Despite a common pan-gallic chauvinism, French cooking is not a monolith: it ranges from the olives and seafood of Provence to the butter and roasts of Tours, from the simple food of the bistro to the fanciful confections of the Tour d’Argent.
However, it all shares a seriousness about food. Throughout the country, French cooking involves a large number of techniques, some extremely complicated, that serve as basics. Any cook will tell you that French food will not tolerate shortcuts in regard to these fundamentals.
Because mastery of sauces or pastry doughs is the center of the culinary arts, recipes themselves remain classic and constant. In a way similar to Japanese cuisine, it is expected that even the simplest preparation be undertaken in the most careful manner, which means disregarding the amount of time involved.
This is one reason why French cooking has always seemed so daunting on the other side of the Atlantic. Americans love nothing more than combining innovation with time-saving; it is the particular genius of the United States, and it couldn’t be more at odds with the French aesthetic.
Not only do basic cooking techniques require great skill, but an they also demand a deep understanding of the ingredients themselves.
Just as the vintner knows that the finest Bordeaux comes from the grapes grown on that side of the hill and not this, so too the chef knows not only from which region come the finest petits pois (small, young green peas), but from which town — the same goes for asparagus, and even cauliflower.
If there is something worth eating, and cooking, there is a best representative of such. Many foods are known by the town that made them famous, such as Pessac for strawberries, the peas of Saint-Germaine, Macau artichokes, the Charollais steer, butter of Isigny.
The French and English adapted service à la russe, in which courses are served separately, in the middle of the 19th century. A French meal might begin with a hot hors d’oeuvre (or for luncheon, a cold hors d’oeuvre) followed by soup, main course, salad, cheese, and finally dessert.
The French operate with a strong sense that there is an appropriate beverage for every food and occasion. Wine is drunk with the meal, but rarely without food. An aperitif (a light aloholic beverage such as Lillet) precedes the meal and a digestif (something more spirited — say, cognac) may follow. This close relationship between food and wine may, in part, closely parallel the evolution of great cooking and great wine making.
It is probably not coincidental that some of the best cooking in France happens in some of her finest wine-growing regions. In Burgundy, Bordeaux, Provence, and Touraine, wine is as prevalent in the cooking process as it is in the glass. Champagne as a beverage doesn’t accompany food gracefully, likewise, as a region it is not well known for its food. One notable exception to this rule (and there are of course others) is Normandy, who, from her fantastic butter, cream, cheese, apples and the riches of the sea, has produced a marvelous local cuisine without the help of wine. However, the local Calvados, an apple based eau-de-vie, may also explain the phenomenon.
The French are predominantly Catholic and thus have no eating prohibitions, though many dishes have a Lenten variation. Moreover, the Gauls are not afraid to eat anything. Kidney, brain, sweetbreads, tripe, blood sauces and sausages, sheep’s foot, tongue, and intestines are all common in French cooking and hold equal standing with the meat of lamb, beef, pork, poultry, and game. Quite the opposite of being exotic, these foods are at the heart of the bourgeois menu, with seafood inevitably being the soul, and vegetables, the flesh.
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The Basics of French Regional Cooking
French cooking can be geographically divided and there are several groups of french regional food. There is the butter- and cream- based cuisine of the North Île-de-France, Normandy, and Tours.
Sauerkraut, goose, pork sausages, and pâtés herald the German influences in the cooking of Alsace and the Alps of eastern France.
Olive oil, garlic, and seafood are the aromas of the Latin South. Mustard (from Dijon), beef, and wine grapes are abundant in Burgundy and are hallmarks of this land-locked “hearty, honest, lusty” peasant-based cooking of central France, where specialties include escargot, boeuf borguignon, and pot-au-feu.
Force-fed geese produce the foies gras that encases the truffles in Périgord in south central France, as well as providing much of the fat that saturates the white beans and sausage in the famous cassoulets of Languedoc.
Langue d’Oc and Langue d’Oïl
The word Languedoc means, literally, the language that uses “oc” to mean “yes.” In contrast, “langue d’oïl,” means the language that uses “oïl” — an early form of “oui” — for the affirmative. Langue d’oïl describes the dialects spoken in northern France during the Middle Ages.
The northern dialects evolved into modern-day French. The other, less dominant, group of romance languages, those spoken by the troubadours at the same period of time in the south, can still be heard in Provence and Languedoc
À la ?
What follows is a brief list of menu terms, that, when applied to the name of a dish mean “in the style of…” Often the definition does take into account local foods, as with dishes served “à la perigourdine,” or with the truffles for which France’s perigord region is famous.
