Published on November 13th, 2014 | by Nathalie Monsaint-Baudry4
The French Gastronomic Meal
“Eating is a need, knowing how to eat is an art“– La Rochefoucauld.
In the year of our grace 2010, the French gastronomic meal was officially added to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. It is defined as follows: “The gastronomic meal of the French is a customary social practice for celebrating important moments in the lives of individuals and groups, such as births, weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, special achievements and reunions. It is a festive meal bringing people together for an occasion to enjoy the art of good eating and drinking. The gastronomic meal emphasizes togetherness, the pleasure of taste, and the balance between human beings and the products of nature. Important elements include the careful selection of dishes from a constantly growing repertoire of recipes; the purchase of good, preferably local products whose flavors go well together; the pairing of food with wine; the setting of a beautiful table; and specific actions during consumption, such as smelling and tasting items at the table. The gastronomic meal should respect a fixed structure, commencing with an apéritif (drinks before the meal) and ending with liqueurs, containing in between at least four successive courses, namely a starter, fish and/or meat with vegetables, cheese and dessert. Individuals called « gastronomes » who possess deep knowledge of the tradition and preserve its memory, watch over the living practice of the rites, thus contributing to their oral and/or written transmission, in particular to younger generations. The gastronomic meal draws circles of family and friends closer together and, more generally, strengthens social ties.”
Human beings eat to live. How did a basic universal need result in such a monumental intangible cultural legacy in France? You can already guess that the French gastronomic meal–albeit ephemeral by nature–does not limit itself to filling one’s stomach and goes way beyond satisfying your taste buds. Of course, “All who wish to be are not a gourmand“, said Brillat-Savarin. You can’t just claim yourself a “gourmand” overnight nor even a wannabe French foodista. Being a foodista is the result of a long story and of an intentional construction.
Art, science and concept
Many civilizations left some kind of artifacts about how they fed themselves. The Greeks, and the Romans codified their eating habits in their own times. The word “gastronome” is, however, worth being explored. It first appeared in a poem by Joseph Berchoux, in 1801, litterally meaning “the art of regulating the stomach”. It also meant to eat well: quantity-wise, quality-wise, proper food preparation, the art of savoring “good cheer” (in its 1400 form meaning to “entertain with food or drink”), and drinking good wine, in pleasant company. Therefore, it was understood as a complete art form as it includes conceptualization, creation, transformation of raw food, wine selection, table dressing, party staging, service, and tasting. A gastronome, unlike a glutton, is a cultivated gourmand, a fine connoisseur with a solid table culture and life philosophy.
Under Louis XIV, glamourous chef François Vatel was promoted General Controller of “the Mouth” at the château of Chantilly. His responsibilities encompassed organizing, supplying and purchasing everything mouth-related, to being chief of protocol. He became a legendary party organizer and caterer associated with the grandeur of French History. It is however with Brillat-Savarin that the term, “gastronome” gained fame through his seminal book: The Physiology of Taste, or Transcendent Gastronomy, first published in 1825. In 1833, under French diplomat Talleyrand, Antonin Carême became the first celebrity chef. He promoted the art of French cuisine elevating it to the standards of high-art and science and wrote the monumental « L’Art de la Cuisine Française » in five volumes. He is credited with defining the « service à la française » (serving all dishes at once as in buffet style). The tradition of having the man of the house carve meat and in charge of wine and liquors is still observed today, despite the fact that the « service à la russe » (serving each dish in the order printed on the menu) took over during the 20th century.
