French Food is the World’s Finest? Discuss

The only food magazine to which I subscribe is delicious. While the adjective is one I do my best to avoid in Tom Eats! columns, I very much enjoy the periodical, with a good range of columnists and recipes. It is enthusiastic and entertaining without being condescending or patronising. The September issue was dedicated to France, and contained an interesting article by food historian Annie Gray. Entitled Who Decided French Food Was Best? Annie gives the answer that it was the French themselves.

Annie Grey

Annie Gray

Despite my title I'm not going to get into the debate on who is best; however, I will argue that French cuisine has been the most influential. Over 1000 years ago, when they invaded England, they brought the names for our three principal red meats, beef (boeuf), mutton (mouton) and pork (porc). This side of the border, because Scots is less well known these days, most are probably unaware of the large number of Scottish domestic terms which we took from France. In an appendix to her The Scots Kitchen, F Marian McNeill lists six pages of them. Many of them will be unfamiliar, but there are many literary references to confirm their authenticity. Some of them will be well known. For example, a dish for serving meat, an ashet (assiette). Or a leg of mutton, jiggot (gigot). Some may come as a complete surprise. Who knew that the name for the type of shortbread biscuits known as petticoat tails is in fact a corruption of petites gatelles?

Another reason for the influence is that France was responsible for many of the early cookbooks. You could find their recipes, whereas most cultures relied (and continue to rely) on oral tradition. One of the earliest books was La Varenne's Le cuisinier françois. Published in 1651, it was translated into English just two years later. In 1772 Menon produced a book on bourgeois French food, with the emphasis on seasonality. That's something the French housewife has always borne in mind: for some bizarre reason it was regarded as radical when British chefs started to bang on about it twenty years ago. The book tradition was continued by Antonin Carême in the 19th century and Auguste Escoffier in the 20th. It was the latter who introduced the brigade system into the kitchen, something now used worldwide.

Probably the most important influencing factor was the royal court at Versailles. There was a great emphasis on the cuisine. As Annie Gray writes, food was a way for the French court to peddle soft power. And where the court leads, others follow. As an aristocrat you would be judged by the quality of your table. Then, come 1789, this was no more. You're a chef, but your employer has lost his head. What to do? Well if you want to argue against my proposition that France has had the greatest influence of all, consider this. They gave us the restaurant. Hundreds of out of work chefs turned to doing what they did best. No French Revolution, no Tom Eats! (OK, I concede, possibly stretching the point.)

Some of them, of course, fled the country. France's loss was Britain's gain as many found employment in the kitchens of great houses in England. That trend continued. Albert Roux came to England to work for Viscountess Astor aged just 18. Edinburgh's first French restaurant, Café de Paris, was established by one Valentine Fadeuilhe in 1828.

If we want to consider world influence, compare and contrast British and French colonisation. Where we the Brits went, we tended to come back with more cooking styles, our love of curry being the most obvious example. France, on the other hand, left theirs behind. I've never been to Quebec, but I believe a great specialty, sugar pie, is a near relative of the French tarte au sucre. I'm not totally enamoured of food in general in the USA, but head down to Louisiana (once a French colony) and have your eyes opened. The fusion of Creole and France is something to behold - and even better to taste. Perhaps the most remarkable thing of all is to take a trip to Vietnam. Despite the often humid conditions, you will eat baguettes of the same quality as anything you'll find in Paris, despite the French having had the sense to quit the country when the Americans moved in.

So, is French food the best in the world? I'll leave that for your comments. But I'll firmly argue my case if you disagree that it is the most influential.

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Tom's Food! will be back in a month or so.

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