“Heaven is where the French are the cooks, the Italians are the lovers, the British are the police, the Germans are the mechanics and the Swiss make everything run on time”. Sigh. Not even one mention of India.
That which we know now as classic French cuisine was developed in the 17th century by two visionary chefs – Francois Pierre la Varenne and Marie Antoine Careme. Until then, French cuisine was heavily dominated by Italian influences. They pioneered a fiercely nationalist pride in the fresh produce of their country, and introduced ways of channelising this into their cooking. By the early 20th century, the French cooking that conquered the world was called haute cuisine and by the 70’s, it evolved into nouvella cuisine – a way of cooking that involved fewer ingredients and more flexible cooking methods. The French cooking that we see today is characterised by creative presentation of non traditional items , with prime focus on pleasing presentation and great taste.
What makes French cuisine special? One primary reason is the use of herbs rather than spices for cooking. France is home to a wide variety of herbs. Even in the busiest and most packed streets of Paris, one finds people growing their own herbs in pots on crowded balconies, tossing these casually into a roast or salad to create a piquant effect. Another is the use of painstaking techniques, crafted over years to a fine art. Yet another is the use of fresh produce and healthy options.
Here are some of the must-haves in French cuisine:
Boeuf (beef), Poulet (chicken), Porc (pork), and charcuterie (cold cuts such as sausages, ham) are often the main fare.
Common vegetables used are lettuce, leafy greens, tomatoes, zucchini, carrots, eggplant, string beans and all manner of freshly grown stuff that makes for great eye candy because they are carefully placed with the camera in mind.
This is something that the French can’t do without. There are over 500 varieties of cheese in France- Brie, Camembert and Roquefort ( an old blue cheese). Each area takes pride in its own brand of cheese. It is also one of the courses of the meal, served right after the main course and before dessert.
There are, again, several varieties of bread, from the simple to the elaborate. Baguettes are universally popular.
It is claimed that the French don’t get fat because of the red wine that they consume. They also eat slowly, putting down the cutlery between bites to make conversation.
What goes into the different meals of the day?
(Le petit dejeuner) Breakfast is usually one of the lightest meals of the day, in sharp contrast to the American way of serving meats and everything else in the morning. In France, it’s usually rolls with jam or jelly, washed down with coffee or chocolate. Pain au chocolat or pain aux raisins, or croissants are usually reserved for the weekends. Pain means bread.
(Le dejeuner) Lunch is usually a leisurely affair, starting with hors d’oeuvres, (starters) which could be anything from Mille Feuilles Tomate Feta (tomato and feta cheese) to a Soupe De Poisson Facon Bouillabaisse (seafood soup) . Both these are available on the appetisers menu of Wow Tables’ experience in New Delhi, called Rara Avis.
Main course is called Plat principal. This could be Boeuf Bourguignon, which is a thick stew and a complete meal in itself. Or Poivrons Farcis Au Quinoa (capsicums stuffed with quinoa), again served with pride at Rara Avis.
And then, of course, the dessert, something that everyone has been waiting and saving space for. This could be the all-time favourite creme brulee, which is essentially a kind of caramel custard, but richer as it uses heavy cream, which is baked in a water bath, cooled and refrigerated, then sprinkled with sanding sugar and burnt with a kitchen torch so that the sugar layers become hard as candy. At Rara Avis, the Creme Brulee Vanille Fraiche De Bourbon is a speciality item, containing as it does fresh vanilla infusion.
(Le diner) This is the time of the day when the family bonds over food, so there are several courses, including fromage (cheese), which may be sometimes replaced with yoghurt. Dessert may often be a fresh fruit, or a pastry for special occasions. Bread and wine are also an integral part of the meal. Rara Avis is open for both lunch and dinner, and the ambience is welcoming and vintage French.
Coming to drinks, those that are served before the meal are called apertifs (literally meaning appetite opener) and those that are served after are called digestifs. Apertifs are commonly dry (not sweet) alcoholic beverages such as champagne, vermouth and gin, to name only a few. They are served with amuse-bouche ( loosely translated as mouth-amusers) such as cheese, olives and pate. Digestifs are supposed to help you digest, as the name implies. Commonly digestifs are taken straight and include cognac, fruit brandies, whiskies and the like.
Incidentally, the French say,“Ca va, je n’ai plus faim” ( I am good) when they don’t want anything more and not “Je suis plein”, (I am full) because that’s considered weird.
Vive la France!