Sunday, 23 May 2010

The French & Their Food - Part III

This is the last of three posts about a BBC programme concerning the history of France and it's food. Once again, it has some yucky ideas about what is or is not edible. Also, in following up my notes, I found other bits of interest on the internet not included in the BBC broadcast.

The show actually began with a story about Francois Mitterrand (President of France, in the 80s and early 90s). Upon learning that he was to have surgery for his prostate cancer, he held a banquet where Ortalan Buntings were served. This was illegal in France at the time, as they are an endangered species of bird.

The programme described that the birds were first drowned in brandy before being cooked; being extremely small, the birds are then served whole. The (whole) bird is put into the mouth with the head hanging out of one's lips and chewed. The programme showed the rather bizarre sight of everyone at the table wearing a large napkin hanging over their faces. This was so that God would not see the shameful thing they were doing. Shameful for killing these exquisite little birds, you understand, not the grotesque act of eating it whole. It was said that when chewing the bird one could taste its entire life – grain from this region, the pure water from that, etc., etc.

Mitterrand loved this dish so much he had two helpings, the last food he ever ate. I practically think it serves him right. I couldn’t help but wonder if the big napkin didn’t serve the function of helping someone pretend to eat, but actually throw the disgusting thing under their chair.

The programme went a long way in explaining the wealthier end of French food, food fit for a king, etc. I suppose part of showing one’s wealth is having access to exotic food. Still, much of what the French call a delicacy, many would call inedible. I still hold that keeping this wide range of possibilities in one’s diet is a psychological safety net, should a period of famine return. If I could only learn to eat snails, should my stockpiled pantry be empty, I’d be all set for winter here in England, snails being the prevailing feature of my back garden, I sometimes think.

The programme mentioned Careme a number of times, indicating he was the main influence for the development of haute cuisine as we know it today...or as rich folks do anyhow. Careme is also credited with the development of the chef's hat,

or toque blanc. I enjoyed reading about his relatively short (48 years) life as I learned that he designated the original four mother sauces; some version of the first 3 formed the backbone of my first efforts to cook. I say first 3 because I break all the rules. For one, I'm as likely to use oil or margarine instead of butter for the roux. I'm pretty sure chicken stock from a cube and skimmed milk don't figure large in French haute cuisine either, but we like the results OK. The fourth sauce is comprised of egg yolks and cream and is not likely to happen in this house very often, though I did attempt something similar to use up egg yolks left over from making angel food cake. The sauce was OK, but nowhere nearly worth the trouble. I settled on cooking the egg yolks and chopping them up for a rice dish the next time.

I also learned that 'gastronomy' is defined as 'the study of the relationship between culture and food.' Does that mean then that 'gastropubs' over here have some more erudite significance than that they serve meals? The other thing I thought interesting about Careme is that he was set a test to create a whole year’s worth of menus, without repetition, and using only seasonal produce. One could almost start to label him 'frugal', but I'm sure this is not the case. It would be interesting to see what he came up with, however.

Of course, the influx of KFC and McDonald’s has taken its toll on French restaurants. I’m guessing, too, that France has succumbed to the work-all-hours, live-fast, cram-it-all-in lifestyle that it didn’t seem to have yet done when I first came across. For me, part of eating well in a restaurant means taking one’s time and being served in an attractive setting, preferably without screaming children. Don't get me wrong, I do like the taste of fast food, but I guess since these eating establishments began in the US we don't need to label them basse cuisine.

The programme ended with a brief mention of the current president of France. According to them, Sarkozy is not a foodie, he actually exercises, he’s friendly with Britain and America. In short, he is almost positively un-French. However, they concluded that he was ‘modern’ and probably just what is needed to pull France into the 21st century. (Also, he has a very interesting-to-watch wife.) Whatever his 'shortcomings' as a French president, in my opinion, anything is better than a Sun King who dines all night while others starve to death.

1 comment:

Boywilli said...

More vagaries of the French. A hat is female, hence it is a Toque BLANCHE.
Why anyone would want to work in a sweaty kitchen with that thing on their head beats me. Why doesn't it fall in the soup? perhaps it does and Brylcream is that little extra ingredient in the amuse-bouche