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Useful Notes: Snails and So On
This is a Useful Notes page about French cuisine, which isn't just escargots and cuisses de grenouilles. For a trope about the use of French cuisine in fiction, see French Cuisine Is Haughty.

Classification

There are three distinct components to French Cuisine:

La Haute Cuisine

Also known as "La Grande Cuisine", Haute Cuisine (literally "High Cooking") has its roots in the cuisine of the Middle Ages and of the Ancien Régime but really took off after the French Revolution when the guilds were disbanded and anyone could be a chef if they wanted—if they could hack it. It was eventually codified by Georges Auguste Escoffier in the late 19th century. This is the cuisine of fine restaurants and hotels, of the well to do who could afford cooks. Haute Cuisine uses spices very sparingly in contrast to the heavily spiced medieval dishes of France, but uses fresh herbs more liberally. Most recipes call for extraordinary amounts of cream and butter, and deglazes and reductions based on wine are common. Fresh ingredients are pulled from all over France, from Normandy and Brittany to Lorraine and Provence, so you will find a truly astonishing variety, but it does not take on much of the regional character. If you go to an expensive French restaurant, this is most likely what you will be served, if it isn't Nouvelle cuisine (see below). At its best, it's a bit antiquated but very enjoyable; at its worst, you get what Calvin Trillin once described as "stuff-stuff with heavy": indifferently prepared with leaden, pasty sauces and dull flavors, barely worth putting on a buffet table, never mind in front of a $50/plate diner.

Classical French cuisine is one of the best-documented and codified in the world. Parts of it have roots going back into ancient times (the Greeks made bechamel sauce long before Béchamel existed), but it was popularized in more or less its current form in the 19th century by one of the first celebrity chefs, Marie-Antoine Carême. You'll want to read Escoffier's Guide Culinaire for the traditional treatment, as well as La repertoire de la cuisine by Escoffier's student Louis Saulnier; for a more modern approach, Joel Robuchon's Tout Robuchon note , Jacques Pepin's Complete Techniques, and The Elements of Cooking and Ratio by Michael Ruhlman are all good introductions. François Tanty, a French chef who trained under Carême in the early 19th century, had cooked for the Russian royal family; as a very old man, he retired to the United States with his sons and wrote La Cuisine Français in 1893, which may have been one of the first such books published in the United States.

La Nouvelle Cuisine

Literally "New Cuisine", Nouvelle Cuisine was a backlash against "Cuisine Classique" (Classic Cuisine; arguably Nouvelle Cuisine is a subset of Haute Cuisine and what is defined above is Cuisine Classique, but usually Haute Cuisine usually means Cuisine Classique) starting in the 1960s. It involved a lot of experimentation and bringing in techniques, ingredients, and preparations from other cuisines, most notably Chinese and Japanese. Gault and Millau came up with a "formula" for what Nouvelle cuisine typically entails: a rejection of excessive complication in cooking, reduced cooking times in order to preserve the flavors of fish, poultry, seafood, and vegetables, which led to a lot of steaming, using the freshest ingredients possible, shorter menus, abandonment of strong marinades for fish and game, replacing heavy sauce with lighter applications of fresh herbs, butter, lemon juice, and vinegar, regional dishes as inspiration, incorporating modern inventions, and inventiveness. Arguably this is no longer "New Cuisine"; the innovations of Nouvelle Cuisine were hugely influential around the world (if you cook some of the above, like the emphasis on fresh food cooked very lightly might seem familiar) but has long since been incorporated into high restaurant cuisine and home cooking; many chefs will now use techniques from both Haute Cuisine and Nouvelle Cuisine, and probably incorporate ideas from other cuisines as well. Still, understanding the difference is useful for understanding French Cuisine as a whole.

Some well-known practitioners include Michel Roux, Thomas Keller,note  Alain Ducasse, and quite a few others of the world's top chefs.

La Cuisine Régionale

Haute Cuisine—both Nouvelle and Classique—is the cuisine of chefs and foodies. While most French eat it at least occasionally, their everyday cooking will more likely resemble their regional cuisines, which are less formalized and more varied than the national cuisine. France was not always a modern nation state, and the different regions of France, Alsace, Lorraine, Champagne, Calais, Normandy, Brittany, Île-de-France, Burgundy, Provence, etc. all have their own culture and cuisine. Indeed, provincialism is quite strong in France, with most Frenchmen having a strong attachment to the city or town of their birth, even if they later move. In a French restaurant abroad you will at best find some of the most famous dishes of each region, and perhaps nothing regional at all, but it is still an integral part of the French national identity.

