Feasting a la Française

26th November, 2014

Eating may be a mere biological act of survival, yet the preparation of food is an important cultural art and tradition. Nobody understands this better than the French (what with their foie gras and their macarons!), and thus the influence of French cooking can be found in all corners of the world. We saw it in Vietnam, where the French established a colony in the 1800s and disseminated not only a rich abundance of new vegetables, but also set up coffee plantations (Vietnam is today the world’s second largest coffee exporter) and left behind their technique for bread-making (the French baguette has since become the Vietnamese bánh mì, a staple now totally synonymous with Vietnam’s culinary personality).

Indeed, French culinary tradition has for centuries been systematically incorporated by master chefs around the world into many local cuisines. Partly this is due to the rigor of French techniques, a trait that makes them essentially replicable. Partly it is due to the French reverance for preserving natural flavors and their use of only the freshest possible ingredients. Mostly though, I think the French influence has been important because the French make food important. Cuisine is considered part of the country’s patrimony, something to be protected, nurtured, and passed along. It is so important to the culture that once every year, French chefs go into the country’s schools for a week, during which time young people are taught about classic French dishes and regional specialities. They teach the children how to taste, smell and cook. It is an effort to keep French cuisine alive, in the same way that the more traditionally-recognized French arts are kept alive. They water it so it will grow.

Because of the importance placed on freshness, the best local chefs depend on France’s covered food markets for buying their daily ingredients, and so these marchés have become world-renowned. Below, scenes from Marché des Enfants Rouges ~ a food market dating back to the 1600’s, where fresh fish and stinky cheeses are sold, and where Chef Alain sways and sings in a bawdy French baritone while slinging crepes to an long, adoring queue of devotees.FeastingFrancaise2I mentioned that perhaps the best meal we had on this last trip to Europe was at Frenchie’s Wine Bar (below), a tiny two-room restaurant that hosts a packed house every evening. It is the more playful offspring of Frenchie, a 20-seat restaurant across the street where the menu is prix fixe and scoring a reservation is nearly impossible. At the wine bar, however, seats are first come, first serve, and the constantly changing menu is long and designed to be shared. Order as much as your stomach can stand, and definitely don’t miss out on the hot lobster roll ~ it’s the only one in the world that can compete with Turf’s.
FeastingFrancaise3Le Cinq Mars (below) is a cozy, casual, hip little bistro ~ the sort of thing the Brooklyn food scene’s been trying to get at for years (but of course, few can do it quite like the French). It’s a nice break from the big, crowded brasseries ~ equally affordable but with a much richer menu and a vibe that’s a lot more locals-only. FeastingFrancaise4Personally, I hold French cuisine in such high esteem because of my own experiences with it around the world, and because the head chef in my own home takes it so seriously. Zach learned how to cook from the French, from his father and grandmother, who was born in Toulouse. He’s as adamant as Diana Vreeland in his staunch assertion that everything French is just fabulous (and I’ve never yet found a good reason to disagree). That influence steeps deeply into the ways we eat and drink ~ and in the regularity with which a coq au vin can be found simmering on our stovetop. It’s my absolute favorite French dish, and the best place to have it is at Le Procope (below), the oldest cafe in Paris, where Napoleon Bonaparte famously settled some exorbitant bar tab by donating his signature hat to the restaurant’s proprietor. It still sits in the cafe’s foyer today, for the French remember their past. You can taste it in every dish.FeastingFrancaise5CLICK HERE| for more Paris travel ideas!

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