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.
ClassificationThere 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. The founder of the modern form of this style is generally considered to be Marie-Antoine Carême, who was one of the first celebrity chefs (and a chef to celebrities: he spent much of his career in the employ of the French diplomat/politician/Magnificent Bastard Talleyrand). However, Carême's dishes, made for heads of state and diplomats and designed to impress, could be quite complex, and there was a lot of variation in the early-to-mid-19th century, as not everyone adopted his techniques and ideas right away. However, Carême gradually became the gold standard by which other French chefs are measured, and by the late 19th century, Georges Auguste Escoffier would cement Carême's status by developing a codification of French cuisine developed by adapting and simplifying Carême's recipes. 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,note 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 Carême. You'll want to read Escoffier's Guide Culinaire for the traditional treatment, as well as Le répertoire 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 natural flavors of fish, poultry, seafood, and vegetables (which led to a lot of steamingnote ); using the freshest ingredients possible; shorter menus; abandonment of strong marinades for fish and game; replacing heavy sauces with lighter applications of fresh herbs, butter, lemon juice, and vinegar; regional dishes as inspiration; and using modern innovations and technologies to combine these elements in an inventive way. 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 with a few small exceptionsnote 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. This cuisine is often based heavily on what is produced locally in a given region, so expect lots of apples and butter in Normandy and Brittany (unsalted in the former and salted in the latter), beer in Nord, olives and olive oil in the coastal south, and local wines and cheeses just about everywhere. 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 and featuring a quirky sense of humor and an interest in the scientific underpinnings of cooking recalling nobody so much as Alton Brown. 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. Incidentally, while we're talking about the US, French regional cuisine is the direct ancestor of the famous Cajun and Creole cuisines of Louisiana; many traditional Louisiana dishes are French regional ones, adapted to use New World ingredients (e.g. bell peppers instead of carrots) and with Spanish, African, Native American, and British/American Southern influences added on top. In general, Cajun cuisine hewed closer to old-style French peasant cooking, while Creole cuisine was both more receptive to foreign influences (particularly taking tomatoes from colonial Spanish cooking and certain ingredients like okra from African cuisine) and—being derived from the cooking of more urban colonists—also paid more attention to developments in continental French cooking (the extensive use of butter characteristic of Creole cooking is Continental influence, in contrast to the Cajuns who historically used lard). However, today, these cuisines, although still distinct, have also taken a lot of influence from each other, are very popular outside Louisiana and are generally considered one of the greatest achievements of the American kitchen (world-class New Orleans-style restaurants have appeared even outside the US)...so touché, French food snobs. Sauces and garnishes French food relies heavily on its sauces, which Escoffier divided largely into five categories, based on the basic "mother sauces" of each class:
- 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. If a lot of stock is used, it can be served as a soup.note
- Espagnole ("Spanish"), aka brown sauce: Similar to velouté, but with a long-cooked brown roux, added herbs and tomatoes, and typically using veal stock (though beef stock or even water can be used in a pinch). The traditional form is (again) called Sauce Espagnole; although no one knows exactly why it's called that, the association of Spain with tomatoes seems to be the reason. The flavor is sufficiently strong that it's rarely used on its own (although it works well with fritesnote as what amounts to a more savory and complex replacement for ketchup); it's more typically seen as the base of a "daughter" sauce (see below).
- Hollandaise sauce: A butter-emulsion sauce, basically like a hot mayonnaise made by emulsifying lemon juice and butter with egg yolk; beginning cooks usually find it (and its derivatives) terrifying because of how easy it is to screw up (it splits easily), which is why you will find many, many shortcuts to making Hollandaise in particular.
- Tomato: Using diced or puréed tomatoes, with herbs, garlic, salt pork belly or bacon, and sugar (!) for flavor, with maybe a bit of stock and a roux to thicken. Not used as much in French cuisine as they are in other parts of the world like Italy and Mexico.
- Demi-glace: Probably the most notable one. Add extra stock to an Espagnole, and simmer the whole thing together and repeatedly skim until well-reduced; the result is sort of like gravy with a PhD.