Much of what Julia Child (and her writing partners Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle) wrote about fell into this category; Child's cuisine in particular was essentially middle-class home cooking of the 1930s through 1950snote , with some diversions into restaurant dishes, high-end patisserie (particularly elaborate cakes like her signature Queen of Sheba chocolate rum cake), and even occasionally street food; France, of course, had their own authors like Evelyn Ebrard (writing as "Mme. E. Saint-Ange", her maiden name) and Ginette Mathiot, and the UK had the classically trained Dione Lucas, one of the very first television chefs. Edouard de Pomiane (a radio chef!) wrote what may be one of the first convenience cookbooks in 1930, published as Cuisine en dix minutes. This was the cuisine that broke the US out of its traditional mold of heavy, stodgy cooking and made the era of Mad Men and space shots much tastier and more daring.

Sauces and garnishes

French food relies heavily on its sauces, which Escoffier divided largely into five categories:
  • Béchamel: a white sauce made with a roux (flour cooked in butter) and milk, seasoned with white pepper and sometimes nutmeg. As noted above, it is an ancient sauce, far predating French cuisine; the French will tell you they perfected it, which might be true. Might be true.
  • Velouté (velvet): A white sauce similar to a béchamel, but made with fish or chicken stock instead of milk.
  • Brown sauce: Similar to velouté, but with a long-cooked brown roux and the addition of herbs and tomatoes. The traditional form is called Sauce Espagnole; although no one knows exactly why it's called that, the association of Spain with tomatoes seems to be the reason. (When extra stock is added, and the whole thing simmered together and repeatedly skimmed until well-reduced, you get demi-glace, which is sort of like gravy with a PhD.)
  • Butter emulsion sauces like Hollandaise and Béarnaise are something like hot mayonnaise, and beginning cooks usually find them terrifying, which is why you will find many, many shortcuts to making Hollandaise in particular.
  • Tomato sauces (although they aren't necessarily used as much in French cuisine as they are in other parts of the world like Italy and Mexico).
  • There's also cold sauces like mayonnaise, aioli (basically garlic mayo), and rouille, and dessert sauces like crème anglaisenote  and caramel.

A lot of dishes, especially in classical cuisine, are defined by their garnishes, which are often named for one specific area or person. There are a lot of these, and many are seldom-used.

Some famous dishes

Cuisses de grenouilles

Aka Frogs' Legs. They apparently do taste like chicken. The French don't eat them that often, it's more a touristy thing.

Escargots

Snails. They actually taste like mussels (not surprising, since they are near relatives, both being molluscs and all that). Considered a delicacy, and not eaten that often either (many Frenchmen are just as disgusted as Americans by the idea of eating them). While there is a specifically French recipe for them, snails are in fact occasionally eaten in most countries of southern Europe and North Africa (anyone who's ever been in a Moroccan bazaar can testify to the presence of carts full of gigantic dishes of stewed snails). Snails were also British peasant food until they went out of favour sometime in the late 1700's; the European tradition of eating snails goes back at least to the Romans.

Bœuf Bourgignon

Possibly the quintessential French beef stew note , or at least tied for first with the Daube Provençale (which may be made with lamb...), bœuf Bourgignon is named after the Burgundy region, where the world-famous local red wine of the same name is used to make it. In addition to big chunks of stew beef and a winey sauce, the dish also contains salt pork or bacon, mushrooms, and pearl onions. This is the dish that made Julia Child's career.

Pot-au-feu

Called "the quintessence of French family cuisine" by at least one major chef, this is the French down-home beef stew, served in households rich and poor alike. Its name means "pot on the fire" because it was historically exactly that—a pot of random stuff you had on the fire, often for days on end (adding stuff as you went along). Made from beef with rough-cut (nay, usually whole) veggies (always onion, usually carrot and celery, often other root vegetables plus cabbage) cooked over low heat with a bouquet garni (a bundle of common French herbs) and some other seasoning. Eaten with bread and a few side dishes (pickles are popular) with some strong Dijon mustard to accompany the vegetables, it is the essence of French Comfort Food.

French onion soup

Take a freshly made brown beef stock. Add piles and piles of carefully caramelized onions, then pour over a big chunk of toasted baguette, and brown some French or Swiss cheese (Gruyere is popular) over the top. Mediocre versions can be found everywhere (quick-and-dirty American versions are particularly common in New Jersey diners), but it's authentic and a lot of fun to eat.

Ratatouille

Not to be confused with a dish with rats (or a dish made by rats). That would be gross. Pronounced as ra-ta-too-yee, a Southern French dish composed of mixed vegetables like tomatoes, carrots, eggplant, zuchinni, bell peppers, and certain herbs and spices like marjoram and basil. Very popular with dieters due to the nutritional value of the dish. Also not to be confused with rouille, which is a type of garlic and red pepper mayonnaise used to season...

