Notes from an exiled Franglais: Renowned French cuisine
French cuisine can be delicious and varied in so many ways but not if you are a vegetarian or live in the Poitou Charentes region, writes blogger Robert Bullock.
French cuisine is world renowned and many would say rightly so. The country has given us coq au vin, the baguette, the éclair and the vol au vent, well maybe we can forgive them for the vol au vent!
France has given us some of the freshest ingredients, finest wines and a plethora of celebrity chefs! But what France is really famed for is its unbelievable variety of its cuisine.
From the humble croissant and the delicious pain au chocolat, to disgustingly strong black coffee, though pot-au-feu (beef stew) and cassoulet (slow-cooked meat casserole with white beans) to crème brûlée, tarte tatin and profiteroles; there’s a French dish for ever time of day and every delectation.
Exporting fantastic dishes and chefs?
The list of famous French chefs exported to the world is almost as long as the list of renowned French dishes that it has sent abroad!
From Raymond Blanc and his hotel-restaurant Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons in Oxfordshire and upstart Jean-Christophe Novelli, taken to England by TV’s Keith Floyd, to the legendary Albert Roux who opened Le Gavroche, Britain's first Michelin-starred restaurant, in London, with his younger brother Michel, French chefs have had and still have a big impact on cuisine outside the boundaries of La France.
Haute cuisine and the first celebrity chef
France is guilty of giving the world haute cuisine (high cooking)! Haute cuisine is characterised by its elaborate preparations and presentations of high quality produce which is served in very small and numerous courses.
This style of dining is older than you may think. It was popularised by the French chef Marie Antoine Carême, the ‘King of Chefs’ in the early nineteenth century. Indeed many would agree that Carême was the first celebrity chef! The blame for the endless diatribe of TV cooking programmes can therefore be laid squarely on Monsieur Carême!
French cuisine: as good as they say?
But is the country’s cuisine really as 'formidable’ as they think?
a) Not if you’re a vegetarian and
b) Not if you live in the Poitou Charentes region and especially the Deux Sevres!
Vegetarian in France – C’est pas possible!
If, like me, you’re a vegetarian then be prepared not to eat very well in France unless you go to a small cafe, a local bar or a supermarket cafeteria.
Most high-quality and therefore expensive restaurants in France offer no vegetarian choices on both their menus (which are set three course meals) and a la Carte (where individual dishes can be selected and a meal of your own choosing served).
But in the humble small town cafe or bar you can order a delicious mushroom or cheese omelette frittes. It will come with lots of fresh baguette and a carafe of vin rouge. Depending on the chef’s culinary skills -- and please bear in mind most of the most talented French chefs have been exported – it can be a variety of tasty wild mushrooms, cooked and seasoned to perfection or flavoursome local cheeses. You can also avail yourself of a self service salad bar which will provide you with a fantastic meal.
A small restaurant in the town of Aulney in the Charente Maritime has a salad bar that attracts people from as far away as Saint-Jean-d'Angély and Saintes! Simply take a plate from the nearly always grumpy waitresses and pile it up until it’s almost too heavy to carry!
If you ever go shopping to one of the large city supermarkets, like Geant, Leclerc, or Auchan check out their cafeterias. Besides being incredibly cheap and equally incredibly popular at lunchtimes during the week, they offer very good quality cuisine. They also offer many choices for vegetarians, from pizzas to pasta dishes and a huge variety of salad dishes.
Poitou Charente – The land that cuisine forgot
Most areas of France have their signature food and drinks they are world famous for; Champagne in, well, Champagne, Bordeaux wine in, you got it, Bordeaux, choucroute garnie (sauerkraut - a cabbage dish with anaemic meat and sausages) in Alsace and Lorraine, coq au vin in Burgundy, not to forget bouillabaisse (traditional Provençal fish stew) from Marseille.
But what about Poitou Charentes? What has it offered the world?
Leaving aside Cognac, the area has offered the world goat cheese, tarte au fromage and Pineau.
Not a cake, not a flan, not even a cheese cake; the tarte au fromage Deux Sevres style is a bizarre creation -- though I have to admit to developing a liking for it – and is the signature dish of the Deux Sevres! It has a pastry base and burnt looking crust. Inside it, it tastes nothing like a cheesecake at all. Instead it’s like a cheesy sweet sponge. You either like it or hate it! And, thankfully, you can hardly get it anywhere outside the Deux Sevres!
Poitou Charente does make one wonderful drink, Pineau des Charentes or Pineau. It is a delicious aperitif similar to but nicer than sherry. It’s a sweet fortified wine made from a blend of lightly-fermented grape must and Cognac eau-de-vie. Served chilled, it is deliciously refreshing. Amazingly this is one French product that hasn’t been exported to the world.
Vive le variété
Taking Poitou Charente and vegetarianism out of the equation, there is much variety and quality in French cuisine.
Individual areas of France have something many countries don’t – and that is their uniqueness. French regional cuisine and those that cook it can be completely unique to an area. This is something much more noticeable in France than in the UK or other countries.
Long live this aspect of French cuisine! Vive le variété!
Robert Bullock / Expatica
Robert Bullock is a British children's writer. He lived in the Poitou Charente area of South West France for seven years. His first book is Noah Ramsbottom and the Cave Elves. His second book Sam Marsh the Viking King was released at the end of 2009. His website is www.ninnylizard.com.
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