However, it is with Escoffier that true modern gourmet cooking was established. Escoffier codified, modernized and simplified Carême’s complicated recipes and style. He organized his kitchens into sections named « brigades, » bringing military discipline into the « métier, » along with the “coup de feu” designating the sudden acceleration of activity and the sacred “oui, chef” that follows an order. Backstage kitchen activity and front desk service will become two separate entities and métiers. In 1912, he invented the Epicurean dinners in order to export French cuisine abroad and succeeded at giving it global recognition. He is the father of light and health-conscious French cooking, introducing shorter menus with smaller portions. In the foreword to his opus, The Culinary Guide, 1907, he states: “In short, cooking, while remaining an art, will become scientific, and must submit its all too frequently empirical formulas to a method and precision which leaves nothing to chance.” He anticipates tomorrow’s cuisine: ” A progressive change will occur inevitably in the human diet. Admitting that our grand-nephews will need the same amount of nutritive principles, they will need to get them from food that will have greatly discarded its inert and useless compounds. This allows us to consider the decreasing volume of meals as one inevitable future necessities, and brings more evidence confirming our opinion, and new justification with newer elements, in favor of rather shorter menus” Foreword of the Culinary Guide (1907-1912). This vision of “food that will have greatly discarded its inert an useless compounds” pioneers molecular cooking and the even more conceptual note by note cuisine. Would Escoffier have agreed on going that far? It is uncertain…
Let’s go back to Brillat-Savarin: “The destiny of nations depends on the manner in which they are fed“, and ” In the end we will see by the combined power of time and experience that a new science has suddenly appeared, which feeds, nourishes, restores, preserves, persuades, consoles and is not content with strewing handfuls of flowers over the individual, contributes much to the power and prosperity of empires.”
Behind these aphorisms, lies a deep-rooted national family secret sealed in our identity. Brillat-Savarin’s observations are very modern and are still “food for thought” when it comes to meditate on the way people eat and the role of food in the making of civilizations. From an anthropological standpoint, the luncheon, or « bacchanalia » splurge is not unique to France. It has always existed, been documented in all cultures, under different symbolic, ritual, tribal shapes from the potlatch or potluck dinner in the USA, to the Christian agape meal, the Gaul chow down feast, and the Roman banquet. Although they all share the abundance of food, beverage and partying, the French gastronomic meal does not limit itself to being a gustatory orgy of Gargantuan magnitude.
A political weapon
“Give me a good chef and I’ll give you good treaties!“–Talleyrand, famous 18th century French diplomat. “Meals have become the means of government and the fate of nations has often been sealed at a banquet” – Brillat-Savarin.
It is important to understand how the Italian Renaissance, under the Medici family, played such a decisive role regarding table manners and receptions at the court of King Francis I. During his reign, the art of entertaining reached the level of a full stage performance, with opulent displays of luxurious tableware. Leonardo da Vinci, while living in Amboise, was an extraordinary director and special effects inventor. Adjectives such as bombastic or pompous qualified the impressive, ostentatious displays of food still makes sense today. The expression “to dress” the table, originates from the fact that the French court being essentially nomadic in those days, all furniture, tableware and dining paraphernalia were hauled from one château to the next. The table needed to be literally lifted, put together, prepared and arranged in order to serve food. Consequently, a long lasting revolution took place with the French etiquette under the influence of table manners from Italy. The broad utilization of the fork, thanks to Catherine of Medici, the use of individual Faenza plates as well as glass stemware from Venice came to replace medieval metal goblets. These refinements led to the flourishing of silverware and Limoges china, then much later, via houseware shows that helped to acquaint a vast majority of households with bourgeois cooking through a bestseller: « Je sais cuisiner», by Ginette Mathiot. Today’s trend lies in the art of plating. The focus is on the construction of an aesthetic food entity displayed on a slate in lieu of a plate, resembling the fine artist’s creativity with his palette. The invention of printing during the Renaissance will allow recipes to be stabilized, that era marked the triumph of desserts and sweets: marzipan, macaroons, ice-cream and sherbet, candied fruit, nougat, génoise sponge cake, choux pastry, along with fixing the code of good conduct and manners. All along, gastronomy has remained a diplomatic soft power for all leaders in the world. All kings and French presidents have paid special attention to protocol especially to the art of entertaining and hosting foreign dignitaries. Today’s French business meal still emphazises this savoir-vivre inherent to the culture.
The festive family luncheon
“To invite a person to your house is to take charge of his happiness as long as he is beneath your roof” – Brillat-Savarin.
