The very first time The Maven set foot on French soil was thrilling, but even more exciting to a budding foodie was the promise of la cuisine francaise —French cuisine. In a world before you could buy a croissant at Burger King, the traveler to France could revel in a breakfast of a flaky, buttery, made-entirely-from-scratch croissant. Along with the croissant was a bowl of café au lait — what Starbuck’s later christened a latte.
Sightseeing in France always included stopping for leisurely and deliberate meals. No eating on the fly, grabbing a sandwich and a diet soda. Oh no, in France, each meal was a high point, and despite the often prickly French attitude, a true pleasure. In the years before globalism brought sameness to everything from clothing to movies to food, dining in France was distinct and different and delicious. There were new foods to sample and simple foods prepared in bistros that sang of deep flavor and lifetimes of experience in preparation.
But quelle horreur (what horror!) today, as The Maven read that French euros spent in fast food restaurants have exceeded that spent in restaurants. The number of French bringing their own lunches to work keeps steadily increasing, and even more shocking, there are restaurants which are presenting frozen prepared meals, finished off in the microwave, to cut their costs and try to compete in the new reality. Could this be the end of French cuisine as we know it?
The French are so proud of their culinary prowess that they managed to have it included on the list of World Heritage items., which include such icons as the Taj Mahal. The land of legendary chefs, the chef-rating Michelin stars, the breakthroughs in techniques — all this makes up how France has viewed food. Food is essential and more than sustenance in France. It is time, first of all, spent savoring carefully prepared meals, without rushing to the next event. Portions are generally much smaller than Americans are used to, The French introduced the world to cooking with fresh herbs, the wonders of wine with meals, bubbly water, baguettes and sauces…and so much more.
So how are things evolving in France these days? Restaurants are fighting back, and advertising their food as fait maison, or homemade, rather than prepackaged. Another change has been the rise of boulangeries, which are the classic French bakery with a twist. Yes, they still sell bread, and will always do so, but they have expanded their repertoire to include items for take away meals. Sandiwches, quiches, soups…customers can stop by, and typically grab one of these with a dessert pastry and a drink. French supermarkets have taken notice, and large chains like Carrefour are introducing their own brands of snacking: foods to be taken away and eaten on the run. So far, no one is eating meals in their cars, but The Maven expects that to happen, too.
In the fabled and sunny south of France, languid lunchtime meals lasted for a few hours.
What was the rush, after all? But today’s busy world doesn’t allow for that amount of time. Is there still a place for a typically French meal?
The Maven says yes. A breakfast of fresh bread, a brioche or croissant, slathered with butter and a punchy fruit jam, can start the day, along with a just-brewed bowl of coffee. Taking time to savor the food and to enjoy each bite can fuel the day and give a little frisson of pleasure at good food, simply prepared.
The same for lunch and dinner. It’s classically French to put together a meal with a salad, just dressed with a vinegar and oil and some chopped fresh herbs, a few slices of good bread, a main of chicken, possibly roasted, a small beef steak with a handful of frites (French fries), perhaps a lentil salad, chock full of hearty vegs and flavor, a side of flash-cooked green beans. The idea is what we all strive for: good, fresh, honest, tasty food. Isn’t there always time for that in a a world where everything spins faster and faster?
The Maven, in a nod to France, enjoys a Nicoise salad all summer long. Freshly cooked tuna (canned is okay if that’s all you have), string beans, sun-ripe tomatoes, small red potatoes, chopped egg (The Maven leaves these off, in an aversion to eggs), tiny French black olives, capers, red onion and lots of arugula, romaine and other summer lettuces, drizzled with a simple olive oil, lemon, Dijon mustard and seasoned dressing. Along with a chunk of French bread, it’s like the first meal The Maven ate in France. And because it’s a salad, it must be eaten carefully and slowly. That is the essence of French cuisine, and the part that will endure.