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What comes to mind when you think of French cuisine? Lavish food? Cream and butter? Red wine? Pastry? Big price tag? There are many facets to French food and cooking. First of all, there is no one type of French cuisine. The nature of French cooking, just like Italian, is highly dependent on the particular region of the country in question. However, technique, culinary history, and stylistic trends do play a unifying role in shaping the scope of French cooking.
Geography affects gastronomy via two key mechanisms. First, the microclimate, and the unique characteristics of the land in any given location determines which food products can be cultivated. Second, proximity to certain natural food sources, (oceans, forests, etc.), as well as to the influence of neighboring cultures, will shape a region’s culinary destiny.
It is no surprise then that the cuisine of Brittany & Normandy, on the northwest coast of France, is dominated by seafood. However, the land here is suitable to raising cattle and apple trees. Thus, dairy products, cheeses and various apple preparations, (including the famous apple brandy Calvados), play an integral role.
The food of Alsace, which borders Germany in the northeast, is clearly infiltrated with German influences, most notably the dish Choucroute garni, which is sauerkraut combined with pork and/or sausages. Even their wines are more similar to neighboring Germany than the rest of France. Alsace is also known for its fruits, use of foie gras, and savory tarts, such as quiche Lorraine. Foie gras is the liver of fattened (from over-fed), ducks or geese. This delicacy is high in fat and expensive. All I can say is taste it. See if you care about your heart or your wallet as this puddle of heaven sublimely melts in your mouth.
Provence is located on the southeast coast and naturally reflects the flavors of the Mediterranean. Here we depart from the French stereotype of fat, cream and butter. In Provence, olive oil is king, as well as greater use of vegetables, herbs, and seafood. One cannot discuss the bounty of Provence without mentioning the renowned bouillabaisse, a Mediterranean seafood stew with tomatoes, herbs, olive oil, onions, and wine. It doesn’t get any more Provencial than that.
The southwest part of France is known as the Midi. Nearest to Spain, the Spanish influences of chile peppers and salted fish are evident. Lamb, snails, foie gras, duck, and organ meats are also common. But the classic concoction of the Midi is cassoulet, a stew made from white beans and any combination of duck confit, (duck cooked in it’s own fat), lamb, pork products, and sometimes even partridge. Every town in the Midi has it’s own unique recipe. Cassoulet is the French epitome of comfort food. Southwest France is also the home of Bordeaux wine and the famed brandies Armagnac and Cognac, all of which find their way into the cooking.
And that brings us to Burgundy, considered by many as the gastronomic heart of France. Burgundy is of course known for its stellar wine but that is only the beginning. Charolais cattle, highly prized for their exceptional meat, render Burgundy the mecca of beef production and consumption in France. Beef Bourguignonne is a hearty stew braised in wine which, along with coq au vin, (chicken in red wine), are the signature dishes of the area. Other ingredients characteristic of Burgundian cuisine include wild game, mushrooms, cream, Dijon mustard, freshwater fish, crayfish, pork, pastry, and cassis, a liqueur made from black currants.
In classic French haute cuisine, (elaborate and elegant cuisine utilizing the finest ingredients), paramount importance is placed on cooking technique, food fabrication skills, and artful plate presentation. Vegetables, for example, are often cut with obsessive-compulsive perfection and uniformity. Dishes are typically not presented in a rustic fashion but rather in a sophisticated, aesthetic, and organized manner.
Interestingly, some feel it was the Italians who taught the French how to cook. Catherine De Medicis, a Florentine princess, married Henry duc d’Orleans, (later King Henry II of France) in 1533. She brought an entourage of Italian chefs to France who introduced a myriad of dishes, food preparations, and dining practices. The roots of many aspects of traditional French cooking can be traced back to her. The French then applied their evolving devotion to technique and elaborate fabrication methods to these Italian underpinnings. Classic French preparations were arduous, time consuming, burdened with methodology, and characterized by rich ingredients and heavy sauces.
Modern French cooking is dominated by nouvelle cuisine. This trend, spearheaded by the famous chef Fernand Point in the early 20th century, is characterized by simpler, less time consuming dishes, lighter sauces, smaller portions, and a greater emphasis on local, high quality, in season ingredients. Nouvelle cuisine exploded onto the American culinary scene in the 1970s and remains a significant culinary influence.
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