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French Cuisine

french cuisineNo study of world cuisine would be complete without exploring the exalted culinary offerings of France. Presently considered a food Mecca, France has been a main influence in modern gastronomy and is the birthplace of haute cuisine. It is known for its elegant techniques and presentation as well as a refined approach to meals in general. The techniques explored by the original French masters are still taught today in culinary schools around the world, and even the most modern chefs have foundations in the French approach to food. France also has a wealth of regional cuisines, each with its own signature and culinary significance. Like in Italy, these regional variations make pinning down a unified national cuisine nearly impossible. Instead, France is celebrated for its almost unparalleled contributions to dining and cookery, and its continued focus on pursuing new avenues within the food world.

French Influences

Towards the end of the 16th century, the capitol of inventive and celebrated cooking began to shift from its home in Italy to the kitchens of France. Popular food mythology suggests that it was the arrival of Italy's Catherine di Medici and her army of royal cooks that spurred this shift, but in reality French cuisine had already started to move away from what were, comparatively speaking, more primitive approaches to food. The Italians did contribute food items like artichokes and ice cream, as well as well as lessons in approaching food, such as modern table manners and the practice of enhancing, not masking, the natural flavors meal ingredients.

The French are notably credited with founding the restaurant industry. Pre-Napoleon, chefs worked for private households or the royal court. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, when many chefs found their employers beheaded, cooks used their skills to establish businesses open to the general populace, opening what were the first French bistros. By the 19th century Marie-Antoine Careme and George-Auguste Escoffier were applying logic to take the movement one step further. Careme organized meals from a hodgepodge of various dishes into the courses we enjoy now, and experimented with blending multiple flavors into a single dish (a practice that remains a characteristic of French food today). Escoffier is credited with the first structured menu that could be given to restaurant patrons, and for beginning modern cookbooks, i.e. listing and codifying recipes in printed source with formulas that allowed recipes to be replicated. Escoffier, a celebrity chef in his own time, also organized restaurant cooking staffs based on military practices, and stressed the importance of high quality ingredients.

The Food

Like any cuisine, the French diet is made up of staple ingredients with a particular focus on regional offerings. Vegetables like potatoes, aubergines (eggplant), turnips, onions, leeks, green beans, and mushrooms (especially the expensive and revered black truffle) appear frequently, as do fruits like strawberries, apricots, cherries, pears, tomatoes, apples, and oranges. Herbs like tarragon, chervil, rosemary and chives are invaluable in French cookery, used in the form of herb butter or fresh from the garden. They also play a role in the sauces that are definitive of French cuisine.

The cuisine also utilizes plenty of meat including chicken, rabbit, veal, beef, pork, mutton and lamb. Duck, whose meat, fat, and liver (in the form of foie gras) are also considered characteristic of French cooking. Additionally, France enjoys a skill in working with fish and seafood like cod, sardines, herring, oysters, mussels, and shrimp, and is the originator of bouillabaisse, a superb fish stew.

Wines like Bordeaux, Merlot, Burgundy, Chardonnay, and Sauvingnon Blanc also play an important role as a chief export of France, as well as a daily and luxury beverage; France's climate allows both reds and whites to flourish throughout the country. It is often paired with cheese, which is taken just as seriously. France provides more varieties of cheese than any other nation in the world (including Camembert, Roquefort, and Brie), over 500 at last count. The AOC (Appellation de Origine Controlee) actually regulates the names of around 45 cheese varietals, meaning that a cheese must meet strict criteria in order to be classified as, for example, Brie. Raw milk cheese under the age of 60 days old cannot be exported to the United States, and therefore can only be enjoyed in the homeland.

Regional Cuisine

Regional cuisines are a hallmark of food in France. Entire volumes are dedicated to chronicling provincial home cuisines, as they are more specific than homogenized mainstream restaurant cuisine and vary greatly from region to region; homes in Northern France prefer fats like butter, cream, and lard, while the South uses duck fat and olive oil, and so on. Provincial cuisines are so respected that some restaurants dedicate themselves solely to the food of a specific area, while an American might look for a good Italian or Chinese restaurant, it is not uncommon for the French to seek out good Alsatian establishments (serving regional dishes of the province of Alsace, like blood sausage or bredela). Provincial dishes (like Pot-au-feu, a beef stew, or coq au vin, chicken braised in wine), in combination with the more technical styles of the restaurant and food industries, help to demonstrate how a respect for food and fine ingredients can be incorporated into the home on a daily basis.

Meal Structure

The French have a calm respect for food, and believe it should be savored rather than eaten hurriedly without reflection. A culinary day in France typically begins with coffee, tea, and/or milk, as well as cereal, bread, or pastries with jam or fruit. Bread, a celebrated staple of the French diet, is its own art form in French cookery and is served at every meal, it is more likely to appear at breakfast the form of a simple baguette or loaf than as a croissant (these are a weekend breakfast favorite). Lunch generally is taken in the late afternoon, around 2pm, and is variable depending on profession and location. Dinner can be had as early as 6pm, but is more reliably enjoyed in the late evening, around 8 or 8:30pm. Starting with soups, salads, and/or crudites, a main dish (usually meat or fish) is served accompanied by sides of vegetables, rice, pasta, or fries. In formal dining situations a cheese assortment generally follows, with dessert pastries like tarts, fruits, or yogurt ending the meal. Wine is enjoyed throughout the meal, and often is selected to complement specific dishes.
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