Published: November 20th 2011November 20th 2011
Note: All of these trends are in reference to my observations during my study abroad year in France during the 2006/2007 academic year. Therefore, restaurant names and information may have changed as well as eating trends in France. For more updated blog entries and trips please refer back to this blog at a later date. Thanks and enjoy!
For those of you who have been following my blog for a while, you have probably noticed that I write a lot about the food I eat. Those who know me well reading this will not be surprised because I love to cook and dine out as well. My study abroad year in France actually fueled my love for cooking from a mere necessity and interest to an art and obsessive hobby for me. The purpose of this entry is in order to demonstrate how the French love for cooking at eating changed the way I look at these two activities forever. However, another reason why to write this entry is to also give the reader an introduction to what French cuisine is like from an insider point of view.
In the United States, we love our fast food and prepared frozen and dried foods in the grocery store. Now, I did come from a family that liked to cook because well, I'm a quarter Puerto Rican on the maternal side of the family, so I grew up eating and learning the recipes from this wonderful little island. My paternal grandmother, who was French American, was also an accomplished cook. Growing up I thought that the food she made was not influenced by her immigrant heritage, however I was proved otherwise during my study abroad experiences in France as an adult. For example, I remember one dish distinctly that she used to make: chicken breast in a cream and mushroom sauce. She would often serve it with rice on the side and a salad, and even though it was a very simply flavored dish, it was very well balanced and I enjoyed it at my tender age of 7, 8 years old. Twelve years later, I encounter this dish again for the first time since my paternal grandmother's death (she died in my preteens I believe) at my host-mother's home in Dijon. She prepared the dish and presented it almost identically to my paternal grandmother back in the US. Camille, my host mother in Aix-en-Provence, also made this dish for me periodically during the Spring 2007 semester. I therefore concluded that my grandmother must have learned this dish from her mother, who was born and raised in France and came to the US in the early 20th century, and preserved the recipe over the years. I have since then made my own version, which I will include the recipe as follows:
2-4 boneless chicken breasts
1 tub of creme fraiche (if you can't find it just make a bechamel sauce: 2 tablespoons of butter, 2 tablespoons of flour, 2-3 cups of milk, salt and pepper to taste)
2-3 tablespoons of milk
1 package or 1 lbs of mushrooms (champaignons du Paris or plain button mushrooms or what are traditionally used)
1-2 tablespoons of butter for pan frying
Instructions: Start preparing the sauce by heating up the creme fraiche and the milk in a small to medium sauce pan over medium low heat. If making a bechamel sauce, melt the butter first and then add the flour so that it is stirred into the butter and starts to gather up to form what is called a roux. Switch to a whisk, and add in your milk, slowly and keeping your burner at medium-low heat. You want to use the whisk so that the roux mixes into the milk so that your sauce doesn't become lumpy. Keep on stirring with the whisk, turning your burner down to low heat, and continue until the sauce is thick. You can tell this by grabbing a spoon, dipping it in the sauce, turn it over and brush your finger in the middle of its backside. If you can wipe part of the sauce clean from the spoon without any residue, it's perfect. Turn off the heat and add salt and pepper.
Clean your mushrooms (I normally put them under water for two seconds) and add them to a separate frying pan with butter. Saute until they have reduced in size and have turned brown. Add to your sauce and set aside and keep warm. Add more butter if necessary before putting in your chicken breast (which hopefully you have seasoned with salt and pepper) and cook on both sides until done (you can use a thermometer to see if each breast has reached 160 degrees). Plate each breast, pour some of the sauce over each and serve! This goes great with rice, boiled potatoes and/or green beans.
In France, this was normally served with rice on the side or green beans. Green beans were a very common side dish in France, an no one ever used frozen or canned. My mom back home in the US always used canned green beans and peas as a side dish-however even though I liked green beans like this I do remember them being mushy. The common way to serve green beans in France was to always saute the freshest green beans you could get from the market in butter until some of them started to turn black and brown (not burnt just charred) to get them nice and crispy. They would then be served, seasoned with salt and pepper, garlic and/or parsley. In Northern France, the green beans would be seasoned with salt and pepper and cooked in butter; in the South, they were often cooked in olive oil, with garlic and parsley to add flavor. I loved this simple dish so much, it is now my mainstay side dish; I know my boyfriend can't get enough of these green beans. Here's my recipe which is closer to how my host mother in Dijon used to make them:
2-3 lbs worth of the freshest green beans you can find, frozen is your second best however fresh is optimal
2-3 tablespoons of butter or olive oil
Sea salt and pepper to taste
Instructions: Wash your green beans and remove the brown end of each. Break in half green beans that are longer than your pointer finger. Heat up a medium sized sauce pan with your butter or olive oil over medium high heat for two-three minutes. Add in your green beans, and just let them sit and cook. Be sure to use a spoon to move them around from time to time, but you'll be ready to serve once you start to see a brownish/blackish color on the side of most of them. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve as a great side dish, or eat them alone! My boyfriend and I have eaten them alone before they are that good!
