History of French Cooking – Part 3

Posted by on July 16, 2011

The empire of Napoleon and its magnificence brought La Bonne Table back in vogue, though the emperor didn’t give much thought to food. Scores of writers of all countries have let gallons of ink flow on the subject of Napoleon. Brillat-Savarin found only this to say about the great man: The man ate quickly and badly. It is known, however, that during the battle of Marengo, Napoleon was served a dish of veal and loved it so much that the recipe was named after that famous battle, thus Veau Marengo was born. Napoleon’s era was rich in great chefs and gastronomes. I will mention the most famous: Antoine Carême, as far as chef, and Brillat Savarin as far as gastronome.

It is the beginning of the XIX century that Brillat Savarin published his ‘Psychology of Taste,’ the true code of the laws of gastronomy – a code much more savory than the code of Napoleon, (the legal code) would say Andre Theuriet.

The XIX and beginning XX century represent the culminating point inFrench cuisine. Paris abounded with famous restaurants and countless gastronomic expositions (the most famous being in 1902 when President Loubet offered a monstrous banquet to 20,000 mayors. In 1868, the Frenchman Mége-Mourier invented Margarine. There was a black period during the siege of Paris in 1870, when parisians ate cats, dogs and rats. Live rats brought a great price at the market. Parisians ate horses, and even the boa at the Jardin des Plantes was not spared.

France is now in the 21st century. There are still great restaurants, great chefs, gourmets and gastronomes . . . as well as housewives who continue the familial, lets even say ancestral traditions.

Unfortunately, modern life doesn’t lend itself to gastronomy. People are in a hurry and then there are the DIETS of all kinds. I quote Edouard de Pomiane: “Young generations are drowning in diets. Noodles without butter, butter without bread, bread without sauces, sauces without meat, meat without truffles, truffles without perfume, perfume without bouquet, bouquet without wine, wine without intoxication, intoxication without fun, fun without women, women without breasts. Saints in Paradise, I would rather be sick than deprive myself of all the pleasures of life.” Edouard de Pomiane published a Gastrotechnique titled: Twenty dishes that will give you gout. I own this great book which was given to me in France . . . by my doctor.

I have made a large omission across the centuries. I have forgotten to mention the catholic church’s contribution to French cuisine. Let’s not forget that it is in the convents that many delectable recipes were born. Many types of cheese, many liquors(Liqueur verte, chartreuse, champagne etc.) were created byt the monks. So, let us give credit to the catholic church who contributed largely to enrich France’s culinary legacy.

Let’s mention the true element at the base of French cooking: Bread. French children are taught to respect bread from infancy.

The true fathers of bread are the Greeks who invented 72 ways to present it and introduced it to Rome. It is the Greeks who founded 329 bakeries which were in business thirty years before the birth of Christ, in the capitalof the latin world. The Roman legions brought bread to Gaule at the same time they brought it peace.

Henry IV became popular by instituting a bread market in Paris and all large French cities, twice a week. Bread was the main stay of Napoleon’s Great Army. It really helped during these most difficult times. If every soldier had in his knapsack a Marechal’s staff, he also had a loaf of bread, and some experts credit Napoleon’s many victories to that fact. Each time bread has been sparse in France . . . there has been a revolution. French love their bread. Statistics tell us that 21% of French consumers will take a long detour, just to get to a bakery where the bread is better, and they buy fresh bread every day, sometimes twice a day.

We cannot discuss French cooking without mentioning wine. Wine is the usual drink of each family. At each meal children drink ‘pink water’ which progressively reddens as the years go by. Wine is the beverage that always accompanies a French meal. The French would never consider drinking anything sweet with salty food. In cooking, wine is mostly used for marinades. You can use an ordinary wine for cooking, but the better the wine the better the dish. Use only good, dry red wine for Boeuf Bourguignon, and never, never, use cooking wine for anything; a sacrilege in France.

Glutony (I prefer the French translation ‘gourmandise’ is a capital sin. However it greatly contributes to civilization. We cannot discuss food without citing Rabelais and his savory ‘Gargantua.’ Rabelais could not bear to see an empty glass without filling it up, or a full glass without emptying it. Besides Rabelais, Villon and Ronsard frequented Le sabot, et LaPomme De Pin, old inns of the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance, La Pomme De Pin enjoyed an enhanced splendor. During the reign of Louis XIV, Moliere, Racine, Boileau, La Fontaine, Lulli and Mignard met together there, once a week, for supper. Chapelle got Boileau very drunk and very happy. The Regent, Philipe d’Orleans, was an excellent cook. He was the promoter of the great culinary movement which would have so much influence on the intellectual minds of his day. From the Regent’s dining room came out a new society. French conversation was born during the suppers of the 18th century. Mr. de Talleyrand, another famous gourmet, gave credit to his great chef, Antoine Carême for many of his diplomatic successes.

I have mentioned La Pomme De Pin . . . in 1882, Place Gaillon, inParis, was founded the restaurant Drouant which is still in existence. During 16 years, every Friday, many discerning gourmets met there. Journalists,artists, men of letters. To cite just a few: Rodin, Lucien Descaves, Toulouse Lautrec, Paul and Georges Clemenceau, Edmond de Goncourt, etc. They exchanged ideas . . . and recipes.

I hope you have enjoyed this discussion about French cuisine. I am  sure that those of you who love history and didn’t recognize the names of some of the French celebrities I have quoted in this talk, have rushed to the  internet. It is my hope that you did and as a result have learned a little more about the greatness of France, not only in its culinary art, but in literature, music, philosophy and the arts.

So it is that in France we appreciate cooking as a science, even as an art, and not just a simple occupation.

In closing, the grandeur of France might be contested by some. The greatness of her cooking and her wit is not contested by anyone.

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