Other times, the connection is not so clear. Almost all of these terms might be used fairly loosely by different chefs or have evolved over time into something that isn’t all that French regional, but French menus are filled with attributions like this, preserving at least the myth of regional origins.
with one or a combination of sauerkraut, ham, and sausage
à la basquaise
garnished with fried cèpes, minced Bayonne ham, and potatoes Anna (thin potato slices, buttered and baked in a mold)
à la bordelaise
usually served with a sauce made of red or white wine and bone marrow, but also might include dishes made with cèpes or dishes garnished with potatoes and artichokes
à la bourguignonne
braised in red wine and garnished with mushrooms, small onions, and finely diced bacon lardons
à la bretonne
with a garnish of white beans that have been simmered in stock and then sprinkled with parsley
à la champagne
made with Champagne
à la languedocienne
served with a garlic sauce and garnished with eggplant, tomatoes, and cèpes
à la lyonnaise
à la normande
usually this is applied to fish garnished with shellfish, mushrooms, and truffles and served in a cream velouté sauce
à la parisienne
garnished with potatoes that have been scooped into nut-sized balls, tossed in veal gravy, and sprinkled with parsley
à la perigourdine
with a garnish of truffles and, sometimes, the addition of foie gras
à la provençale
made with garlic and, often, tomato
The Very Basics of French Sauces
Sauces are, of course, a crucial element of French cuisine, and the French cook can recreate the canon of sauces from a limited set of techniques and ingredients. Here’s a quick run down of some very basic sauce-stuff:
A relative of hollandaise, béarnaise is a reduction of vinegar, tarragon and shallots that is finished with egg yolks and butter.
Add milk or cream to a white roux and voila! it becomes a béchamel.
A hollandaise uses butter and egg-yolk as its liasons. It is served hot with vegetables, fish and eggs — like on eggs benedict.
A liaison, or binding agent, is the base of any French sauce. Sometimes called a binder, egg yolks, butter, flour, and puréed vegetables, are all liaisons.
A reduction is the mixture that results from rapidly boiling a liquid (like stock, wine, or a sauce)and causing evaporation — “reducing” the sauce. The reduction is thicker and has a more intense flavor than the original liquid.
This classic sauce mixes mayonnaise, mustard, capers, chopped gherkins, herbs, and anchovies.
Roux, a combination of flour and a fat, often butter, is perhaps the best known liaison. A roux can be white, blond, or brown, depending on ingredients and cooking time.
Mix a white roux with white stock (light chicken or veal stock) and it becomes a velouté.
How To Ruin a Sauce
“An essential point in the making of sauces is the seasoning, and it would be impossible for me to lay too much stress on the importance of not indulging in any excess in this respect. It too often happens that the insipidness of a badly-made sauce is corrected by excessive seasoning; this is an absolutely deplorable practice”
From The Escoffier Cookbook, by A. Escoffier New York: Crown, 1941.
The Very Basics of French Pastry
Pastry (pâte), like stock and sauce, is another of those basics of French cooking. The pastry chef, pâtissier, must be specially trained to work with temperamental doughs and sweets; and the pastry making takes place in an entirely separate area of a restaurant kitchen.
Pâte à choux, cream-puff pastry made from a mix of hot water, flour, and butter to which beaten eggs are added; pâte brisée, a rich flaky dough for quiches; pâte sucrée, a sweet, rich pastry for tarts and filled cookies; pâte feuilletée (puff pastry), buttery, delicate, and many-layered — these are but a few of the elemental doughs used in French pastry-making.
And they’re not just for dessert. Pastry doughs are used in countless savory recipes: to wrap a pâté or cover a stew, as a quiche shell or for vol-au-vent (a puff pastry shell filled with a cream-sauce based mixture of chicken, fish, meat or vegetables). Final courses that use the work of the pastry chef (pâtissier) include tarts such as lemon, fig, pear, and apple; crêpes; custards; cakes; stewed fruits; soufflés; mousses; puddings; and ices.
An Assortment of French Pastries
A galette is a round, flat cake made from flaky pastry, yeast dough, or unleavened dough. It is the traditional cake made for Twelfth Night celebrations in France. The term is also used for a variety of savory and sweet tarts.
These thin, sweet, fan-shaped wafers are often served with desserts like puddings and ice creams. Sometimes their surface is waffled, and sometimes they’re folded to form an ice cream cone. Gaufrettes made from potatoes (gaufrettes pommes de terre) are latticed crisps, the originals of our ridged potato chips.