- Mornay: Béchamel+grated cheese. The historical baked macaroni and cheese invented by Thomas Jefferson—a great francophile—is essentially macaroni baked in a mornay sauce with cheddar serving as the cheese (and of course, extra stuff baked on top). The white sauce used for the Eastern Mediterranean pastitsio is also a mornay.
- Béarnaise: Hollandaise, but the lemon juice is replaced with a reduction of white wine vinegar, shallot, and tarragon, seasoned with black peppernote and finished with fresh herbs (adding fresh tarragon is a must; chervil may also be added). A traditional French accompaniment to entrecôte, i.e. grilled steak, especially strip or Porterhouse, aficionados often describe it as the greatest steak sauce in the world.
- Suprême: Chicken-based velouté+mushroom-flavored reduction+cream. Usually served over, erm, chicken and mushrooms—a role in which we must admit it is incomparably good.
- Allemande: Velouté+eggs+lemon juice+cream. Some or all of the roux in the velouté may be omitted, as eggs and cream can serve its function of thickening the sauce. Intended to evoke rich German gravies, typically served over eggs, chicken, poached fish, and gratins.
- Africaine: Espagnole+Africanesque spices. Since the late 19th century, the French have had an odd obsession with Africa.
Some famous dishesCuisses 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. A Frenchman is at least as likely to eat frog's legs at a Chinese restaurant as a French one (there are in fact French Chinese restaurants, much like there are American Chinese restaurants, which are in the same vein definitely not like actual Chinese food, and yes, they serve frog's legs as a novelty appetizer). 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 (calling for removing the snails from their shells, cooking them in garlic butter and/or stock and/or wine, pouring the resultant mixture back into the shells, and garnish with parsley, pine nuts, or just more garlic), 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'snote ; 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 namenote is used to make it. In addition to big chunks of stew beef and a winey sauce, the dish often also contains salt pork or bacon, mushrooms, and pearl onions. This is the dish that made Julia Child's career. Incidentally, if you replace the wine with a sour/sourish beer and make a few more minor changes, you essentially have a carbonade flamande: one of the crown jewels of the Belgian kitchen, but also popular in northern France, particularly French Flanders (which forms the bulk of the Nord département). 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 cheap, tough cuts of beef, with some extra-cartilaginous ones (oxtail is popular) to provide extra texture and flavor, with rough-cut (nay, usually wholenote ) 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 (whole cloves are popular). The meat and vegetables are usually plucked out and eaten with bread and a few side dishes (pickles are popular), with some strong Dijon mustard to accompany the vegetables; the broth may be drunk as a soup or used in another dish. This is the essence of French Comfort Food. (For Britons, this is essentially France's version of Lancashire hotpot; for Americans, this is remarkably similar to a New England boiled dinner, although the beef is fresh, not corned.) 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, this is as mentioned a rather rustic regional Southern French dish (specifically Provençal, and super-specifically from Nice—the full name of the most popular variant is ratatouille niçoise) composed of mixed vegetables like tomatoes, carrots, eggplant, zucchini, bell peppers, and certain herbs and spices like marjoram and basil. Very popular with dieters and vegetarians because it's tasty, filling, and quite nutritious. Chefs like to argue about whether the veggies should be cooked separately and then mixed together shortly before serving so you can appreciate the best flavor of each vegetable or if you should cook them all together (as is traditional) for a more melded flavor; most agree that the dish is actually best if served after spending a night in the refrigerator (which melds the flavors, but not in the same way that cooking them together does). 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. Rather like the pot-au-feu, the broth is traditionally served separately from the fish: first the broth is brought out, served with bread topped with rouille (which is like aioli but also has breadcrumbs, saffron, and other seasonings in it), and then you eat the fish (and, typically, the potatoes).
- Hermione has to inform Ron what it is when the students from foreign wizarding schools (one being Beauxbatons) arrive; this becomes doubly funny given how the two end up, and triply so when Emma Watson (born to English parents in France) was cast as Hermione.
- "Bouillabaisse, yum yum!"