Bouillabaisse

A traditional fish stew from the Mediterranean coast of France; it's hard to duplicate because to be truly authentic, you need to have local fish (especially rascasse or scorpionfish), but it's nevertheless one of the most famous of French seafood dishes.

Galettes bretonnes and other stuff with butter

Galettes bretonnes can be found in many parts of France but are native to Britanny. For the most part they are savoury and the batter is made quite differently to that of, say, crêpes suzette, for instance as the flour used is buckwheat flour (farine de blé sarrasin, literally "Saracen wheat flour") and is usually savoury, eaten as a main meal. Not to be confused with crêpes au fromage, which simply use sweet dessert-ish crêpes with a savoury filling, here cheese. Actual Bretons will fry the galette with butter (that's ''salted'' butter), stick more butter inside with, typically, cheese, an egg, mushrooms and ham (although there are as many different fillings for galettes as there are for pizzas, for instance potatoes, fresh tomatos, even apple andouille), fold the galette up into a roughly square "package", and leave a large piece of butter on top to melt. A variant of this dish is a type of street food known as "galette saucisse" or "galette-dog", and is basically a cross between the galette bretonne and a hotdog, which here entails a Frankfurter or Strasbourg sausage rolled in a galette, often with ketchup, or failing that, just butter.

To stress the relationship between Bretons and (salted) butter, there's a Breton pastry called kouign amann ("butter cake" in Breton) which is basically butter (again, salted butter), more butter, and even more butter, with a base of bread dough sort of folded over each successive layer of butter and sugar, so that when you cook it the butter mix sort of sweats through the layer of bread dough underneath and makes the outside crunchy and the inside more fondant. You Do Not Want to leave a piece of kouign amann out on a hot, sunny day, although if you're actually in Britanny you probably shouldn't worry too much about that, as the region's climate is similar to that of the British Isles. But then as Bretons themselves like to say when teased about the weather, "in Britanny it only rains on cunts".

You may have noticed that butter found in Britanny (plus Vendée, Anjou and a couple of areas bordering Britanny) are nearly always salted butter (beurre salé or beurre demi-sel). This is something that will virtually drive one to tears when finding oneself in a region where the norm is beurre doux (unsalted butter) and beurre salé is difficult or nigh-impossible to find, such as virtually anywhere else in France. Not to mention the UK where margarine is considered a viable alternative to butter. Some will go so far as to actually sprinkle salt on their butter while making a sandwich (such as the most popular sandwich in France, the jambon-beurre: take a baguette, spread it with lots of butter, add white ham, and that's it), but it's Just Not The Same. This is Serious Business.

Couscous and other North African imports

What pizza and Chinese-American food are to the US and curry is to the UK and Ireland, couscous and certain other North African dishes are to France — cheap, tasty, convenient (usually takeout), not typical of what usually goes on the table, most often consumed by students and others who don't cook very much (particularly while drunk), and thoroughly naturalized despite eaters' perceptions of exoticness to the contrary. Couscous is a small, pebbly, quick-cooking pasta eaten from Morocco to Sicily and Libya, and cooked and served alongside meals like tagine (a Berber meat stew traditionally cooked in a clay pot with a characteristic conical lid) or vegetable stew; it's sometimes even used as a dessert, served with honey or sugar and spices.note  Because of their origins in Islamic countries, these dishes are usually made with lamb or beef, never pork; a spicy beef or lamb sausage called merguez is fairly common as well. Kebabs (which refer both to the actual dish on a plate, its handy takeaway repackaging in bread of various types à la Döner, and the shop that sells them) are very, very common at least in large cities with substantial North African, Lebanese or Turkish communities. The shops are usually open until much later than any other source of food will be, making it the food of choice of drunk urban students like this troper. In Paris, more than anywhere else in France, the shops tend to be referred to generically as "grecs" note , in north-eastern France "turcs", and when manned by Lebanese, "libanais", much in the same way that in Belgium, frites vendors note  are sometimes referred to in Flemish as "frietchinees". The French and the Belgians will argue over who invented the French fries (known here simply as "frites"), and there's even a gag to that effect in Asterix chez les Belges when Obelix mentions something about deep-frying actual apples (pommes frites) amid a running gag about waterzooie.

