Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Premier Plat: Bee Wilson on Why the French Are God's Gift to Gastronomy. (Food)

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Premier Plat: Bee Wilson on Why the French Are God's Gift to Gastronomy. (Food)

Article excerpt

For most of the past 400 years, it was a bedrock truth that the greatest cooking in the world was done in France; that the French were the masters of cuisine, haute and otherwise. Oddly, few people seem to believe this now, just as few people these days believe that an intellectual is someone who smokes Gauloises and strolls on the Champs-Elysees. Other nations have lost their respect for French gastronomy. In Europe, Italy has proved better at globalising its dishes, particularly pizza and pasta.

Still more decisively, the French themselves are relinquishing their old hegemony. A nation now wracked by self-doubt, they have begun to countenance the possibility that their way in the kitchen might not be the only way. The new edition of the Larousse gastronomique acknowledges defeat, honouring for the first time the cooking of the rest of the world (whose food was once seen as barbaric), with polite entries on Greece, New Zealand, Finland, India...

In many ways, this is a pity. It might have seemed arrogant of the French to assume that theirs was the only gastronomy, but you can afford to be arrogant when you're right. No western nation has ever perfected the arts of soup-making, bread-baking, egg cookery, meat cookery or sauce-making as the French have. Probably, no nation ever will. Just because France's Napoleonic ambitions have faded, it doesn't follow that the French should give up the entirely reasonable belief that they are God's gift to gastronomy.

To appreciate the magnificence of French classical cuisine, it's necessary to remember what it replaced. In the 16th century, European court cuisine involved many spices and much sugar in both sweet and savoury dishes. High-class food must have always smelled a bit like Christmas pudding, sticky and spicy. Then, in 1651, Francois Pierre La Varenne published The French Cook, and everything changed. Pepper became the dominant spice. The only other spices used in La Varenne's savoury dishes were cloves and nutmeg, and then only sparingly. Bouquet garni made its appearance, and mushrooms were used as flavouring for the first time. La Varenne was also the first to record the cooking methods "au naturel", "au bleu" and "a la mode". He gave recipes for ragouts, bisques and true French omelettes, and for oeufs Ia neige, surely the most ingenious way ever devised for using yolks and whites in a single recipe. True French cuisine was born.

La Varenne's book has just been republished in a fine new edition by Southover Press ([pounds sterling]22). …

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