Every cooking show I’ve ever watched has told me that France has long been the epicentre of Western food culture. Indeed, for much of the 20th century, aspiring chefs of the world were told to go and study French cookery, preferably in France, or else they would surely amount to nothing. I’m pleased to see the custom fading out of fashion, and the subsequent rise of recipes and cooking techniques from all over the world as burgeoning chefs showcase the cuisines that nourished them as children in their homeland. Nevertheless, the highly esteemed status of France in the world of cuisine made it seem like a fitting place to begin my quest to cook food from a different region of the world each week for 80 weeks. Early French cuisine was heavily influenced by Italy, with the 17th century often earmarked as the point at which French cuisine diverted significantly away to form its own unique style. Indeed, it’s always struck me that while Italian cooking is renowned for simplicity of recipes and freshness of ingredients, French cooking is renowned for complexity of recipes and perfection of technique. Another curious trend I’ve noticed is that French cookery revolves around the concept of “sauce” which the British and therefore the Australians have also taken on (to a perhaps less refined extent), while the Italians are less used to having a specific sauce accompanying each meal. The 20th century marked an explosion of French cuisine into the international scene, following the development by Auguste Escoffier of “haute cuisine” (meaning high cuisine): a agonisingly tricky and pedantic style of cooking developed to feed the upper class that allowed the best chefs of the world to showcase their talents. This was followed (in typical French fashion) by a rebellion beginning in the 1960s against the strict conservatism inherent in aspects of haute cuisine, spurring “nouvelle cuisine”, which is the basis of fine-dining gastronomy that is popular internationally today, focusing on the freshness of ingredients and leaning more towards light flavours and cooking techniques to showcase the natural flavours of food. This new approach also allowed a lot more creativity in cooking, in which chefs could combine traditional regional recipes with international ingredients and influences to come up with entirely new flavours. The resulting idolisation of French cuisine by the Western world contributed to the entire category of “French gastronomy” being placed on the UNESCO list of the world’s intangible cultural heritage. Certainly a cuisine to tackle when I’m still brimming with enthusiasm! The north of France takes more culinary cues from its Belgian and English neighbours, as well as its colder climate, with a higher use of beer, cider, butter, cheese and heavy dishes like meat and potatoes. The south, in comparison, displays a more “Mediterranean diet”, with a huge variety of fresh vegetables available year-round in the warmer climate, as well as a deep appreciation of seafood, legumes and olive oil.
I must confess that, horrifically uncultured as I clearly am, the first time I heard of bouillabaisse was in a Harry Potter book, wherein the English characters regarded it with suspicion and general distaste. The ever-elegant and ethereally beautiful Fleur Delacour had a penchant for the seafood stew, however, so I felt like it must have some attractive qualities. The name bouillabaisse stems from a combination of words “bolhir” (to boil) and “abaissar” (to simmer), referring to the process of first boiling the broth, then adding each type of fish one by one, returning the pot to a simmer between each addition. Seafood soups are a very old concept, with early versions recorded from ancient Greece, and have been of critical importance in Roman mythology, particularly when Venus (goddess of love) fed a soup resembling bouillabaisse to Vulcan (God of fire), sending him instantly to sleep so that she could sneak away with Mars, the God of war… An early warning of the potent power of this dish, perhaps! The specific recipe of bouillabaisse comes from the southern coastal city of Marseille, and was typically made by fisherman, making use of whatever was included in the catch of the day that couldn’t be sold. The recipe is therefore inherently flexible, but must include at least three varieties of fish, as well as various other shellfish or cephalopods. Over time this early simple version was served by restaurants and upgraded with more expensive seafood and other ingredients such as saffron to suit the upper echelon of French society. I put a few varieties of fish like cod and mullet in my bouillabaisse, as well as prawns, clams and mussels, cooked in a broth flavoured with leeks, onions, carrots, celery, fennel, garlic, orange zest, saffron and tomato. The secret ingredient is Pernod, a french liquor that tastes strongly of aniseed, and which nicely complements seafood and sings in harmony with the flavour of orange peel. Although not pictured, I served my bouillabaisse with fresh crusty bread and rouille, a sauce of breadcrumbs, tomato, olive oil, and a frankly indecent quantity of garlic. Altogether, a delicious beginning!
