Tradition and Change in French Cuisine

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Tradition and Change in French Cuisine

France is a country with many cuisines. Some dishes are part of a national repertoire and generally referred to as "traditional family fare." Examples might be pot-au-feu (a boiled beef dinner), gigot d'agneau (roast leg of lamb), vinaigrette (oil and vinegar dressing), or pâté de campagne (country-style pâté). From North to South, these dishes can be found in most French homes. A second group of dishes is mainly, or only, encountered in specific regions. Typically based on ingredients native to the region, they include choucroute (sauerkraut) in Alsace, galettes de sarrasin (thin buckwheat pancakes) in Brittany, soupe de poissons (fish soup) or the more elaborate bouillabaisse in Provence. Lastly, certain dishes are part of the haute cuisine tradition, which includes dishes prepared by chefs both past and present. A vast group, this repertoire is constantly shifting as tastes evolve and culinary trends change. Such things as Tournedos Rossini (beef tenderloin topped with foie gras ), pêche Melba (vanilla ice cream and peaches with fresh raspberry sauce), or the more recent terrine de poissons (fish pâté) or salade folle (a salad of foie gras and mixed greens) are all dishes that can be attributed to specific periods of French culinary history, the first two evoking the cuisine classique of the early 1900s, the latter two the nouvelle cuisine of the 1970s.

Changing Fortunes

These various types of cuisine are not mutually exclusive. Béchamel sauce, said to have been created by Louis de Béchamel (16351688), was quickly adopted as part of the fashionable repertoire of the eighteenth century and went on to become a mainstay of nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century cuisine classique ; today it is more likely to appear in private homes than on the menu of some trendy chef. Boeuf bourguignon has gone from being a "local" to a "traditional family" dish. Other regional favorites, such as magret de canard (fattened-duck steaks), a specialty of the southwest, have been adopted by chefs committed to a more creative cuisine. This said, one is more likely to find elaborate French dishes than traditional or regional ones in restaurants around the world. Only a handful of regional specialties (cassoulet, bouillabaisse, foie gras ) are known outside the country, and even then they are often misunderstood and misinterpreted. The vast majority of preparations identified with France and upon which the reputation of French cuisine stands are chefs' creations, some dated and old-fashioned (sauce béarnaise, béchamel, crêpes Suzettes ), others more contemporary (salmon with sorrel sauce, tropical fruit sorbets, flourless chocolate cakes).

La Nouvelle Cuisine

The exploits of fashionable chefs keep French cuisine alive beyond national boundaries and, to a large extent, influence eating habits within France itself. The most recent trend to remodel the way the world and the French think of food is nouvelle cuisine (literally, "new cooking").

Revolutionary in its beginnings, this movement is now thirty years old. Many of the dishes associated with it have lost their shock value and can now be found in modest households around the country. What was this culinary upheaval all about?

In 1972 two French food critics, Henri Gault and Christian Millau, noticed that several young chefs had started serving dishes with a noticeably different style from those of the past fifty years that had been based on Auguste Escoffier's early-twentieth-century reinterpretation of classic cuisine. As spokesmen for this new generation of chefs, Gault and Millau became vocal exponents of the "new" cuisine, encouraging the rejection of what were now perceived as obsolete standards and the pursuit of innovative dishes that reflected more personal tastes. They wrote and published a sort of manifesto, not too modestly called "the ten commandments of nouvelle cuisine," which not only gave nouvelle cuisine a base to grow on, but profoundly influenced the way many people thought about food and its preparation. The principles Gault and Millau propounded were the following:

