By Catherine Oden
World traveller, passionate foodie, and a proud exponent of France’s art of living, Catherine Oden, former India Director of Atout France – France Tourism Development Agency – takes you on a French culinary journey extraordinaire.
Deconstruct the essentials of French cuisine and learn about the very special people who have contributed to putting France’s world-renowned gastronomy right on top… of the table!
‘Food is a way of life in France… I recall many wonderful memories created around a well-laden table stocked with French delicacies, graced with fine wine, surrounded by family and friends (and my favorite flowers!) complemented with an ambiance of bonhomie and good cheer. Moments such as these form part of France’s art of living… Cherishing the smaller joys of life.
For the traditional French, a meal is not something you eat “on the go”. Meals are to be enjoyed and relished in the company of near and dear ones. We appreciate the effort put into creating even a simple dish and perhaps this explains why meals are not short but in fact long affairs that could last several hours in France!
Bon vivants to the core, food appreciation and a well-cultivated sense of taste and smell are intrinsic to the French. Many of us will fondly recount sepia tinted childhood memories of enjoyable sessions with our parents patiently helping us develop our sense of taste and smell, of distinguishing between different flavours and recognizing sweet and savoury aromas of traditional French specialities. A part of the growing up process, parents take it upon themselves to initiate their little ones to the wide world of flavours. They teach us to appreciate the little delights of life such as the satisfying sounds of a perfectly crunchy croissant or the absolute ecstasy of relishing a superbly made melt in the mouth éclair. Childhood deliciously shaped our perception of the French “art of living”.
The Real Artists:
Once a year, we celebrate “La Semaine du Goût” – a tasting week dedicated to the discovery of tantalising flavours in schools all across France. On a grander scale, we have our annual “Fête de la Gastronomie” during which our regions, chefs, dining establishments, hotels and all connected with the food business present you with some of our best delicacies and invite you to savour France’s myriad range of gastronomic treasures.
There is no single element about food that we take for granted in France. There is a deep respect for every day “craftsmen” such as the baker, the chocolatier, the confectioner . All of them are artists in their domain and creators of stunning pieces of art for their customers to savour and enjoy. A lot of toil, skill, and imagination go into creating baguettes, macaroons or tarts, and other such delectable eats which demand appreciation. This respect extends to all members associated with cuisine such as the butcher, the fishmonger, etc… all who we regard as masters of their craft and experts in their own right.
Often, initiation into these trades starts early, with a baker’s child learning the profession at an early age or a butcher’s son choosing the best produce with his dad. You will often find, in France, cooking schools for young children, that help transform today’s budding cooking enthusiasts into tomorrow’s Master Chefs!
The supermarket culture is prevalent in France, but here is a little known fact. We prefer visiting our local boutique shops such as the bakery, the delicatessen, the fishmongers for purchasing our daily share of fresh produce. Through repeated interactions with these skilled professionals, we develop a warm and convivial relationship with them. We enthusiastically visit local markets and select our fruits and vegetables. We prefer those items that have not undergone too much processing and have spent many a pleasant moment under the sun. They have lived a ripe life! Only the most vibrant and the freshest produce make their way back to the table at home!
Our Authentic Epicurean Havens:
The next time you are in France, and want to experience a bit of the local life, include visits to these shops for an up close and personal encounter with our art de vivre!
The ever smiling baker (boulanger) greets you with a warm “bonjour.” You have to succumb to the heady aromas wafting out of his cozy and delicious smelling bakery. The boulangerie is always associated and well stocked with the classic French baguette in addition to other goodies. The baker’s skills are displayed in the different renditions of bread he creates. Each differs in size, colour, taste and ingredients, tempting you for a wholesome bite. Our bakeries invite you to choose from a selection of wholemeal breads (pains complets or pain aux céréales), rye bread (pain de seigle), sourdough bread (pain au levain),and a sweet dough called brioche. Bakers are a respected breed… their work is a highly skilled one and the baker’s day begins extremely early to fill up his counters for his hungry customers in search of their baguette fix.
Patisserie (the pastry shop)
A visual, olfactory, and most importantly… tasty experience awaits you at a French patisserie. Though patisseries are a different occupation, you could find in France, shops doubling up as patisseries and boulangeries. Scrumptious macaroons, tartes au citron (lemon tarts), petits fours, Paris-Brest, éclairs (my favorites!) vie for your attention.
Charcuterie (butcher’s shop)
Our local butchers are revered professionals. They are right on top of their trade with their expert connaissance of regions that produce the best pure livestock. Those that have not been genetically engineered. We place a lot of confidence in the butcher’s ability to provide us with the very best. His wonderful selection of bacon, hams, sausages, terrines, galantines, confits is created with a dash of his signature special ingredients!
Poissonnerie (fish monger’s)
I have spent many happy fishing afternoons with my father and have proudly brought home our “catches” of the day. Fishing is part of our culture. Lots of children go on fishing expeditions with their parents. Both await these “dates” eagerly. The region of Brittany along the coast is identified as a Maritime Region. It has long had a fishing culture. Our fishmongers buy the freshest, high quality products for their clientele to validate the customer’s faith in their expertise.
Epicerie Fine (gourmet stores)
Broadly classified as a gourmet store, an “épicerie fine” will stock the best of teas, coffees, spices. They’ll have some la crème de la crème French ingredients such as the salt of Guérande, and olive oil. You are assured of the best when you choose products of the Fauchon and Hédiard brands specialising in gourmet delicacies.
No mention of France’s famous gastronomy can be complete without a reference to cheese and wine. We offer you a diverse variety of more than 365 cheeses in France, more than the days of a year! Our cheese shops (fromageries-creameries) stock a selection of the best regional products. Our well-known “stars” are Camembert from Normandy, Brie from Ile de France, strong Roquefort, and Cabécou chèvre (goat cheese) from the Midi Pyrenees region. Also some exquisite Echiré butter from the Charentes-Poitou region.
Besides eating cheese by itself, we also add it to dishes like the Quiche Lorraine and fondues. We enjoy sharing these on a cold winter’s day with friends and family!
Caviste (wine shop)
No meal is complete without wine. A quick visit to the local caviste (wine shop) will introduce you to the finest in French wines. The ruby Bordeaux reds, crisp Loire Valley whites, the King of Wine–Champagne, are among the finest. Your shop assistant will be happy to recommend options suited to your palate . They will also assist you in recommending the best wine paired with each course.
Renowned French chef Alain Ducasse once said, “The quality of a dish is 80% the product, 15 % technique and maybe 5 % of talent.” Most of our French chefs share the same philosophy. They have perfected the art of finding the best to create the best. I can only end by saying: A fine gastronomic experience awaits you in France! Make sure you bring your appetite along!