The French Do it Best

7 July 2022

Curnonsky, the Prince of Gastronomy (1872-1956), once described good cooking as c’est quand les choses ont le goût de ce qu’elles sont that is, when things taste of what they are. Born Maurice Edmond Sailland, Curnonsky delineated the hierarchy of French cuisine into four distinct classes: la haute cuisine, la cuisine bourgeoise, la cuisine régionale, and la cuisine improvisée. Which of the four one chooses is dependent on how much French one knows.

George-Auguste Escoffier is the central figure of la haute cuisine in the second half of the 19th century. This method of cooking, literally “high cooking”, refers to cuisines that require meticulous preparation and careful presentation of food, usually at a high price level and often accompanied by rare wines. This high art of French cooking originally started by chef Marie-Antonin Carême, a frustrated architect who used to build confection constructions sometimes up to several feet high. Escoffier’s achievement was simplifying and refining Carême’s ornate style. Escoffier introduced order and discipline to his kitchens one way was by replacing Carême’s style of serving all dishes at once with serving meals in courses. Escoffier also developed a system of cookery, which formalised the preparation of sauces and dishes. These days, for financial and economic reasons, this type of cooking is becoming rare.

Quite distinct from haute cuisine is cuisine bourgeoise, a type of cuisine for families with cooks and often associated with the working class cuisine of bistros and homes. Menon, an 18th century French cookbook author was well known for his work in describing this cuisine. This type of French cuisine fittingly emphasises on economy, simplicity and health.  Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson who authored the book Accounting for Taste: The Triumph of French Cuisine says, “This cuisine is bourgeois by its disengagement from the overpowering array of sophisticated seasonings, which needs both a clever cook and a wealthy master”. Menon admits, “The eye will be less satisfied, taste less delighted but in exchange, health and the pocket will come out far ahead”. While haute cuisine appeals to the elite, cuisine bourgeoise has a more national market.

La cuisine régionale is the diverse French regional cooking. Elizabeth David who authored the book French Provincial Cooking, describes the diversity of this type of cuisine accurately – “to compile a comprehensive volume of French regional recipes would take a lifetime of work and research…” With over 30 regions, it is no wonder that if you speak to any French or French-ophile, you will find that their opinions of French regional cooking vastly polarised; with some admitting that “there is no cooking south of Dijon” while some are hypnotised by the charms of dishes from Normandy, Brittany and the Loire Valley. It would take too long to list the regional dishes of France but think pommes mousseline, dodine de canard, la salade lyonnaise, andouilles, bœuf bourguignon, pot-au-feu and Curnonsky’s favourite from Bordeaux, lapin à la moutarde.

Beyond their irresistible accents and personalities (thank you Manu and Guillame), the influence of the French permeates every cuisine with its attitude, techniques and traditions. Whether it is the structured haute cuisine or the more sober middle-class French cooking, each is carried out with extreme care and skill, and always with respect to the quality of the ingredients and at its best never less than inspired.

Happy Bastille Day!