I began this cooking journey with southern France, although, to be honest, at that point I hadn’t mapped out 80 cuisines, and thought that I was just cooking one French week. However, I ultimately realised that I needed to devote two weeks to France in order to do it true justice, and conveniently the first week contained mostly southern dishes. Forgive me, therefore, if some of the origins of these dishes are not strictly regional. While the south of France cooks with more oil, vegetables and seafood, the north has more butter, and generally has slightly heartier cuisine suited to the cold weather, as well as more Germanic and Swiss influences. Much of the English-speaking knowledge about French cuisine was introduced via Julia Child, a renowned American TV chef and food writer, popular in the 1960s and 70s. Julia (immortalised by Meryl Streep a few years ago) significantly contributed to the Francophile nature of the world’s fine dining culture. One of the major internal influences on modern French cuisine was Auguste Escoffier, who is generally credited with modernising traditional French techniques and recipes, creating the basis for haute cuisine that we know today. For example, he refined and recorded the definitive recipes for the five French mother sauces, first created by Marie-Antoine Carême: béchamel (roux and milk-based), espagnole (roux and dark stock), velouté (roux or eggs with cream and light stock), hollandaise (egg yolk, butter and acid) and tomate (tomato-based). These mother sauces are taught in culinary schools to this day, as are many fundamental tenets of French cooking. Indeed, sauce is a defining feature of French cuisine, and, although now internationally adopted, was once considered excessive and strange by many other countries. There are so many famous French foods that it was very difficult to choose such a small number to be representative, but, as always, I chose a good variety and the things that appealed to me most. However, notable mentions that have been excluded for space and/or ingredient availability include: croque monsieur, terrines, pot au feu, tartes, crepes, coq au vin, escargots, tartiflette, rillettes, gratin dauphinois, raclette, and an astonishing variety of wonderful cheeses and breads. One of my favourite TV shows about cooking, Chef’s Table, produced a wonderful series on France alone, which may give you insight into the importance of this culture in cooking, if any were needed. Surprisingly though, modern French people have a secret shameful passion for McDonalds, and the only country where the chain grosses higher profits than France is the USA. Indeed, the most common lunch in France is chicken and chips, which runs counter to my impression of long leisurely lunches of rich stews, fresh salads, breads and cheeses. This all makes me even more confused about why the French are so damn skinny? A mystery for the ages, perhaps.
Duck à l’orange
I will spare the devoted readers another long rhapsody about my love affair with duck. Suffice to say, I cook it whenever possible and have loved it in all of its forms thus far. I was therefore very excited for the arrival of northern French week mostly because it would afford me the opportunity to cook duck à l’orange, which I had heard about first in the kids’ movie about the pig “Babe”, where a secondary character is unfortunately baked into the dish, and then in relation to Julia Child after that. I have found a common theme in both Asian and Western countries alike, which is to serve gamey poultry with sour fruits (cranberry, cherry, lemon, orange), and I think it can’t be a coincidence. The sweet and sour flavours beautifully complement the strong taste of the meat, as well as cutting through the fat with acidity. There is some mild squabbling about the true origin of duck à l’orange, with some (mostly Italians) claiming that it came from Naples; however, the dish is undoubtedly synonymous with France nowadays. I started by seasoning the whole duck inside and out with salt, ground coriander, cumin and black pepper, then stuffing the cavity with wedges of onion and orange, fresh thyme, marjoram and parsley. I then let it cook on top of some more vegetables to keep it slightly raised, then a third of the way through added a mix of white wine, orange juice and stock to keep the bird juicy. I made the sauce with a roux of butter and flour, then added orange juice, white wine vinegar, stock and orange zest. I also tried another sauce using arrowroot flour instead of plain flour, which I had heard gives a more transparent result. I wasn’t a big fan of the gelatinous texture of the latter, and I also felt that the taste wasn’t as good; the arrowroot didn’t accentuate the taste of the butter as clearly as plain flour. Once the duck was cooked through, I grilled it for a few minutes to ensure crispy skin, then poured the sauce over and served it with orange slices, roast potatoes (baked in duck fat, obviously) and steamed asparagus. I had never cooked a whole duck before this, and was a bit nervous because my understanding was that legs are more suited to preparations such as confit, whereas the breast should be pan seared and then baked until medium rare. I was therefore curious as to how each of these meats would turn out when treated to the same cooking process. I needn’t have worried, however, as everything turned out much more delicious than I expected. The meat was very tender and much juicer that other poultry – I think perhaps because the fattier nature of the duck keeps the meat moister than chicken. The fat, however, was not obvious or gelatinous, as it had mostly been rendered from the duck, just leaving a delicious taste behind. The skin was also wonderfully crispy, and very decadent, especially served with some of the orange sauce. All in all this is not a terribly difficult dish to make, certainly no harder than a roast chicken, however I would warn you that, compared to a chicken, ducks have less meat, possibly because they’ve missed many years of artificial selection and domestication.