  1. Reject unnecessarily complex preparations. This basically meant abandoning many classic dishes that involved a multitude of sauces (each specific to an element in the final presentation), complicated garnishes, and elaborate preparations that sacrificed taste to appearance. Chefs were invited to emphasize the inherent nature of the foods they were preparing, such as by serving a roast partridge as it came from the oven with a light, simple sauce made from its pan juices and a little butter.
  2. Reduce cooking times. It was better to undercook rather than overcook: green beans would be served "al dente" and fish would be cooked "slightly pink on the bone."
  3. Use seasonal produce. Chefs were encouraged literally to shop daily and cook only what was found at the market that day.
  4. Shorten menus. Greater attention was to be given to a small number of dishes rather than trying to impress clients with a multitude of preparations that could not be given the attention they deserved. This said, nouvelle cuisine popularized "tasting menus" that allowed the curious to sample many dishes in very small quantities. These two ideas are not necessarily contradictory since tasting menus are generally served to entire tables only (not individuals), which means that there are fewer dishes to prepare than it might appear.
  5. Do not marinate meats or hang game. This complemented the first "commandment" which called for respecting the natural tastes of foods. Gault and Millau added that "marinating meat hides its taste . . . if game is hung at all it should only be for a very short time, otherwise its flavor is altered and an undesirable fermentation begins." They did, however, accept the use of spices, particularly new and "exotic" ones, such as green peppercorns and fresh ginger, as a means of heightening flavors.
  6. Abandon heavy sauces. This was a direct condemnation of such classics as béchamel, brown sauce, and other thick, flour-based sauces that produce an opaque coating. The idea was to use light sauces made by deglazing the pan juices with a liquid (wine, water, stock, etc.), and swirling in fresh butter.
  7. Promote regional cooking. Traditional local dishes could be just as exciting as any othersif they had been "reinvented" according to nouvelle cuisine principles.
  8. Take an interest in new cooking methods and utensils. Steamers, "dry-steam" ovens, and time-saving devices such as the food processor and blender should become standard equipment in the professional kitchen.
  9. Be health conscious. Good eating is not incompatible with a healthy diet. The chef who best embodied this "commandment" was Michel Guérard, who created cuisine minceur (literally, slimness cooking) in the late 1970s. In keeping with this principle, chefs were encouraged to give greater importance to a wide variety of fresh vegetables than in the past.
  10. Be creative. This speaks for itself.

Thanks to the enormous interest the media took in nouvelle cuisine, virtually all of the "commandments" had some effect on the way the French cooked and on their attitudes towards food. The principles would be adopted not only by chefs throughout the country but, in the course of time, by the general public, which was anxious to eat dishes more in tune with contemporary aesthetics and dietary concerns and welcomed the simplification of their preparation.

Beyond Cuisine

Movements such as nouvelle cuisine have not been the only force at work on the French diet. Another new term entered the French language at about the same time as nouvelle cuisine : le fast-food. Hamburgers and hot dogs were no strangers to France, but in the late 1970s American and British hamburger chains started to proliferate. Their success was at least partially due to the low prices they charged and their link with a foreign culture that was then in vogue. Immediately popular with the younger generation, their success was regarded with dismay by parents who lamented that their offspring had lost all interest in traditional cooking and that French cuisine was doomed to disappear. With the passage of time, however, these fears have proved to be unfounded. Despite the ongoing popularity of fast-food outlets among the young, as the youths of yesteryear mature and their incomes increase, they return to cuisine via the chefs' answer to the foreign invasion: the bistro.

Bistros, old-fashioned, homey, reasonably priced places, are a French establishment dating from the end of the nineteenth century, but as the twentieth century drew to a close, the term came to be applied to any small establishment serving moderately-priced foodnot necessarily "old-fashioned" or in the least "homey." Chef's bistros were adjoined to many famous and prestigious restaurants; in these bistros, one could sample toned-down versions of "the master's" cooking at bargain prices. Specialized bistros also began to appear, with those dedicated to fish cookery becoming particularly popular. Another spin-off of the fast-food challenge to the French palate was the wine bar, where a collection of regional hams, sausages, pâtés, and cheeses, or a small simple dish, could be enjoyed with a glass of wine.

In short, tradition and change constantly find new ways to coexist as each "lost generation" of French diners rediscovers the gastronomy it had so ardently rejected. Just as with nouvelle cuisine, the invasion of fast food has enriched and diversified the dining experience and provided yet another opportunity for France to show the world that its cuisine is alive and wellresponding to new challenges and incorporating new ideas without losing sight of the foundations upon which it continues to build its reputation.


Fischler, Claude. L'Homnivore. Paris: Éditions Odile Jacob, 1990.

Gault, Henri, and Christian Millau. Gault et Millau se mettent à table. Paris: Stock, 1976.

Hyman, Philip, and Mary Hyman. "Modèles culinaires et nouvelle cuisine française," Culture Technique, Juillet N°16 (1986): 347349.

Hyman, Philip, and Mary Hyman. "La première nouvelle cuisine." In L'Honnête volupté: art culinaire, art majeur, edited by Paul Noirot et al., pp. 7374. Paris: Éditions Michel de Maule, 1989.

Mary HymanPhilip Hyman