A tuile, the word for “tile” in French, is a thin cookie that is rounded while hot (by being placed over a curved object, like a cup or rolling pin, or by being baked in a tuile mold) so that, when cooled and hardened, it looks like a curved roof tile. A traditional tuile is made from crushed almonds.
This puff pastry is shaped like a pot with a lid. It can be small or large and is traditionally filled with a cream-sauce mixture and chicken, fish, meat or vegetables. Vol-au-vent means “flying in the wind,” and is meant to describe the lightness of this pastry pot.
The Role of Vegetables
Long before Americans discovered that three days of cross-country travel and 30 minutes of boiling will drain the life out of even the heartiest vegetable, the French knew the importance of fresh produce from local farms — bought daily at the market, then quickly and lightly prepared for the table.
Vegetables have a time- honored place at the French table, unlike other cuisines, where vegetables are an afterthought, sometimes forgotten altogether. Green beans, artichokes, asparagus, green peas, leeks, tomatoes, endive, and fennel are a scant beginning. Potatoes, too, are treated like royalty in the French kitchen.
Herbs, such as thyme, bay laurel, and tarragon, grow in most gardens and their scent wafts from every simmering pot.
The French Kitchen
A kitchen in Southeast Asia, where cuisine is as sophisticated as it is ancient, might have in it a coal stove, perhaps five pans, and a mortar and pestle.
The French chef, however, could fill an entire pantry with only her mold; bombe, brioche, madeleine, cassoulet, parfait, savarin, petit-fours, charlotte — the list could go on and on.
The cook’s batterie de cuisine can include an implement designed for every conceivable chore. If she likes, however, she can survive with much simpler equipment, so long as the knifes are razor-sharp, and the pots heavy and good.
A Short List of French Menu Terms
A specialty of the Gascony region, confit is a preserved food item, usually a meat like duck, goose, or pork. The meat is salted and cooked slowly in its own fat. It is then packed into a pot and covered with the cooking fat, which works as a seal and preservative. Confit as a preparation is not applied to meat alone. For example, a head of garlic or a lemon can be cooked and preserved in oil or lard.
Consommé, a clarified broth made from meat or fish stock, can be served hot or cold or used as a base for soups and sauces.
Originally coulis referred to the juice of cooked meat, but now the definition is broader. A coulisis a thick purée or sauce, which can be made from fruits or vegetables — like tomatoes or raspberries — as well as meat. Coulis can also describe a thick, puréed seafood soup.
Fumet is the name for a variety of concentrated liquids that are used to enhance the flavor or body of stocks and sauces. Fumets are made by boiling chicken or fish or mushrooms or vegetables (depending on the kind of fumet you’re making) in stock or wine.
When herbs or fruit or tea leaves are steeped in a hot liquid, like water or milk, the result is an “infusion.” (All teas are infusions.)
Jus, the French word for juice, can refer to fruit, vegetable juices, and meat juices. When a dish (generally a meat dish) is served au jus, it is served with its own juices.
Shellfish may be prepared à la nage, literally “swimming.” They are cooked in a court-bouillon flavored with herbs and served hot or cold in this broth.
A thin, oval piece of meat, usually veal or beef, that is quickly sautéed or grilled.Poussin
French for a small, young chicken.
Food that has been fried to a crisp.
For the French preparation, roulade, meat is thinly sliced and rolled around a savory filling. The packet is secured with a string or pick, browned, then braised or baked in stock or wine. In Italy, a dish made with this same technique is called braciola and in Germany, rouladen. When a roulade is on the dessert menu, it is an airy egg-white mix, like a soufflé, that has been spread in a jelly roll pan and baked until firm but moist. This is slathered with a sweet fruit or custard filling and rolled up.
A terrine is a molding dish used for any sort of pâté (coarsely or smoothly ground meat, fish, mushrooms — whatever). It used to be that when a pâté was served in this dish, it was called a terrine. Today, the terms pâté and terrine are used pretty much interchangeably.
A timbale is a drum-shaped, tapered mold, as well as the dish cooked in such a mold. To make one, a custard, risotto, or forcemeat mixture is pressed into the timbale mold and baked. Once turned out of the mold, the dish is usually served with a sauce like béchamel.
Tournedos is a piece of beef about 1 inch thick and 2-1/2 inches in diameter that has been cut from the tenderloin. It is a very lean cut of beef
Service à la russe
Service à la russe appeared in France and England in the middle of the 19th century and, by the late 1890s, was regularly followed. It is the service which modern diners generally expect. Each dish is prepared and divided in the kitchen then one helping at at time is placed before the diner. The meal is composed of a series of dishes served in succession.