Boeuf bourguignon hails from the Burgundy region of France, which is famed for its production of astounding red wines. Lardons (strips of bacon) are first fried in a casserole dish, to which pieces of beef are added, as well as onion, garlic, carrots, beef stock, tomato paste, bouquet garni, and lots and lots of red wine. This is then simmered, covered, in the oven for hours until the beef is very tender, and then the liquid is sieved out and reduced until it’s thick and delicious. The stock is finally returned to the beef along with cooked mushrooms and pearl onions. This dish is a great example of the classic “peasant” cooking of France making its way into haute cuisine. The “slow cook” technique is used all over the world to make the best out of cheap cuts of meat, however proponents such as Auguste Escoffier and Julia Child encouraged its adoption into fine dining, the latter even pronouncing this dish as “certainly one of the most delicious beef dishes concocted by man”. Indeed, the combination of red meat and red wine is indisputably ingenious, and is only further improved by mushrooms and onions. I served my boeuf bourguignon with a hearty dob of buttery mashed potatoes and some steamed green beans. I had planned to attempt pommes duchesse (Duchess potatoes), which consist of mashed potato and egg yolk, piped into aesthetically pleasing spirals and then browned on the outside, but I realised too late I didn’t have a piping bag and I was very very hungry by then… Maybe next time!
Upon seeing that Lorraine was capitalised in all of the recipes for this quiche, I was immediately gripped with curiosity. “Who is this Lorraine?” I wondered, “what did she do to inspire such a famous quiche?”. Disappointingly, Lorraine actually refers to a north-eastern region of France, and not a mysterious historical figure who launched a thousand quiches with her smile. Sometimes imagination truly is more exciting than reality. Quiche originated from Germany (from the word “kuchen”, which means cake), in the medieval kingdom of Lothrigen, later renamed, you guessed it, Lorraine. Quiche Lorraine traditionally contains eggs, cream, salt, pepper, nutmeg and lardons, which are strips of cured (not smoked) fatty bacon that taste a bit more like ham. I made the pastry by food processing plain flour, cold butter and an egg, then rolled out the dough and laid it into a pie dish. I cooked the pastry alone until it was getting crispy, and then added in the beaten eggs, cream and lardons. Purportedly the addition of cheese is not strictly traditional, so I just added a tiny bit of gruyère as a compromise. Apparently the way to make sure the lardons are distributed evenly is to pour the egg solution in while the quiche is sitting on the oven tray, then quickly close the door so that it is immediately heated when everything within the mixture is still in flux. This didn’t work very well for me, but what did work was reserving some lardons and sprinkling them on halfway through. I served the quiche with some chives and assorted flowers because it was the beginning of spring and I was captured in a flurry of floral whimsy. I loved the quiche, as I always love quiches, but this one benefitted from having wonderfully fresh and flaky pastry that is hard to achieve from store-bought varieties.
French onion soup, foie gras, baguette and salad
French onion soup is ancient in that onion soups have been made since Roman times, typically by the peasant classes making use of cheap and available foodstuffs. I made my French onion soup by first roughly chopping and caramelising an amount of onions so enormous that my eyes are tearing up at the mere memory. The secrets to caramelising onions are, as with many secrets to success in life, butter and patience. The lowest heat possible should be applied to the pot, and this will ensure the onions are soft and sweet, without needing to add any sugar whatsoever. I have seen recipes for slow-cooker French onion soup, and although I have never tried it, it sounds like an excellent idea. A little bit of plain flour is added to the onions, then beef broth, as well as a splash of alcohol, such as sherry or white wine. French onion soup is often served with toasted bread/croutons covered with melted gruyère on top. Interestingly, this trend harks back to the dish’s ancient origins, as the word “soup” derives from the Vulgar Latin, “suppa”, which means “bread soaked in broth”. I served the soup with a green salad dressed in a mustard vinaigrette, some fresh baguette and foie gras, which is a paste made from the liver of a duck or goose. The origins of foie gras can also be found in ancient Rome, where geese were fed with figs to enhance their livers. The connections between figs and livers was so strong, that the Latin word for fig, “ficus” became the root for liver in many romantic languages including “foie” in French, “fegato” in Italian and “figado” in Portuguese. Finally, I made escargots, a famous french delicacy of land snails. Snails are commonly thought to be the first animal domesticated by humanity, far preceding the chicken, pig or dog, as shells have been discovered in prehistoric archeological digs. Researchers have analysed the size and shape of these shells and reached the conclusion that paleolithic humans were already selectively breeding captive herds of snails for consumption, which they would first roast and then devour. This diversification in diet was accompanied by an explosion in art and population numbers, so the nutritious and adaptable snails are likely to be an important component in our species’ success. Fast-forward to Roman times, and snails were considered a great delicacy, particularly beloved by Pliny the Elder. I cooked my snails in the French fashion – swimming in garlic, parsley, white wine and butter. I found them absolutely delicious – with the texture of a scallop and the taste of a mild oyster. However, to be fair, I think that I would find pieces of dishcloth delicious were they cooked in this way…