The centuries-old, love-hate relationship with our closest neighbour has spawned a plethora of myths and stereotypes. In recent years our stock of received wisdom about the French – land of the sophisticated lover, the wine-fuelled lunch, the gitane-puffing philosopher, the hairy female armpit and the rebarbatively squalid toilet – has been replenished by a new generation of lifestyle myths: that French women don't get fat, that French children don't throw food, that their countryside has been colonized by Boden-clad, Volvo-driving Brits.
In THEY EAT HORSES, DON'T THEY?, Piu Marie Eatwell explores the background to, and the contemporary evidence for, 45 such myths. She finds that many of them are simply false, and that even those that are broadly true are rather more complicated than at first sight. In the course of her thorough – and thoroughly entertaining – investigations, we discover there is more to our enigmatic Gallic neighbour than 365 types of cheese, and that the reality of modern French life is very different from the myths that we create about it.
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About the Author
Of mixed Asian/English descent, Piu Marie Eatwell has a congratulatory First Class degree from Oxford University. She has lived and worked in France for ten years.
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They Eat Horses, Don't They?
The Truth About the French
By Piu Marie Eatwell
Head of Zeus LtdCopyright © 2013 Piu Marie Eatwell
All rights reserved.
FRENCH CUISINE IS THE BEST IN THE WORLD
Lunch kills half of Paris, supper the other half. CHARLES-LOUIS DE SECONDAT, BARON DE MONTESQUIEU (1689–1755)
It has been taken as gospel for many years that French cuisine is the best in the world. Whether it is regional, bourgeois or haute cuisine (and in truth, these all feed off each other), French cuisine is the crème de la crème of the world's gastronomic heritage, unbeatable for its distinguished history, refinement and savoir-faire. The priority accorded by the French to what they ingest over everything else, including the achievements of science, cannot be doubted: 'The discovery of a new dish,' the eighteenth-century French wit and gastronomic critic Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin observed, 'creates greater happiness for the human race than the discovery of a new star.' The great French playwright Jean Anouilh (1910–87) summed up the ultimate goal of French social interactions thus: 'Everything ends this way in France – everything. Weddings, christenings, duels, burials, swindlings, diplomatic affairs – everything is a pretext for a good dinner.' Just as eating has traditionally dominated French life, so French cuisine has traditionally dominated the world's restaurants. No other single cuisine has exerted such an influence on the world's palate. Until now, perhaps.
Enchant, stay beautiful and graceful, but do this, eat well. Bring the same consideration to the preparation of your food as you devote to your appearance. Let your dinner be a poem, like your dress. CHARLES PIERRE MONSELET, FRENCH JOURNALIST (1825–88)
That French gastronomy has historically dominated European cuisine is certainly true, at least since the reign of the illustrious King Louis XIV (1643–1715). The Roi Soleil ('Sun King') was himself a legendary gourmand, capable of putting away gigantic quantities of food at a sitting. His repasts were gargantuan. Lunch – known as le petit couvert ('the little table'), although there was nothing little about it – would typically consist of four different bowls of soup, a whole stuffed pheasant, a partridge, chicken, duck, mutton with garlic gravy, two pieces of ham, hard-boiled eggs, three enormous salads and a plateful of pastries, fruit and jam (and on top of all this the king would go on to demolish a further forty dishes at dinner). On Louis' death, his stomach and intestines were found to be twice the size of an ordinary man's.
Under such belt-busting leadership, it is not surprising that French cuisine burgeoned during Louis' reign. It was during this period that the famous chef François Pierre La Varenne published the first major cookbook, Le Cuisinier français, Dom Pérignon invented champagne, the ritual of the dinner service became established, and a distinct new method of French cookery evolved. This new culinary style broke with the medieval tradition of the heavy use of spices, adding herbs instead to bring out the natural flavour of the food. Then, as always, the chef's calling was a matter of the highest honour. Take, for example, the noble case of François Vatel, chef to the Prince of Condé (Vatel was portrayed on screen in a 2000 feature film of the same name by – who else? – Gérard Depardieu). According to the Marquise de Sévigné, to whom we owe an account of the events, in 1671 Vatel was given charge of preparations for an enormous feast to receive Louis XIV at the Château de Chantilly. Having barely slept for twelve nights during the frantic preparations, Vatel was beside himself when only two of the fish deliveries for the dinner turned up. Not realizing that the rest were on their way, he exclaimed: 'I cannot outlive this disgrace!', retired to his room, set the hilt of his sword against the door, and after two ineffectual attempts succeeded in the third, forcing the sword through his heart. At that very moment, the missing fish arrived. Dinner went ahead as planned.