Even though the traditional Sunday family luncheon is not as prevalent as it once was, due to family structure changes, it remains symbolically strong within today’s lay French society. We all share the collective memory of black and white pictures, giving us a snapshot of a then extended family gathered around a bottle of Monbazillac dessert wine and a moka buttercream cake, while celebrating a religious rite of passage. Today, this same luncheon still allows family members to spend quality time together, encouraging sharing, enjoying good food, strengthening family bonds, promoting communication, passing down family savoir-faire, sharing regional and national codes. It is a gift, an act of love, and an intentional generator of happiness. The art of eating well and entertaining are several steps up from the natural basic need to feed ourselves. It is the result of a long cultural and social process. In France, we do not sit at the table to merely alleviate our hunger or “fill ourselves up”. Family cooking is a safe haven for the nuclear family: a simmering stew is a protective blanket against the outside environment. This is still a solid value in a country which can no longer count on a strong global influence. People tend to cuddle up in a therapeutic withdrawal that is cooked with loving care. At least, this is something they can still count on. Actually, the French are more concerned than ever about their labels for quality food, origins, local produce, they are also eager to learn how to cook well. A Plethora of TV reality shows confirm and feed this trend. The energetic, authoritarian and voracious “A table !” scream is not the equivalent to the matter-of-fact statement: “dinner is ready”. In France, it actually means that everyone should come, sit and eat right away in a solemn togetherness. No exception.
The French bon-vivant
“Tell me what kind of food you eat, and I will tell you what kind of man you are“– Brillat-Savarin.
French expressions such as bon-vivant, joie-de-vivre, to be an epicurean, a gourmet, a connoisseur, a foodie, to have a sturdy appetite are all related to the good food tradition counted among the intrinsic qualities of being French.
The French philosopher, Michel Onfray, calls himself Epicurean. He established the Popular University of Taste in his native town of Argentan, Normandy. This is an obvious raison-d’être for the French who nourish their thoughts like they feed their stomachs, just like their mentor, the great humanist thinker, Montaigne, who used a metaphor about knowledge. He compared intellectual learning to sucking the “substantial marrow” in order to make it your very own flesh. There is something very unique to the French in that they intellectualize the food they eat and can talk about cooking as if it were a highly metaphysical subject. French semiotician and thinker Roland Barthes’s mythical “steak and French fries” analysis, articulated around psychological traces of unsaid barbarian leftovers, reveals the hidden “signification” folded in a national dish. Babette’s Feast, the 1987 Danish drama film directed by Gabriel Axel, based on the story by Karen Blixen, transforms the never-seen-before real French meal of sinful sensuality into mystical redemption of the human spirit over the table. What makes other nations envious about the French diet is the French Paradox. We must confess that they eat well, they eat a lot of fatty meats, drink a lot of wine, they brag about it and flaunt it while feeling zero guilt about it. This is so unfair and so exasperating for the rest of us. Gourmandism is not a deadly sin in France.
While raising my children in California, being a French mother, I could only rely on two fundamental ways to ensure they would turn out to be as French as can be: speak their mother tongue and expose them, as early as possible, to the raw taste of French cuisine. Language and food rely on the same organs. If I had given up on any of these two paths, I would have opened the door to an unlimited ketchupization of their young palates in the making, to seedless grapes, boneless chicken, fish-that-does-not-taste-fishy, I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-butter, out-of-the-box eggwhites, or Rice-A-Roni and other unthinkable processed shortcuts eliminating all good common sense for preparation from scratch of natural food, smelling, chewing and swallowing processes. I would have failed in the cultural gustatory transmission, missing teaching the codes and the esprit that comes along with fine cooking territories. While the American infant is fed on a “bland mashed potato blended with pureed-chicken breast” regimen, the French bébé discovers very early on, the real taste and colors of French green beans with the finesse of a filet of sole properly cuisiné – and not with any non-descript fish. He is quickly promoted to the reality of adult tastes since “raising” children does imply some “elevation”. Sensorial awakening is part of “bringing up” baby towards adulthood instead of prolonged babification through extended consumption of processed baby food. The California trend towards liquid diets and liquid meals, vitamin and protein enriched power juices that take over the baby bottle would have been the logical daily grown-up healthy diet had I not enforced the taste of real solid and textured food. These nutritious blended beverages, à la Jamba Juice, etc. made out of natural herbal and fruit ingredients with added immune system boosting miracle extras, have become the convenient, guilt-free meal on the go, shortcutting solid food, to be drunk alone, on the job or sitting in the car. America will always lead the way when it comes to fast food and shortcuts. France and Italy still pride themselves for being slow food countries and for indulging in taking long détours.
