Bonjour, Mademoiselle et monsieurs, it is I, the criminal host with the most, Jacque “Le Coq” LeRoque. You of course remember me from our failed attempt to create Chocolat Mousse togezzer, no? Well, whether you remember me or not, I am taking over the duties of presenting you all with ze history and culinary feats of my home country, France. Your normal host, that slovenly Irishman Jean, has spent the last day waiting with bated breath for the strike of tragedy, as he foolishly ate honey from a broken jar, and therefore may have, in typically tragic bumbling fashion, consumed broken glass.
Zat is not what zey meant when zey said you should “cut down” on your diet.
He has been on ze tenterhooks all day, as they say northward in perfidious Albion, which, I shall explain for you American readers, refers to England, as I know your schools are distressingly lax in teaching the only truly important topics, poesie et theatre or poetry and…theatre. In any case, while Jean paces in pensive panic for pending perforation of his pancreas, I shall regale you with what makes French food distinctly French, and why it iz of such distinction worldwide.
Like a Bull in Anciens Shop
Ah, I see zat Title Jean has remained wiz us, despite his counterpart’s removal. C’est bon. His terrible stabs at humor shall liven the dance of my impeccable wit through danger. Let us first speak of what we all know: in America, and indeed, much of ze world, “French Cuisine” is connected intimement with the idea of High Cuisine, or, in your barbaric parlance, “Fancy Dining”. And zis has been true for centuries. And for the reason, well, we must delve deeply into ze complexities of international trade, the concept of terroir, and the twisting interplay between food and geography. IN other words, we must look at a map.
For many centuries, zis would have been considered “all you needed to see” of Europe.
If you were to name the wealthiest nations in Europe for the last 2000 years, you would find that five names are relatively constantly in the top, particulièrement before the 1800’s. And those names would be, in modern terminology: France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and ze United Kingdom. And if you look at the above map, you will note something quite funny about all of those countries: they either are, or share a border wiz, France.
And before ze invention of ze aeroplane, and ze metal sailing ship, this meant zat most commerce and trade between kings, prinzes, dukes, and wealthy merchants traveled, at some point, through France. And in zese times, zese great men would be forced to stop in ze inns of French towns and ze castles of French lords. And, of course, it is always zat which is near, but slightly different, that possesses the greatest allure, no? Simply ask your famous Monsieur Bezos for ze truth.
A rich and powerful man having a mistress?
Sacre bleu, who could have ever predicted.
Zus, ze nobles of these rich nations would, in their home countries, regale zeir less well-traveled friends and rivals with the delicious foods they had eaten in my homeland. Thus, French Food became the meals of kings, ze wealthy, and more importantly, ze cultured. Thus, the best chefs and bakers and butchers, all ze men and women who MAKE food, came to France to make the best food, which makes the food even tastier, and this causes more talk, which attracts more cooks, in a constant cycle. Which creates the haute cuisine.
It’s Getting Haute in Herre
Your puns are like knives to my ears, you Entitled Brute.
In any case, haute cuisine refers to…well, “high cooking”. And it this cuisine that is born from the patterns I have said and it creates the impressions I discussed. “But Jacque,” you cry, your plaintive voice like a lover’s pleading touch, “If this cuisine is what inspired the comments before, how can it be born of the cycles those comments described?” Ah, ze paradox is a delight. In short, it is because, how you say “delivering on ze hype?”
No no, zis is the “depicting of ze hype”.
While French cooking was indeed delightful and impressive in, say, the 14th century, by ze 17th century, it has masters of the craft, trained by masters, who were themselves trained by masters. In short, there is an abundance of skill present. And this creates demand: these masters wish to test themselves, to push their boundaries. And so the haute cuisine is born: a cuisine of difficult techniques, precise creation, artistic presentation, and, of course, only the best ingredients. And, because of all these elements, a cuisine solely for the rich. Cream and butter, ingredients expensive in lands with few dairies and before refrigeration, become the backbone of sauces and plates.
Here we see ze core of what defines French cuisine come to be. Because, if you were to pick three foods to symbolize French cooking, what would they be? Come now, I’m sure you Americans are not afraid of assaying an answer? What is that? “Cheese, Bread, and wine?” Haha, just so.
Sometimes, ze stereotypes, zey come from somewhere, no?
Let us, sacrilege though it may be, set aside the bread for the moment. What do both cheese and wine require, to be made well? Refinement. Zey need precision, zey need time, and zey need care. All things zat ze haute cuisine indulges.
Now, you may be saying to yourself, “zis is all well and good, but when Jean writes zese posts, he talks about specific dishes and ingredients zat define ze culture.” I understand your confusion. But you must understand, zat as Jean himself has admitted many times: he is being reductive when he speaks in zis way. In every nation, zere are regional differences. In ze United States, for instance, you are all aware zat “Southern” food is a distinct culinary tradition and style. It is much the same everywhere. However, two particular countries are particularly finicky about zese distinctions. And we’re talking about one of zem now.
