French Cuisine

French cuisine is widely regarded as the best in the world. The French have earned the distinction of transforming cooking into an art with an emphasis on its combination of delicate flavors. The tastes and appearance of food and the act of eating are all very important to the French. French food consists of traditional home cooking, a wide variety of regional specialities, a new style of cooking known as nouvelle cuisine, as well as an enormous range of cheeses and fine wines. Gastronomy (the pleasures of the table) has played a great part in French life.

During the mid 17th century French cuisine was transformed from the heaping portions of heavily spiced wild birds, bitterns, and swans devoured by the king and grand nobles with delicate sauces and consommés. The introduction of drinks and delicacies from afar revolutionized the tastes of French cuisine. Tea, coffee, chocolate, sorbet (iced desserts), as well as new fruits and vegetables such as figs, peaches, grapes, asparagus, and radishes earned their place of honor at the royal table. Louis XIV’s solid appetite was not the only reason for this culinary development, because meals were a key part of ceremonial life at the court. Everything had to be of the best quality to distinguish the court from the common people. For official dinners, two separate meals were commonly offered: one may have been comprised of 5 types of soup, 14 types of entrees and 16 hors-d’oeuvres, the second meal may have offered 16 roast dishes, 10 salads, 8 desserts, and 11 kinds of hors-d’oeuvres. Such lavish and elegant banquets were meant to impress, and out of this desire to impress, the gastronomic reputation of France was born.

The first cafes, or public eating places, appeared around 1669. The cookery school established in the 17th century by Mme. de Maintenon was created for the purpose of training famous cordons bleus chefs. The Academy remains a part of the French cooking tradition.

Today, in traditional French cooking, rich agricultural and dairy resources are used. Some of the best-known traditional French dishes include an egg and cheese pie known as quiche, flavored with ham, fish, or chicken and tomatoes, onions or zucchinis; pepper steak made of a slice of lean beef lightly grilled and served with green pepper corns and cream sauce; and coq au vin made with pieces of poultry cooked in a red wine casserole. Most traditional main dishes are served with elaborate sauces.

France is famous for les fromages (cheeses), and French meals often include at least one kind of cheese. The most popular way to serve cheese is on a board with a selection of six or more cheeses. They are eaten after the salad between the main course and dessert. Some of the best-known French cheeses are the Camembert, Brie, Roquefort or blue cheese, and many types of goat cheese.

France is the world’s second-largest wine producer, capturing a large share of the international market with its range of fine wines. As with speciality dishes and cheese, wines are named after the region in which they are grown. Accordingly, Burgundy wines come from the Burgundy region of France, Bordeaux wines come from Bordeaux, and so on. The Champagne region in northeast France is world famous for its sparkling wine produced through a pressurized fermentation process that creates effervescence. While champagnes are generally reserved for celebrations, wine is an everyday drink served with main courses at lunch and dinner.

Even in modest households, a certain formality accompanies the setting, and animated conversation enlivens the time spent at meals. The day begins with le petit déjeuner (breakfast). Children usually have a large cup of cocoa in which to dip their morning baguette (a long, thin loaf of white crusty bread). They may eat cereal and toast and drink orange juice. The bread for the meal is usually picked up fresh from the bakery in the morning. After breakfast the children leave for school, and at about 10:00 a.m. they stop for les lo heures (a taste or snack). They might eat cookies, fruit, small sandwiches, or a chocolate bar before going back to school. At noon many children go home for lunch and have le dejeuner, a family meal that consists of cheese, bread, and fruit, and sometimes a mixed salad or meat or fish dish with vegetables, and finishes with a dessert. After the meal, children return to school. Along with many adults across the nation, they stop their work between 3:30 and 4:30 for an afternoon snack called goû ter. Pain au chocolat (chocolate-filled pastries), a piece of fruit, or a big chunk of baguette satisfies them until dinner. Later in the evening, the family gathers for dîner that is often a light meal in three courses including soup, a main dish, and a dairy product such as yogurt. Before going to bed children enjoy one more light meal of bread, fruit, or chocolate.

French cooking is one of the most adventurous of cuisines, and this may be due to the curiosity that is characteristic of the French people. When applied to food, this curiosity had led to some wonderful discoveries and world famous culinary masterpieces. Bon Apétit!

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© Copyright 1998, Mississippi University for Women (Teachers' Guide text)
Last modified: Wednesday, 28-Oct-98 12:14:46