The history of French cuisine Part one
Ask anyone to describe France in fewer than four words and I guarantee that one of those words will be food. French cuisine has earned its place at the head of the table even if, and it has to be said, the world’s ten best restaurants, according to ‘Restaurant Magazine’ appear anywhere but France.
Even so, it was the French that gave us the concept of ‘restaurants’. During a period in French history that saw the masses starving and the aristocracy fleeing the capital for fear of the guillotine, the restaurant business began its journey. At first these new eateries, mostly set up by abandoned chefs once employed by frightened aristocrats, served a simple broth or ‘restorative’. During those heady, dangerous times the restorative enjoyed the rather sober, yet illustrious status of ‘healthy fodder’ amongst the middle classes of the time.
One the first restaurants to open in Paris in 1765 was by a Bouillon peddler by the name of Boulanger. However the first Parisian restaurant worthy of the name was the one founded by Beauvilliers in 1782 in the Rue de Richelieu, called La Grande Taverne de Londres. Beauvilliers introduced the novelty of listing the dishes available on a menu and serving them at individual tables during fixed hours. Whether the nonchalant, often discourteous manner of the waiter began around the same period, no one knows!
During the 1800’s, Napoleon Bonaparte introduced the ‘freedom of pleasures’ act which stated that all citizens had the right to enjoy good food. His reasoning apparently was simple, if people were busy with sauce reductions and drinking champagne they would be less likely to conspire against him.
The truth of the matter is that France gave the world the basics of cookery, such luminaries as Carême and later Escoffier codified regional French cookery, refined flavours and sauces and gave us Haute Cuisine. The first cookbooks originated from French kitchens and the recipes that lie within those well thumbed tomes exist today, in one form or another. Unlike the UK, however, those recipes and that passion has been handed down to everyone; generation after generation.
Thanks to the revolution every citizen, not just the elite, has the right to enjoy good food; and they do. The old adage still stands, ‘the English eat to live, the French live to eat’! This is never more obvious than in the restaurants that adorn the streets and boulevards of France’s cities today.
Good food being readily available to everyone is however a double edged sword, it has to be affordable too. That’s why any Brasserie or Bistrot worth its salt is packed at lunch time, its tables heaving under the weight of delicious meats, fish, patés, wines and bread.
Affordable to everyone, from the managing director to the street sweeper, means that the restaurateurs have no option but to cut corners somewhere! France, still being a rather socialist country, penalises its restaurants by imposing heavy social security contributions on hired staff. This is why quite often you will notice one poor waiter or waitress doing the job of several!
Even though in recent times the government has reduced the percentage of social security paid on hired staff, it’s clearly not enough. If you consider that France’s cuisine, coupled with its lifestyle and seasonal produce, brings in thousands of tourists every year (pockets bulging with Euros) you’d think that rather than penalise the restaurants they would supplement their earnings in an attempt to create more jobs and keep the quality of its food set at optimal!
One particular dish indigenous to the Languedoc area sums up France’s rich, fluent, gastronomic history with only one spoonful: cassoulet!
Cassoulet is a dish steeped in legend; even its origins are uncertain, some historians believing that it is a variant of the much earlier Arabic ‘fava bean and mutton stews’ originating from Muslim controlled Spain. Others, myself included, prefer the more romantic notion that the dish was born out of necessity during the siege of Castelnaudary by the Black Prince, Edward the Prince of Wales, in 1355. The besieged townspeople gathered their remaining food to create a big stew cooked in a cauldron. On my first visit to the town of Castelnaudary with my wife to be, we met a local hotelier and head chef who proudly declared that if it wasn’t for the British, cassoulet would never have been born! He thanked me as if I were personally responsible and later, after trying his secret recipe; prepared only by him, he poured us both a glass of champagne!
Such is the importance of cassoulet to the townspeople that they forgive us the siege of 1355 – water under the bridge and all that – because they believe that cassoulet has provided many people with a livelihood; be it directly or otherwise.
Despite the fact that cassoulet has become the one dish that sums up the southwest of France and the Languedoc in particular, there are many variables. In Castelnaudary it’s served with duck confit, in Toulouse it’s served with goose, the good people from Carcassonne may put mutton while others like pork or sausage. So it would be foolish of me to recommend one recipe above another; I wouldn’t want to cause offence.
Some commentators have declared that a true cassoulet cannot and should not be prepared in a restaurant, only in the home. While others have compared the flavours to that of a Venetian painting, I assume the commentator did not eat the painting but merely wished to derive some analogy from the palette’s many shades! Chez Clemence on the Rue Vavin, a famous establishment in Paris, once claimed that their cassoulet had been cooking for twenty years, the water, beans and meats replenished daily but the pot never washed, just topped up. In Castelnaudary they claim that a true cassoulet can only be made from the waters of the local river and the produce sourced locally too; a little protectionist perhaps but who can blame them. All of this just embellishes the legend, keeps you keen to taste it again and again.
So taken with the dish, in whatever variant it came, I even, rather foolishly with hindsight, chose it as my last supper before getting married! School boy error; eat cassoulet for lunch unless you have a rotund constitution; the repercussions can be fatal. Without labouring the point it is rather necessary to soak the haricot blanc for at least 24 hours before preparation and then you should boil them several times before making your stew.
Making your own cassoulet can be very rewarding but it takes a lot of time, patience and more time. In truth it should take you several days to complete the process and finally assemble the various components.
Personally I have tried and my efforts were appreciated, but these days I have a rule, which is either eat it in a restaurant of good repute or buy it ready made from the local butcher ‘Escot et Fils’ in La Bastide sur l’Hers, who make one of the best I have ever tasted.
As a foot note I’d like to add that the son of the aforementioned hotelier and chef now runs a restaurant in Castelnaudary called Chez David. I’ve heard the cassoulet there is rather good. Whether the secret recipe has been handed down from father to son, I can’t say but I rather like to believe that it was, after all how else do you keep a legend alive?