The Rarely Reasoned Regions of Rhône
RHÔNE IS A REGION OF FRANCE, YOU BLUNDERING NIT-WIT. What was I saying? Oh yes, Italy and France are both notorious for zeir regional cuisines. Italy has roughly 19 recognized regions! France, by contrast, has around 12. And is over twice the size of Italy. As such, as a Frenchman, it would pain me deeply to imply the cuisine of Provence is the same of that of Toulouse. The former is driven by herbs, vegetables, seafood, and their undying love of Pastis, an anise-flavored liquor. The latter is a land of sausage, beans, and dairy. The town of Roquefort, where the blue cheese of the same name is made, is found in Toulouse, while Provence is the home of Ratatouille.
Ze stew, not ze animated mouse movie, which was clearly set in Paris.
Partly these distinctions are self-fulfilling: you see, Italy, as the home of Rome, is the site of the oldest European cookbook. Thus, the Italian kitchens have had a great deal of time to precisely note what they make. In a similar vein, France is known for several early texts, as well as, like Italy, a great deal of geographic disparity in its regions. Southwest France is, in some ways, almost indistinguishable from Greece, while Northeast France is much more like Germany. Hence, we cannot cram all of the history and distinctions of French cooking into a few ingredients. Well, perhaps Jean could. His mind is like a steel trap: rusty and dangerous, but also capable of crushing things into shape with terrifying efficiency.
As such, in the spirit of my companion with ze glass-laden gut, I shall strive to explain some simple elements that are quite prevalent in French cuisine, and where they derive from.
When it comes to meat consumption, France is notable for its…unnotability. While you Americans LOVE your beef, and the Germans love their pork, France takes a much more balanced approach. We eat more pork than other meats, but only just barely more. In order, our consumption is Pork, then Chicken, then Beef. We also eat lamb and mutton, and occasionally horse. While zat may be shocking to you Americans, zat is because of symbols, not because of any true concern. You Americans have a much more complex symbolical relationship with the horse, as do ze English. In France, we did not have the same attitudes. It is not a common meat here, but it is eaten.
Zis is a horse-only butcher. For many years, ONLY ze horse-only butchers could sell horse.
I ‘ave written horse so many times now, it is gibberish in my eyes.
Otherwise, our consumption is noted for its balance, and its decline: Our famed recipes are just as likely chicken as pork or beef. And now, they may be chicory or beet instead. France has always been a nation that knows trends, and so as ze world discusses reducing meat consumption, and going green, we have limited our own: recently, we reduced our meat consumption by 10% in a single year.
Dairy, of all varieties.
It is no secret that France loves its Cheese. As Germany is to bread, so are we to Cheese. As our own President once complained “How can anyone govern a country with two hundred and forty six varieties of cheese?” And, so we are clear: we’ve made more. Depending on how you measure these things, there may be as many as 1,000 different French Cheeses now. Goat’s milk, sheep’s milk, cow’s milk; Washed rind, cheddared, triple crème; aged six months, twelve months, three years!
And beyond cheese, all kinds of dairy are indulged in France. French cooking is the most butter-heavy cooking in the world. We eat 8 kilos of butter a year, per person. That is over 18 pounds. We are the third highest butter producers in the world, despite being MUCH smaller than the numbers 1 and 2. (Number 1 is India, of all places. I guess zose sacred Cows do make a lot of free milk.)
You will recall mere seconds ago, I mentioned that the French variety of cheese is comparable to the German variety of bread. AS such, it is a pleasing echo to say that French PRECISION in bread is comparable to German precision in Sausage. Our laws on baguettes are impressively tight: It cannot be called a baguette if it not made on the premises, it must include so much of these ingredients, etc. And this is logical, as our love of bread is quite strong: Bread is eaten at every French meal. In fact, in medieval France, there was a saying that I will not write in the original, as it is hard enough for your eyes to read Modern French, that proclaimed “the bread IS the meal, the rest is only sauce.”
Not an ingredient, per se, but a point worth remembering: one of the earliest uses of herbs and vegetables in French cooking was not for the FLAVORS they provided, but the COLORS. We in France have always acknowledged that food should be a feast for the senses as well as the body. Bright colors, contrasting textures, garnishes and sauces, all of these were tools in the French kitchen to bring joy.
Zis little Stack of fruit, for instance, is much more appealing with ze cantaloupe noodles.
I could go on, of course, but I think I hear Jean in ze other room deciding that, if his insides have not cut themselves by now, that he probably did NOT in fact, swallow the glass, and so I should go before he sees me here. We would not want things to come to blows as they did before. I have no doubt he will return to my nation’s shores soon enough, as he cannot stay away, just as those great chefs before, from the challenges and precision needed from our high cuisine. Au revoir, mes amis!
Oh, before I go: I should tell you all zat Jean is, as ever, most appreciative of his Patrons, whose financial support keeps ze bills paid, as he so domestically puts it. And of course, you should keep your ears and eyes on his social media feeds for more news, jokes, and attempts to create. Or not. I cannot make you do zis thing.
MONDAY: JEAN’S PLANS WERE FOILED, AS HE HAS COMPLAINED NO LESS ZAN THREE TIMES. HOWEVER, HE SHALL CERTAINLY HAVE SOMETHING RELATED TO YOUR MUCH VAUNTED “FOOTBALL” CHAMPIONSHIP
THURSDAY: TRUST ME, ‘E DOES NOT KNOW. PROBABLY SOME SORT OF DISCUSSION ON WHAT MAKES A GOOD PARTY FOOD, AS FURTHER PREPARATION FOR ZE “BIG GAME”