Friday, 26 May
Let me ask you a question: is it odd that a blogger who lives in France never blogs about food?
I think so, especially given how much the writer in question, me, loves food and all things culinary.
Okay, there was once an entry about Indian cuisine, another where a fondness for cherries and berries was mentioned, but never a piece on the primordial place of the meal in my life and the country’s psyche.
This omission struck me the other day when I went to the exhibition Paris, Capital of Gastronomy, from the Middle Ages to Today at the Conciergerie. The word gastronomie itself was taken from the Greek, "the art of regulating the stomach" but was brought into the daily lexicon by Jean-Anthelm Brillat-Savarin in his 1825 Physiologie du goût, and please note the origin of much of the culinary vocabulary that follows.
The exhibition begins with an account of a banquet organised in situ in 1378 by King Charles V. The meal for 800 is presented in such enthusiastic and expansive detail, it could have been served yesterday.
Another section describes Les Halles, the enormous central market built in the 12th century, that Emile Zola called the Stomach of Paris (and which was displaced to Rungis, outside Paris, to make way for a train station and a hideous shopping mall circa 1970). Another outlines the invention of the restaurant in the 18th century (the word derives from the French verb restaurer, to restore), another praises the art of bread and pastry making, noting that last year UNESCO anointed the baguette with “intangible cultural heritage status” (I guess that's meant as a compliment).
Like many Americans my age, I grew up in a gastronomically challenged environment.
My mother - while not resorting to the above - cooked Oscar Meyer hot dogs and dry pork chops with icky Mott's apple sauce and frozen green beans for my sister and me, except on Sunday evening when we ate steak and baked potatoes as a family. And I was lucky. Occasionally, an avocado or an artichoke, the odd slice of real Italian salami, made its way to my plate.
But until I moved to Paris age 24, I had never licked the juice of a fresh peach from my fingers, never suspected that a head of garlic could be so sensual.
Nor had I seriously cooked a meal. I remember an attempt at a mushroom and hazelnut quiche that came out very watery, some cauliflower in a stodgy cheese-ish sauce, but food was experienced monolithically.
Here in France the connection to food is visceral. Transmission occurs through le terroir, a geographical area that combines crop choice and a particular environment to create a distinctive product and taste (I hope this makes sense - it's a hard concept to translate). Goods are bought at markets, where the ambiance is animated, infused with joie de vivre.
Then there's les arts de la table, art being the key word. It's a mise en scène, where everything from the choice of food and wine to its aesthetic presentation to the way the table is set to the conviviality of those convoked comes into play.
Over the years, gastronomie has got into my bones, my bloodstream, and I too can enthuse almost to the point of febrility about how adding olives to the roasted cauliflower brings the plodding vegetable alive or how sautéed rosemary and hazelnuts perk up those seasonal, fresh green beans.
This isn't to say that everyone in France loves food and cooking or that you can’t get a bad meal here. Too many fruits and vegetables are now grown in Spain. There are more and more plats préparés with chemically added ingredients for people in a hurry, and many of the cafés around us in Paris are mediocre at best. Just last month I dragged David to a restaurant in the Perche that I didn’t want to snub because it's modest. Though they made an effort, served the food with ceremony, digesting all that oil was hard work.
In fact, during the 90s and early 00s, the quality level of French restaurants took a serious dip into complacency. But between global competition and the food-obsessed millennials coming of age, a whole new energy has been injected into French cuisine with lots of insistence on local, organic products and a return to le terroir. In Paris the last few years there has been the revival of 19th century bouillons, cheap restaurants with good French fare; it really shouldn't be about the money.
The exhibition at the Conciergerie made me wonder how my relationship to gastronomie, would have been different had I not moved to France as a young thing. I can't imagine not relishing meal-time, but what I might have missed is a sobering thought.