Understanding and appreciating the styles of cuisine in France can enhance the enjoyment of what you are eating (or cooking) – much like wine, where I find a little additional knowledge can helps me be more discriminating in my choices and combinations of dishes and wines.
Doug Stewart at www.france-property-and-information.com offers some insights into some of the nuances behind the rich variety of French Food
Each region of France has ingredients, recipes and style of cooking specific to that region. Although they may be exported to other regions of France (and the world), production is largely local and consumption is highest in the region of origin. For example, in Provence the food typically features olive oil, herbs and tomatoes; these are all locally produced and they feature in a surprising large variety of different recipes.
The evolution of regional cooking styles has been influenced by:
• Local availability. The French, a nation of gourmets, prefer to use local ingredients. Consequently, coastal regions (such as Brittany and Normandy, on the northwest coast of France) will favor sea fish and will use it more often and in more varied ways than inland areas. Likewise, areas where fruit or herbs grow easily, will incorporate these into their local cuisine.
• Neighbouring countries and immigration. Near the borders with other countries, the local cuisine incorporates certain dishes and ingredients of the neighbouring countries. It is not surprising to find Italian dishes near the Italian border. More notably, the French region of Alsace is similar to Germany in its food (sauerkraut is popular) and wine, partly due to it currently bordering on Germany and partly due to it having been part of Germany at various points in its history (the border has moved back and forth with various wars). In parts of the south which have a large North African immigrant population one can enjoy the cuisine which they have imported from their original countries.
• History and economic conditions. The culture, lifestyle and economic conditions over a long period of time have formed the development of local food traditions. The rich meat dishes and cream sauces of Burgundy are not only due to Burgundian excellence in raising cattle, but in large part to the economic prosperity of this region over several centuries. On the other hand, mountain regions excel in firm cheeses, which allow food to be preserved over the long and difficult winters, and can be produced from mountain livestock which historically were the main means of support for many families in economically limited areas.
Of course, throughout France one can find a range of dishes, both in restaurants and at home, which extends well beyond regional specialities. However, at the same time, the regional influences in terms of ingredients and style of cooking is marked. Consequently, for those who move to France, the choice of region will influence the types of food one will find.
Culinary historians generally associate the development of high cuisine in France (as opposed to the existing rural traditions) with the marriage in 1533 of Catherine De Medicis (a Florentine princess) to Henry duc d’Orleans (who became King Henry II or France). At this point, France was not know for its food or food culture. Catherine brought an entourage of Italian chefs with her to France, who introduced to France a variety of dishes, food preparation and dining practices. Although France and Italy obviously have evolved very different food cultures, both before and since this contribution, much of France’s current food culture can be traced back to this time.
As discussed above, each region of France has its own distinctive traditions in terms of ingredients and preparation. On top of this, there are three general approaches which compete with each other:
• Classical French cuisine (also known in France as cuisine bourgeoise). This includes all the classical French dishes which were at one time regional, but are no longer specifically regional. Food is rich and filling, with many dishes using cream-based sauces.
• Haute cuisine is classical French cuisine taken to its most sophisticated and extreme. Food is elegant, elaborate and generally rich. Meals tend to be heavy, especially due to the use of cream and either large portions or many smaller portions. There is a strong emphasis on presentation (in particular, vegetables tend to be cut with compulsive precision and uniformity). The finest ingredients are used, and the meal is correspondingly expensive.
• Cuisine Nouvelle. This style developed in the 1970s, as a reaction against the classical school of cooking. The food is simpler and lighter. Portions are smaller and less rich; the heavy cream sauces of the classical approach are particularly avoided. Cooking is less elaborate and quicker, with more emphasis on local and seasonal ingredients.
• Cuisine du terroir. This focuses on regional specialities and is somewhat more rustic in nature. Local produce and food traditions are the main focus.
Each of these traditions is strongly represented in France, each having its supporters and specialist restaurants. At the moment, Cuisine Nouvelle is less popular than it was, while Cuisine du terroir has grown in popularity in recent years.
For more on French Food see Doug Stweart’s site at www.france-property-and-information.com/easy-french-food-recipes.htm