries (shops that provide prepared meats) provide a huge variety of prepared, cured, smoked, and pickled meats and loaves and sausages of every type. Meats are often larded, that is, poked through with thin strips of fat to increase juiciness and flavor. Larding and the cooking technique of braising rather than dry-roasting are most commonly used for large meat cuts to increase flavor but mostly to increase tenderness.
Although there is a recent tendency to enjoy small cuts of meat that can be quickly prepared such as steaks and chops – served very rare – most French prefer to use age-old French food recipes for braising, stewing, and soup-making that take time while calling for the least expensive cuts of meats as well as offal.
Chicken, duck, goose, as well as rabbit, horse-meat, and any available game or fowl are all enjoyed in season and are economical. Special occasions may call for “a good piece of meat” but the type of meat depends more on the specialties of the region.
“Plainly almost anything that lives is edible, in France at least.” The list includes snails (escargots), mussels (moules), frog’s legs (cuisses de grenouilles), smelts or minnows (goujons), and sea urchins (oursins). More familiar to other tastes are crabs, shrimp, lobster, langouste, and a variety of fish found in French waters. Eels (anguilles) and scallops (coquilles) may also be added to the list of edibles prepared, like all fish and seafood, in a great variety of ways: grilled, deep-fried, ragouts, stuffing, etc. From Marseilles comes the famed bouillabaisse, a richly flavored soup-stew of fish and other seafood served with crusty bread and a spicy hot rouille. (But it is from the ancient writings of Atheneus that we learn it was the early seafaring Greeks who introduced their kakavia to the fishermen of Marseilles, where it quickly gained favor as bouillabaisse.)
That eggs are a useful addition to the French menu can be seen by the 282 separate French food recipes for egg dishes found in Larousse Gastronomique. This staggering list does not include the many variations of soufflés, omelets, and custards that are largely based on eggs. Incidentally, it should be noted that the omelet, thought of as French, was another of the many dishes introduced by Catherine de Medici’s Florentine chefs: its origin seems to be an ancient Roman dessert of honeyed eggs called ova mellita. Eggs both as a dish and as an important cookery ingredient find themselves in many dishes but seldom at the French breakfast table, unless served as a simply boiled egg.
Legumes and nuts are not an important source of protein in the French diet but are used in some dishes. The most famous of bean dishes is the cassoulet, a specialty of the Languedoc region. Small white beans are well cooked and layered with several types of meats and sausages to form a richly flavored and filling dish. Nuts are used in desserts and confections.
BREADS AND GRAINS
For the French, the importance of daily bread cannot be overestimated. Crusty bread, usually still warm from the baker’s oven, starts the day with steaming hot chocolate or coffee with milk. The main meal at noon would be incomplete without the bread basket that is only removed at the very end of the meal. The hearty soup that is the usual evening meal would be inconceivable without bread, and many a French snack relies simply on bread plus a few squares of chocolate.
French homemakers do not bake their own breads or rolls and seldom trouble to make pastries or cakes. Why should they when experts have opened shops in every neighborhood for the express purpose of providing the staple of the French diet? Meticulously demanding about the length, the width, the type of crust, and of course the freshness of their breads, bakeries cater to every whim. Most popular are breads made of white flour, and only when bakeries close do some families condescendingly nibble on “health bread” (that is, anything but white bread). Croissants and brioches are the best-known of small rolls, while the baguette in many sizes and shapes is the favorite of breads, although many varieties of each exist to tempt the mealtime tastes. More recently the Parisian French have taken to varieties of coarse, crusty, and chewy country breads.
The French bother little with wholewheat or rye or other flours, and never concern themselves with the category of food others call “cereals.” Hot or cold cereals are almost unknown and even where known are not popular. Rice is used occasionally, mostly in combination with other ingredients to form sweet or savory dishes but seldom as a dish of any importance. France’s ties with Algeria brought Algerian couscous to Paris in varying forms, some better than others.
Olive oil, butter, chicken fat, goose fat, and lard all have a place in French cuisine; mostly the preference is a regional one.
SWEETS AND SNACKS
The range of French desserts from light to rich is as impressive as the number of egg dishes in the national cuisine, yet the favorite dessert is fresh fruit and cheese followed by a demitasse of black coffee. Pastry shops and cafes abound so sweet snacks are available almost everywhere. Crusty white bread sandwiching a few squares of chocolate is a favorite of schoolchildren.
Used with the taste and skill of generations of patience, French cooks add to their basic foods only those seasonings necessary to enhance the original flavors. Scallions, shallots (with their delicate garlic-onion taste), leeks, onions, and garlic all have a special place. A tiny plot for a fresh herb garden is common and so too is a kitchen shelf near a bright window with freshly growing chives, tarragon, and chervil in small pots. If the herbs cannot be purchased fresh, they will be dried. Most used are tarragon, chives, rosemary sage, thyme, savory fennel, marjoram, bay leaf, parsley, chervil, and basil. Most commonly, several aromatic herbs will be tied together in a little bundle and placed in the cooking dish, to be removed just before serving. This is called a bouquet garni.
Two other commonly used techniques for seasoning are the brunoise and the mirepoix. Finely diced mixtures of vegetables are lightly browned in a small amount of butter or other fat and this mixture is added to other dishes to enhance flavor: soups, stews, casseroles, etc. The names can almost be used interchangeably except that the brunoise is always a vegetable mixture whereas sometimes the mirepoix may contain a fine dice of neat such as ham or salt pork.
Another category of seasoning techniques is the roux. Basically, the roux is the flour-and-fat mixture used for thickening, but depending on whether the roux is white, blond, or brown, different tastes are obtained.
Sauces could also be considered as seasonings and here again the list is almost endless. Some of the better-known are: mayonnaise, hollandaise, bearnaise, vinaigrette – in fact, “every kind of liquid seasoning for food” and Careme is said to have categorized more than 200.
Finally, the simplest and often considered “the most French” seasoning is the addition of wine to enhance flavor. A common misconception is that the poorest quality of wines may be used as “cooking wines.” This is in fact a fallacy since in the process of cooking the alcohol evaporates and the flavor essence of the wine remains – either to enhance or ruin the original taste. Commonly for the French, the wine used in preparing a dish is also the wine served with the meal at table.
Cafe au lait or hot chocolate are the favorite morning beverages. Meals are almost always ended with a demitasse of fine black coffee, and the French take as many coffee breaks during the day as their taste dictates. Water is never seen on a French meal table unless it is in a vase containing flowers. Wine is not only the premier beverage of France, France’s wines are of such quality as to set world standards in many categories. Regions have their distinct specialties, and certain wines are traditionally savored with special foods, but the final decision on what to drink with which dish is still a personal one.