As you can see, not all French cooking is very complex-there are actually a lot of very simple dishes that are cooked using the freshest ingredients daily. This taught me that you can make good food, without a whole lot of equipment and ingredients without cutting corners like buying canned food. It can also take about the same amount of time to prepare as it would to wait on a pizza delivery or to heat up your favorite frozen dinner. This also turned out to be a healthier way to eat. I lost 30 lbs while living in France, and I thank it to the lack of frozen prepared and fast food that I used to eat back in the US on the French table. France also seemed to have, like most countries, a few common national dishes. The chicken in a cream mushroom sauce seemed to be one, and the green beans. I also saw on most French menus steak and boef hache, which normally refers to ground beef formed into a hamburger pattie. The customer often had a choice of the following three sauces for their steak or boef hache: poivre vert (green peppercorn sauce), bleu cheese, or bernaise. The steak and boef hache were always served with frites or french fries. I always ordered the steak with poivre vert sauce, which I now replicate with black peppercorns since they're easier to find. To make this, just cook your steak on the stove with butter the way you like it (I like mine medium-rare). Make a bechimal or creme fraiche based sauce like in the recipe I gave for chicken breast with a cream mushroom sauce. Add peppercorns and salt towards the end, plate your steak and pour some of the sauce on top and serve it with fries. Once again, very simple dish found all over France in most restaurants.
Dining out vs. eating in a person's home, as expected is a little different in France. Restaurants are normally called either that or brasseries or bistros. I never ate in a bistro while in France, and I think that's because they're really a Parisian thing. I normally ate at brasseries, which are French style bars. Like American bars, the food is normally cheap home cooking style food. You can order a la carte (which means one dish at a time) or order from the prix fixe (or fixed price) menu. If you see a restaurant during your visit in France advertising a menu of the day I highly recommend you eat there because you will get to taste a wide range of dishes and eat the way you would at a person's home if you were their guest, for the price of one dish! This to me makes France an affordable place to eat in comparison to Italy, where most items were a la carte. Here's how a prix fixe menu works: the restaurant you are at is offering you the choice of 4-8 dishes. You can have either two courses, three-four courses, or one meal with all sides for 12-22 euros! Yes, you can have a three to four course meal for one person at that price in France! It will take a knowledge of French however to read the blackboard sign on the outside of the restaurant (all of them will have a sign posting their menu specials because menus are required to be posted outside restaurants by law in France) but so worth it.
Here is what I mean by a meal course. In a person's home in the US, one normally eats a a plate composed like this: meatloaf and gravy, with mashed potatoes and peas and carrots all on one plate. Traditionally, French cooks both in restaurants and when entertaining at home would serve a meal like this: Your aperitif, which is normally small bites like olives, nuts and goat cheese served with a spirit like whiskey. Then you would have your entree which is actually a salad, pasta dish or some sort of rice dish (in the US this word normally refers to a main dish, not the same thing in French). Next, would come your plat principal, or main dish, which would be boef bourgogne or baked whole fish for example. Green beans and small sides would be served with it. Bread would have appeared on the table during the entree faze. Next, might come the cheese course, normally a soft cheese like brie that has been left out for the entire meal. Soft cheese like this is always eating with a baguette or good bread from a boulengerie (bakery). Next might come dessert and then an espresso or a digestif, which might be yet more alcohol.
There are variations: a restaurant for example might give you the choice of ordering an entree and a plat principal or a plat prinicpal and a dessert for 12 euros or might offer a plat princpal, dessert and espresso for 13 euros. However the order is NEVER rearranged and don't ever expect it to. Mealtime is an event in France-it takes 4-5 hours to get through a French meal that includes all the courses! Wine is normally served with each course and is a very important part of the meal! Every part of the meal has its own function, which is why the order matters. For example drinking a spirit considered an apporpriate aperitif will help to awaken your appetite. The entree is the first step towards satisfying your hunger and is always smaller and lighter than your plat principal. It is meant to accompany your plat principal, it's just you're not eating in on the same plate. Your plat principal is the star, however it's not enough food but the portion tends to be the largest. The cheese course is normally a palate cleanser before the dessert. The dessert course is normally very small and is a custard/pudding like dish like mousse au chocolat or creme brulee. An espresso is best drunk after a meal as a way to help one digest all the food you just ate. Same idea if you choose to drink a brandy as your digestif, it can help you digest your food.