What the French call plat de résistance, or pièce de résistance, our main course, must be robust enough not to feel hungry until the next meal, hence the “résistance” in order not to succumb to hunger. It is the solid core of a French meal, the climax, the work of art. It is preceded with appetizers, starters or hors-d’œuvre, to stimulate the appetite and gently lead to the main course. Therefore, I imposed a double “résistance” (pun intended) in my everyday life in California by serving a “pièce de résistance” on a daily basis. So French of me.
There is a clear dynamic and intention in the architecture of a French meal designed with brio, gusto and maestria. An introduction is carefully followed by a crescendo then a progressive decrescendo cascade of desserts and sweets, since the last course literally means “removal of what has been served,” from “desservir “clear the table”. It is orchestrated like a symphony by a chef/conductor who composes the menu. It has its own tempo, and is a full-fledged performance for the pleasure of the papillae, the pupils and the ears. It certainly is by no means the result of happenstance.
Let’s go back to Rabelais’s birthplace in the Loire Valley. Precisely where the word “gastronome” was actually coined for the first time was in Rabelais’s talltale Gargantua, in 1532. He tells us about a strange people named the Gastrolastres, whose full-time occupation was to eat and party. I had the privilege of living in the heart of France, in the Loire Valley, between Chinon and Amboise, where French culture is nestled along the Balzacian Loire river banks. I was lucky enough to attend these Pantagruelian feasts twice, held in cave-dwelling galleries, carved in the heart of France. Believe me, the abbey of Thélème is no utopia in Touraine where most Renaissance châteaux served as perfect venues for sumptuous parties in the past. Four times a year, special “chapters” are held by ancient wine-making corporations, either in Chinon, in Rabelais’s personal wine cellars, or in Vouvray’s troglodyte caves. You are about to enter a cathedral of French gastronomy and experience what a contemporary Gargantuan feast is all about with several hundred guests. Sitting not far from me, the President of the French Senate, the second most powerful person in France, indulging in the activity of savoring, wine tasting and eating for eight hours in a row. Corresponding to the number of glasses per guest, forming long diagonals of criss-crossing stemware, like an ondulation connecting huge banquet tables through serpentine galleries. Picture all the glasses being refilled with a wide variety of wines, ranging from sparkling, still to dessert, sweet and liquorous nectars. Despite the grim context of a severe global economic crisis that shook the planet, the French President of the Senate shared, feasted, cheered, and behaved like an ordinary guest amongst others. The French gastronomic meal is truly a tangible and intangible national monument, all the French can indeed claim it as property for it since it finds echoes within each region and each family.
Because the culinary arts never were granted any copyright, an issue Escoffier had raised during his time, cooks and chefs are not legally protected and not credited with the ownership of their recipes. Plagiarism is de facto when it comes to cooking since you can copy and adapt recipes from books ad libitum. Some kind of symbolic compensation was fair and due. It was about time to celebrate the Culinary Arts and dignify them for the very first time. The Touraine region played a key role again in the decision of adding the French Gastronomic Meal to the list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. It took the combined efforts of politicians, the François Rabelais University of Tours, the European Institute of Food History and Culture, headquartered in Tours, and the authority of several famous Michelin-starred chefs, to make it happen. This ranking consecrates this national work-of-art to its highest level of nobility, it does not only sanctify the elitist gourmet meal. It dignifies the French daily family style meal celebrating from scratch homecooking, the use of fresh and local produce, paying homage to farmers and growers, a pretty table setting, attention to details, and a convivial environment. This is the everyday flamboyant France we must celebrate. There is probably to be found its true singularity, its cultural genius, its deep national identity. After all, if the French still spend an average of two hours per day sitting, eating and drinking wine, there is something to be said about how important it is for them that certainly requires our careful attention and respect.