Has French food gone out of style? Has the haute kitchen that once held supremacy over all other culinary traditions grown long in the tooth and become passé, or do we still reverence the legacies of Taillevent, de la Varenne, Carême, Escoffier, et al?
Of course today we still have experts at the art of cuisine Française, master chefs who proudly wear the French-traditional white chef’s coat and high toque – Jacques Pépin, Éric Ripert, Hubert Keller, Hélène Darroze, Michel Roux Jr., to name the short list.
But star-power aside, do diners still clamor for, seek out and insist upon the delicately nuanced dishes associated with French cooking? Or does the modern eater run to the nearest exit when the chef’s daily specials are lamproies en hippocras sauce, épigrammes de agneau à la Michelet and pieds de cochon à la Sainte-Menehould ?
Fear of French food is not new. It mostly has to do with pronunciation, as Americans in general, and Texans in the specific, have trouble rolling the French language off their tongues. So much easier if the waiter reciting the menu simply said: lampreys soaked in an herbed and spiced digestive juice, a double lamb sandwich and boiled pig’s feet.
But if you’re still seated at the table and haven’t fled the restaurant, think of the layered mysteries tucked inside a French terrine. Then indulge in the few succulent slices offered below.
1) Ah, Gascony! The region in Southwest France where cooking techniques haven’t changed much since medieval times, Gascony gave us Eleanor of Aquitaine, d’Artagnan the Musketeer and King Henry IV (who promised the peasants a poule – chicken – in every pot). A land of wild peaches, sunflower fields and Armagnac, it’s also where you can sink your teeth into confit de canard Gascony-style. The method for preserving duck legs has been around for centuries and is considered one of France’s classic dishes. How’s it done?
2) French Renaissance writer François Rabelais often used his satirical voice when writing about food. With many banned books to his discredit – or, if regarded in retrospect, to his credit – his works dripped with sexual double entendres, absurdity, gross humor and gossamer-winged fantasy. The fourth book in Rabelais’ saga of Pantagruel and Gargantua – literature’s most literal giants – has a passage describing various ways to prepare eggs. According to the writer, eggs may be “fried, lost, stifled, steamed, trainnez par les cendres, jectez par la cheminee, jumbled, calked, et cet.” Translate the two dishes noted here in French. And if you cannot, dine at a French restaurant tonight and ask the French chef to prepare the two dishes according to the given instructions. Only then will you know if Rabelais was in earnest about his oeufs, or might have been pulling the leg of cuisine Française.
3) The Latin word forma translates as “mold.” The French word fourme is taken from the Latin. Later on down the line the French word fourme transmogrified into another French word – one that even English-speaking folks recognize. What is it? (Hint: Say it with a smile.)
1) To prepare confit de canard, duck legs are poached in fat, then submerged in more duck fat. The fat-soaked duck legs may be stored in the fridge for months (or, according to some veteran Gascony cooks, stored just about any old place for years and years).
2) Eggs trainnez par les cendres are eggs dragged through the ashes of a fireplace, and eggs jectez par la cheminee are eggs thrown down the chimney. Both preparations have some provenance, some authenticity, as “spit-roasted eggs” trace back hundreds of years prior to the French Renaissance. The method seems simple enough. Heat a spit until hot, stick it through an egg, then set down into smoldering ashes until done. One word of caution: the oeufs can explode, leaving the spit-roaster with egg on her face.
3) The French word fourme eventually became the French word fromage, which is cheese any way you look at it. Specifically however, fourme does describe the cheeses from central France that are shaped into cylinders and have similar taste and appearance of bleu cheese, such as Fourme du Mézenc, which is also called Bleu de Loudes or Bleu de Velay.