The French believe you have to go through all of these courses in order to eat well and properly digest your food. This moved me because in the US, food is seen as a necessity. You cook it, eat it, go on have a nice day. Eating several courses seems like more work than it needs to be to most Americans. However, unless if you're in a city like New York or Boston where restaurants do offer three course or more menus, however they send to be very expensive and is seen as a more elitist trend. In France, multi-course meals are common practice and almost ceremonial. Eating was everything about pleasure and showing appreciate and love to your guests and also to the ingredients. I remember that presentation and quality of ingredients was always more important in order to produce the best taste and composed dish possible. Upon my return to the US, I came back with an appreciation for ingredients. Respect the ingredients and their flavors and showcase that in your cooking. I approached the multi-course French meal as a celebration of food and people, and now cook like this when entertaining or if I want a special meal at home. I asked both of my host-mothers questions about their cooking, and took mental notes of what ingredients they used and their techniques. I purchased cookbooks in French that I use now to help me prepare the food I grew to love while living there.
Many of you are probably wondering, is French food as good as its cracked up to be? My answer is you bet! If you love food and cooking, this is definitely your country. However, if you're a vegetarian or vegan, stay away from France, well you might be fine in the South, just stay away from Northern France. One can get great street food like sandwiches and crepes between 2-10 euros. Even the smallest grocery store, had a great wine selection. College cafeterias often had small wine bottles and had food arranged according to the multi-course tradition. Three hour lunches are normal, because a French person will normally have two-three courses on a daily basis. Food is life here, it is sacred and brings people together. Wine and cheese making are an art, and that is why they are appreciated and one major component in the meal. Cheese is normally eaten with bread if it is soft, melted on top or in dishes if hard. Wine was often drunk on its own or as part of the meal. The selection and type of wine always mattered! I feel I've discussed enough about wine in my blogs to not get into more details in this entry. Most of my past blog entries on France discuss my relationship with wine and how it has grown to become a love of mine. I always have a bottle of red and white wine at home that I use to cook and drink along with my meal. I choose wine according to region, vintage, grape type and price as I learned in France. Wine to me is a work of art-you never drink wine too fast. It took the vineyard your wine to come from years to get that bottle to your table-it is disrespectful to drink all of it in one sitting. I feel the same thing with cheese-buy good cheese and respect the maker of your cheese by eating it simply or using it to be grated on a wonderful dish.
One last thing I feel I need to specify to my readers about French cuisine: it's incredibly regional. Yes, there are notable differences between North and South, however each named region of France and in sometimes certain cities have their own unique cuisine. For example, Burgundy is known for its braised dishes using wine like boef bourgogne, coq au vin and oeuf meurette. The region of Provence in the south, is known for its dishes with tomato sauces like boef provencal and ratatoullie. The city of Nice has its own distinct cuisine because of its historical Italian links, as linked by salade nicoise, gnocci and ratatoullie. Therefore, if you want to have a culinary adventure in France done right, research that region and also its wine before you go so that you can be prepared to experience your region for its unique cuisine and culture.
Oh, and one more thing! How could I not write about French cuisine and not discuss bread or pain and pastries! Bread is a very vital food on the French table. A meal is not eaten without it-actually I think bread was more important than any of the courses because bread always was put on the table before the entree was served, always. Whether it was a restaurant or a person's home, the bread was always put out first and eaten with every part of the meal except dessert. Boulengeries or bakeries, are found on every corner and everyone goes to buy their bread there. Pastries are eaten throughout the day, however certain ones are deemed more appropriate for breakfast. For example a pastry categorized as a viennoise like a brioche, croissant or pain au chocolat was considered a good breakfast item. Others like an eclaire or religieuse were better for other parts of the day. However, it was not uncommon to see a grandmother promise her grandson to give him a pain au chocolat after school if he was a good boy. I hope this gives you a good introduction of what my culinary journey was like in France. For more information on specifics, look at all of my French blog entries. I have something in most of them about food, wine, bread, pastries, cheese and French street food! Bon apps (short for Bon Appetite!)