Sunday, 16 May 2010

The French and Their Food - Part II

This is the second part of the information presented in the BBC programme which I started writing about here.

The narrator said he didn’t think it was the poor who benefited from the French revolution in 1789 so much as the middle classes. They were now top dog: the merchants, the lawyers, etc. They had money to spend and this was when the French restaurant was born.

By the way, the word restaurant comes from the French verb restaurer, meaning "to restore". Perhaps American restaurants, with their increasingly absurd portions should consider that the French verb 'a farcir' (to stuff) is also the source of 'farce'...but I digress.

Les Halles must have been an interesting place, originally a huge market in the centre of Paris. If you’ve only ever been in an American supermarket, wonderful places though they unquestionably are, you’ve missed out on the experience of a European market, with all the individual stalls each selling their own individual speciality. I always think it is a special tribute to the entrepreneurial spirit. Markets are really fun, not to mention fascinating and often extremely frugal. Anyhow, the programme described this giant market that was main source of food for Parisian restaurants. Most business was conducted at night as restaurateurs prepared for business in the early morning hours. It was a sort of underground society. They also mentioned that must have stunk – all that meat and produce and the less than hygienic conditions back then! According to Wikipedia, the original LesHalles was torn down in 1971 and is now an underground shopping mall.

The narrator then visited Lyon, which he said was the gastronomic capital of France. Mind, I didn’t care for many of the dishes they described, but the conversations – with subtitles – with the chefs were entertaining. The chefs aren’t a shy and retiring lot, though who would be with a galaxy of Michelin stars? Bill and I did a cycling holiday in France once. Given the quality of the bikes, etc., we thought it was a bit on the pricey side, until we realised we were staying in hotels that all had Michelin chefs. I easily consumed about a million more calories than I burned on that trip!

Apparently the Michelin man who sells automobile tires is the same one who grants restaurant stars; I think I’d assumed it was a coincidence about the name. The programme said this came about after the development of the motor car, of course. It started as an advertising gimmick to get people out and about to restaurants in the country by car. The original Michelin guide recommended brandy or beer to help the driver fight fatigue!

According to this TV programme, France’s cuisine was actually broadened with the loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany in 1870 (and they didn't mean the zoo menu). Losing that territory to Germany resulting in bringing beer, sausages and other German delicacies into the French diet. Also, the concept of a brasserie (French for brewery!) was developed, an eating establishment that was slightly more upscale than a bistro.

Similarly, the influx of Algerians in the 1960s brought North African food, particularly couscous, to France. A foremost Algerian chef, a woman whose name I didn't get, stated that if one ate the food of another culture, one understood that culture better. I like the idea she expresses, but I’m not sure that having eaten steak tartare (and all the while wondering if I was actually eating beef, though whatever it was it tasted fine, thank you) gave me any real insight into French culture. Losing my passport in Paris and going to the police department showed me a lot, however. Bill’s visit with me to the U.S. Embassy in Paris gave him a major cultural experience as well! I shall have to write about that very exciting day some time.

Back to the subject of restaurants and culture, there is a particular restaurant Bill and I love in Monmartre, the name of which I could not for the life of me remember, but he managed to find it on the internet, bless him! It is the Restaurant Chartier at 7 Rue du Faubourg.

We first went there with the running club back in 1996 when we all did the Paris to Versailles race. A couple of years later, Bill and I had spent a week in Paris and we went back to Restaurant Chartier for dinner. I still remember when the whole room seemed to grow quieter.

A slim, older woman in a suit and heels with a fur stole over her shoulders walked in and went to a table at the rear. It seemed to me that every single person in the restaurant watched her. I'm guessing she was in her 60's. She looked like something out of a 1940s war movie. It was partly her clothes, but mostly her walk: slow, elegant, graceful. She had such an air of mystery, but also of confidence, one wanted to go sit with her and hear what she had to say. I wanted to know about her life, where she lived, what she had done, what she carried in her purse. It was at that point that I understood why French culture appreciates ‘women of a certain age’.

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