Goat’s cheese soufflé and Niçoise salad
Whenever somebody is set an impossible cooking challenge in movies, it’s always a soufflé, right? Well, challenge accepted, hesitantly. The first records of the dish are from the 1700s, likely in Paris, although it is now popular all over France (justifying my slightly dodgy inclusion of it as a “southern” French dish…). The tricky part of soufflé can be found in the root of its name, which is the past participle of “souffler” which means “to inflate”. This inflation is caused by egg whites that are whipped into stiff peaks and then delicately folded through a base, which can be a sweet or savoury puree of any flavours desired (chocolate or cheese are just some of the most famous). This mixture is poured into ramekins and baked in a hot oven (without opening the door!) until they have risen in spectacular pillows of deliciousness. I followed the instructions to the letter (a rarity for me), hoping to get the fabled “rise”, making a thick base out of milk, flour and butter, then allowing it to cool before folding in the creamy goat cheese, herbs and egg yolks, finally carefully combining the beaten egg whites. I think my oven let me down slightly, because only those in the back rose fully, but I was ultimately happy with the texture and result, although I wasn’t quite quick enough with the camera to capture the full extent of the rise – the recipes are serious when they say serve immediately! Niçoise can be more safely attributed to southern France, as its name refers to the southerly city of Nice, where it arose as a simple dish cooked by the poor, often from produce obtained from their home gardens. This is a true champion of salads, with famous modern chefs such as Delia Smith and Gordon Ramsay going on record heralding it among the finest salads in existence. Niçoise salad was a childhood favourite of mine (I was a weird kid), so I happily put together the familiar boiled potatoes, black olives, tuna, lettuce, red onion, hard-boiled egg, blanched green beans and glorious, glorious anchovies. As a child I would always quietly pick the discarded anchovies off other peoples’ plates, and encourage my Mum to keep adding more and more to the Niçoise salad. I don’t understand the popular hatred of them, they are just vehicles of intense salt, oil and umami, what’s not to like? I finished off the salad with a red wine vinegar and dijon mustard dressing. There are very serious groups and movements dedicated to the advocacy of particular recipes for Niçoise salad, including proponents for recipes that do not include cooked vegetables, or rally vehemently against the combination of both egg and tuna. Reluctant to be a casualty in this vicious war, I do not declare that my recipe is necessarily the most authentic or best, but it’s the one that my I learned to make from my darling Mum, and therefore holds a special place in my heart, and now my blog, regardless of French history or tradition. Also, it’s absolutely delicious!
Cassoulet with confit de canard
Cassoulet is a bean stew from Occitan in southern France, and is named after the bowl it’s served in – an earthenware “cassole”. I was delighted to learn that the love of this dish in the region is officialised by the “brotherhood of cassoulet”, an organisation that holds entire fairs and cooking competitions in its honour. Cassoulet is made by baking a combination onion, garlic, tomatoes, bacon, garlic sausage, white beans and bouquet garni, sometimes along with other meats like pork or poultry, covered with a crust of fresh bread crumbs, until the top has formed a golden brown and caramelised crust. I made the bread crumbs from scratch using a stale loaf of brioche, and was flabbergasted by the improvement in taste compared to store-bought varieties – I had to stop myself from consuming them by the handful alone! Bouquet garni is a bundle of assorted herbs tied together with string, like thyme, rosemary, sage, bay leaves etc. It allows herb flavours and small leaves to be infused into a dish, without ending up with the woody stalks. It can also be put into a little muslin pouch if no leaves are wanted in the dish. I upgraded my cassoulet with the common addition of confit de canard. Confit de canard is essentially duck slow-cooked in fat, heralding from Gascony in the southwest of France. I don’t think I’d ever eaten confit duck before this. I never minded duck, I just didn’t understand the ecstatic ravings about it that I’d heard from some. “Sure” I would say “it’s nice, but it’s no chicken”. I was wrong. Duck is amazing. This duck was amazing, it awakened a ducky fire within me. After googling how to actually confit a duck from scratch and seeing that it would definitely take longer than dinner time, I set out to buy one in a can, which to my surprise is apparently a done thing in France and not gross at all (who knew?). I dubiously prepared it in the oven, but after trying the finished product, all doubts vanished. It seems like the adjective “heavy” does not sufficiently explain the deliciously dense and warming effect of cassoulet- suffice to say that this is undoubtedly a dish for the winter months, and that you might not need to eat for quite some time following the meal.
Early confession: I’ve never seen the film “Ratatouille”. So upon embarking on this dish, not only did I not know the plot of the major English cultural reference to this dish, I didn’t even know what went in it. I think there was a rat on the DVD cover? I desperately hoped there was no rat in it… Wait, wasn’t there a rat/ratatouille joke in Fawlty Towers as well? Fortunately it turned out that the rat/ratatouille connection was more a product of the English predilection to puns than a literal recipe, and it’s actually a nice vegetable stew from Nice (get it?). The name is related to the verb “touiller”, which means “to stir up”, referring to the origins of this dish as a mixed vegetable stew. My good vegetarian friend and superb cook, who has seen the movie and liked it a lot, went to great pains long ago to source the original recipe from a fancy chef that Pixar based the cooking sequence on, and generously supplied me with it. I made a base of thick roast capsicum, tomato and garlic sauce, on top of which I layered slices of eggplant, zucchini and tomato, then baked the whole thing in the oven. I liked this recipe because the vegetables got a bit caramelised and crispy on top, which I imagine they wouldn’t in wetter, more stewy and stirred up versions of ratatouille. Ratatouille reminds me of the Italian caponata, a tomato-based stew of mixed vegetables, and I heartily endorse them both as a delicious and healthy vehicles for vegetables when one can’t quite face yet another cold salad for lunch.