Prior to the adoption of service à la russe, service à la française was used. In this method of service, which dates from the Middle Ages, each course was composed of a large number of dishes spread on the banquet from which the diners served themselves, like a modern buffet.
For more information on the history of eating in England and France, see All Manners of Food: Eating and Taste in England and France from the Middle Ages to the Present, by Stephen Mennell. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985. See especially P. 150.
Cheese in France
Courtney Love lost a lot of weight. Cheese, she said, cheese was the problem. Her solution? “Don’t melt it on shit.” A point well taken, whether slimming or not. Generally speaking, the French enjoy cheese as a course in its own right, to round out a delicious meal.
The French are good at cheese. As is typical of the French food aesthetic, and perhaps of aesthetes of all ilk, the superior must be radically provincial. French cheeses are more often than not named for the towns in which they are made. The process can’t be removed from the place. The particular cows, goats, or sheep; the fields they graze; the length of the day; the dankness of the cellars; these are all ingredients in great cheeses. And like wine, cheeses change markedly as they age.
Because cheeses are the provenance of local farms, there are literally thousands to choose from. Fortunately or not, only a fraction of these make it overseas. The soft ripening cheeses and triple-crèmes are the best known. Many regions make triple-crèmes, which top the richness scale, at a whopping 75% butterfat. They are generally sweet and mild: Brillat-Savarin and Boursin are two common varieties.
Bries represent the family of soft ripening cheeses that contain 50% to 60% butterfat. Americans love Brie, which is actually the name of a group of cheeses made in the Brie region that straddles the border between Ile-de-France and Champagne. It has a distinguished lineage, going back to the fifteenth century.
Inferior, American Brie usually has a white rind, but when properly ripe, with all the micro-organisms alive and well, the rind of a French brie will have a reddish color. Some Bries are saltier, others creamier, some have rind on all sides, others just on the top and bottom.
Normandy is famous for her dairy products and makes many of France’s best cheeses. Camembert, a soft cheese like Brie, is one of the most famous. Perfected in 1790 by Madame Harel, a farmer’s wife, the huge popularity of this cheese in France and abroad has led many to imitate it. The upshot is a glut of substandard Camembert. When served, Camembert should have an orangy-reddish rind indicating ripeness. There are very distinctive and tasty goat’s milk Camemberts.
The mountainous southeast of France also produces great cheese that is generally heartier and less temperamental than the soft cheeses of the North. Comté, a close relative of the Swiss Gruyère, made just over the mountains, is firmer than Morbier, melts nicely (pace Courtney) and, despite our warnings above, is used in cooking. It makes nice tarts and even fondue.
The Cantal mountains of Auvergne in the south-central plateau nurture cows that make good milk that in turn becomes a number of exceptionally fine cheeses. One is named for its source: Cantal is a hard cheese by French standards (the very hard cheeses are the genius of the Italians and Brits, with their Asiagos and cheddars).
Bleu d’Auvergne, Gaperon, and Forme d’Ambert — as well as goat’s milk Cabecou and sheep’s milk Roquefort — are a few of the other well-known cheeses produced in this region
Courtney Says No to Cheese
Courtney Love advises staying off “the cheese”. From an interview with Courtney Love, lead singer of Hole, in Rollerderby No.12. Love was interviewed by Lisa Carver, Rollerderby’s editor and publisher. The interview was reprinted in the Readings section of Harper’s Magazine/October 1993.
“Lisa: What’s your tip?
Courtney: The thing you gotta do is A) Stop counting calories! Okay? B) Do not get on a scale! ‘Cause lean muscle weighs more than fat. All right? I cut out FAT! That’s all you gotta do. FAT! No cheese. That’s it Lisa. Period. NO CHEESE. I told this to KROQ, I told this to my nanny. People I tell this to lose ten, thirty pounds. STOP CHEESE. You know why Orientals are not fat? ‘Cause they look on cheese as this gross Western habit. It’s like sour milk — LARD. They don’t want anything to fucking do with cheese. If you’re going to eat cheese, take it out on a picnic, cut it up carefully, and really taste it — with wine or something. Don’t melt it on shit. And I lost FORTY POUNDS by not eating cheese. And I even ate a little mayonnaise. All right? Skip the butter and skip the cheese and you will lose weight. I swear to God, Lisa.
Lisa: Here’s my second question —
Courtney: Don’t eat cheese. There are a millions things to eat that are not cheese.”