Le fromage

France has many kinds of cheese, from very strong to very sweet, from very hard to very creamy. Most popular cheeses include Camembert (a creamy cheese from Normandy, made with cow milk, rather strong taste), Roquefort (a very strong taste blue cheese, made with sheep milk, from the town of Roquefort), Comté (a hard cheese made from cow milk, originating in the region of Franche-Comté) and Crottin de Chavignol (soft and sweet goat cheese (though it becomes progressively harder and stronger if left to age more) made in the Loire valley). Note that Emmental and Gruyère are actually made in Switzerland (but are still very popular in France; Comté is so similar to Gruyère that the former sometimes goes by "French Gruyère" abroad, and within France only the blindest nationalists would object to substituting Gruyère for Comté for most purposes). The diversity of cheeses is often used to highlight France's oft-forgotten (by outsiders) regional diversity: as president Charles De Gaulle famously asked, "How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?"

Vin (et les autres boissons)

Or in English, wine. France is famous for its fine wines and the French government has a lot of quality controls on them. The wines of Bordeaux are world-famous and can cost hundreds of dollars a bottle, but France doesn't lack for good, inexpensive local wines. (It also doesn't lack for cheap plonk; at one point during the 1990s, there was such a surplus of wine that even some of the good stuff wound up being recycled into industrial ethanol because there was too much to sell.)

Beer is not uncommon, especially in the once-German Alsace and Lorraine areas and along the Belgian border—the Nord département consists of the western part of Flanders and Hainaut (the rest of which are in Belgium), and shares in the famous Belgian brewing tradition. Normandy is known for its cider and Calvados (a type of apple brandy). Britanny, or at least its cultural area, is also known for its cider, as well as Chouchenn (of the same family as Calvados) and more uncommonly mead. A good way to invoke Berserk Button in Britanny or Normandy is to state the other invented cider/ has the best cider. Note that French cider generally tends to be much lighter in alcohol content than English cider from the south-west, is rarely served outside of Britanny and Normandy where it is almost a national pride, and tends to be the kind of thing you serve to children as a substitute for beer (attitudes towards alcohol are completely different to what can sometimes be seen outside of Europe).

Champagne

Under the Treaty of Madrid (1891) only sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France can legally be called "champagne" in many countries. While does not apply to the US, Uncle Sam has subjected the use of the term "champagne" by American sparkling wines to certain conditions: it must actually be sparkling wine, it must have the actual location of origin (usually California) noted in fairly large type on the label, and it must have started calling itself champagne before 2006 (when the rules were instated). American wine producers have in recent years started gravitating away from using French names anyway (except for varietals, where it's hardly their fault), as they're trying to develop their regional identities (which, as various blind wine tastings have indicated, can be just as good as European ones).

La baguette (et les autres pains)

Although the French do eat potatoes and couscous quite frequently (they formerly had a certain notoriety for not being able to handle rice, though), the big traditional starch of a French meal is bread, by far the most famous being the long, crispy stick of bread known as the baguette. Properly made, a baguette is ideal for both a meal and a sandwich bread; however, it's not the only French bread. The family of breads sometimes known as pain de campagne ("country bread") tend to be flattened balls or wheels of greyish-brown bread; at its worst it's barely distinguishable from white bread, but the bread of Poilane bakery in Paris (now in its third generation of ownership) is considered among the best and most imitated in the world. Also, there's brioche — an eggy, buttery bread used for breakfast, desserts, holiday pastries, and uses like that. note  Finally, there's the originally-Austrian croissant — a yeasted relative of puff pastry and danish, and one of the three most popular breakfast breads in the USA, along with biscuits and bagels. (Chocolate croissants — the rectangular, chocolate-filled pain au chocolat — are very popular after-school snacks for French kids.)

The French also eat pizza (understandable, since they share a border with Italy); in practice, most French pizzerias offer only a handful of styles of pizza, but France also has its own native types, like the anchovy and onion-laden pissaladière of Provence and the Alsatian onion/cream/bacon flammekueche.note  Also not uncommon is fougasse, a type of bread similar in both name and style to northern Italy's focaccia, though the French often make them sweet, sometimes with fruit like grapes baked in. It should be noted that, like the American variant of pizza, French pizza mostly originated as the poor man's food among the immigrant Italian populations of Marseille, and thereafter somewhat diverged from its Italian counterpart. It tends to be thinner than thick-crust American pizza and slightly thicker than thin-crust Italian pizza.

And lastly, let us not forget the humble crêpe; although widely made throughout the Mediterranean (and in other places — the Russian/Jewish blinchiki are essentially crêpes, as are Japanese okonomiyaki), these eggy pancake-wrapper-flatbread things are best known under their French name, and are popular not only as a dessert (like crêpes suzette) but as a quick lunch or even as part of a hearty dinner, made into cannelloni or something similar.


Les Grandes ÉcolesUsefulNotes/FranceTour de France
Ramen as Dehydrated NoodlesUseful NotesTea And Tea Culture

alternative title(s): Snails And So On
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