IS FRENCH CUISINE DEAD?

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Traditional French cooking may in fact be dying, but then it always was", writes Jon Fasman. On this gluttonous Thanksgiving day, he pages through Point's reissued "Ma Gastronomie" and Joël Robuchon's new magnum opus for signs of a resurrection ...

Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE

We live in degenerate times. This fallen world no longer appreciates ritual, majesty, dignity, elegance. Consider the morning shave. Performed by most men in or near their showers (who among us rat-racers has time for a morning bath?), this dreary battle of mass-produced blade versus face involves a foosh of foam or cold squirt of gel from a metal tube, a plastic or metal-handled device as ordinary as a ballpoint pen, and then a rinse of water from the tap and perhaps a bracing splash of scented vinegar. Lather, scrape, repeat.

Now consider the morning shave of Fernand Point. Naturally the chef and founder of La Pyramide, once the world's greatest restaurant, did not do it himself. His barber shaved him. To make smooth his massive face (Point stood six feet three inches, and tipped the scales somewhere north of 300 pounds), this barber came to him every day at half past nine, and toiled briskly in the shadiest part of La Pyramide's terrace. Because being shaved is thirsty work, Point usually spent this time polishing off the day's first magnum of champagne, and was ploughing through the second by the time the barber was done.

Point was a man of gargantuan appetites. He would regularly eat three chickens and a pot-au-feu between breakfast and lunch, recalled Philippe Troisgros, one of many whose journey to three stars began in La Pyramide's kitchen. His ambitions were equally outsized: he aimed at nothing less than a reimagining of classical French cuisine, emphasising natural, pure flavours and textures rather than luxuriousness as its highest value.

His food was rich, no doubt. Even his recipe for "Spinach chez nous" sees the vegetable sautéed in butter, mixed with croutons sautéed in butter and topped with ham, and the whole concoction covered with cream sauce fortified with extra egg yolks. But almost all of the recipes in "Ma Gastronomie" are feasible for a single cook (physically, if not economically), rather than the brigade de cuisine usually found in the most refined French kitchens. His sauces were heavy, but by and large not elaborate, though wonderful exceptions abound: his recipe for calf's head calls for a sauce made from veal stock enriched with marjoram, rosemary, basil, truffle trimmings and Madeira, garnished with pitted olives, cocks' testicles and combs, small mushrooms and truffle slices. Yet many of his sauces are just cooking juices enriched with cream, egg and fortified wine (eg, port, sherry and Madeira--wines to which sugar has been added after an initial fermentation so they are sweeter and stronger).

To contemporary diners, such additions may seem anathema to allowing pure and natural flavours shine through, but that only shows how profoundly our palates have been shaped by non-French (Japanese and Italian, especially) techniques, and by the refinements of Michel Guerard's nouvelle cuisine in the 1970s.

Joël Robuchon's magnum opus, "The Complete Robuchon", published in English earlier this month, tries to redefine French cuisine in light of these influences (it carries the pointed subtitle "French Cuisine for the Way We Live Now"). Hence its more varied recipes: not everything is aswim in butter and animal fats, and curry powder and soy sauce make brief cameos. A teaspoon of the former--along with fromage blanc, white wine, shallots and a bouquet garni--provides the title spice in a creamed, curried mussel dish, while the latter is part of a recipe grandly titled "Tuna with soy sauce", which surrounds and defeats the Eastern invaders with a battery of other seasonings (vinegar, garlic, five onions, capers, green pepper, black pepper, green olives, pickled piquillo peppers, thyme and dried tomatoes--yet it is the soy sauce that gets star billing).

If Robuchon assumes among his readers a greater familiarity with (if a slight fear of) "exotic" spices, he also presumes a lower culinary knowledge base. (As a side note, he also assumes better dentistry: among the hundred or so recipes in Point's book, only one--for "Broiled devilled spring chicken"--has any sort of crunch to it, though toast points are occasionally called for.) Point's recipes rarely include numbers: his recipe for quenelles in cream sauce, for instance, begins with an instruction to "prepare some pike quenelles made exclusively with butter and without any veal kidney suet" (naturally, he does not include a recipe for quenelles: if you don't already know how to make them, the recipe implies, you have no business reading this book). Robuchon's recipe for pike quenelles, by contrast, first instructs the chef to "check the pike flesh carefully and discard any small bones", then provides idiot-proof, step-by-step directions, including preparation and cooking times, for making the fish dumplings.

Robuchon frequently provides, on adjacent pages, nearly identical directions for pan-grilling and pan-frying the same thing. This shows admirable thoroughness and attention to culinary detail, though one can't help wondering whether the image of our most renowned French chef writing such basic details wouldn't make Point shift uneasily, if not spin, in his massive grave.

Troisgros commended Point for bringing classic French cuisine "from the age of the horse and carriage into the automobile age." We are now, of course, well into the airplane age, a time when the most celebrated chef--Ferran Adrià of El Bulli--is no longer some Frenchman with country mud on his boots, but a Spanish mad scientist whipping up olive-oil caviar and "carrot air". Last February Nicolas Sarkozy--the athletically slender, teetotaling French president who by all accounts does not especially enjoy eating--announced that he planned to petition UNESCO to recognise French gastronomy as a treasure of world heritage. He failed to realise, perhaps, that only the dead and dying get memorials (UNESCO recognises Albanian isopolyphonic singing, for example; hip-hop is doing just fine on its own).

Traditional French cooking may in fact be dying, but then it always was. If the variety and openness of Robuchon's recipes are a dagger in Point's heart, well, Point's countrified, elaborate simplicity was the same to Auguste Escoffier and Marie-Antoine Carême. French cuisine owes its genius not to any specific dishes, but to the chefs who keep killing and reviving it, and to the diners who approach the table with the seriousness it deserves. Long may the resurrections continue.

 

Picture credit: acme (via Flickr)

(Jon Fasman is an editor for Economist.com, and the author of two novels, both published by the Penguin Press: "The Geographer's Library" and "The Unpossessed City", published this November. He writes regularly about food for Intelligent Life and More Intelligent Life, such as "It's Offal Good".)