There are five divisions of the fine arts: painting, poetry, music, sculpture, and architecture, of which final category the principal branch is pâtisserie. ANTONIN CARÊME (1784–1833)
The French Revolution put many of the French master chefs out of a job, with the result that they either went to cook for foreign monarchs (thus exporting French cuisine around the world), or opened one of the new breed of eating establishments that were taking root around Paris: restaurants. The word 'restaurant' originally referred to a type of soup called a bouillon restaurant ('restorative bouillon'), served in the world's first such hostelry, founded by a Monsieur Boulanger in Paris in 1765. Previously, guests at inns would partake of a meal together at the innkeeper's table, but Boulanger introduced the innovation of guests dining at separate, small marble tables. This idea caught on, and soon restaurants were mushrooming all over the capital. It was at this point that the lawyer and journalist Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de la Reynière – the father of modern food journalism – published his restaurant guide, L'Almanach des gourmands (1803–12). An early ancestor of Michelin and Zagat, the Almanach was a periodical in which Grimod evaluated cafés and restaurants in Paris: he established 'tasting panels' of distinguished testers to whom restaurateurs, pâtissiers and charcutiers would send their dishes for evaluation and subsequent listing, with a rating, in the Almanach.
At the same time, food philosophers like Brillat-Savarin (see here) wrote compendiums of meditations about the pleasures of gourmandism, containing such aphorisms as: Dis-moi ce que tu manges et je te dirai ce que tu es ('Tell me what you eat and I shall tell you what you are').
Over this period of growth in public dining, the principles and practices of French haute cuisine were being codified by one of the greatest of all French chefs: Antonin Carême, often dubbed the father of French cooking. Born the son of a destitute drunkard in 1784, Carême established himself as one of the foremost confectioners of his time, studying books on Greek and Roman architecture in the national library to give his sugary palaces, temples, follies and ruins stunning authenticity. A stint serving the English Prince Regent and future King George IV was a disaster (he couldn't cope with the London fog), and so for some years Carême worked for the Russian tsar Alexander I, who later remarked that 'he taught us how to eat'. Towards the end of his life, Carême focused on the magnum opus that was to become the Bible of French haute cuisine: L'Art de la cuisine française.
This weighty tome codified the principles and philosophies of French culinary art, including establishing the four 'mother sauces' that constitute its cornerstones. Burgundian by origin, Carême's work (like that of so many great French chefs) built upon the cuisine of his roots, elevating such earthy peasant fare as snails to the heady delights of the classic escargots de Bourgogne.
If Carême was the founding father of French haute cuisine, his successor Georges Auguste Escoffier was the first celebrity chef. Coming from a dirt-poor background (as was beginning to be a requirement for French chefs), Escoffier showed remarkable culinary genius from an early age. In 1884 he met the budding young hotelier César Ritz at the Hftel National in Lucerne, Switzerland; the rest, as they say, is luxury. Escoffier and Ritz together took over the Savoy Hotel in London in 1890, then the Ritz in Paris, and subsequently the Carlton. Understanding opulence as only the sons of poor men can (Ritz also came from humble origins, having been a hotel groom), the pair redefined fine living for the élite. Escoffier's motto was 'keep it simple' (he never did), but he did streamline the overelaborate cuisine of Carême for a modern age, introducing revolutionary innovations still in use today. It is to Escoffier that modern restaurant kitchens owe the 'kitchen brigade' system of dividing tasks between separate sous-chefs working under the direction of a chef de cuisine, while he was also responsible for introducing the à la carte menu. Escoffier also worked on the new luxury liners, where it is said that once, having been served a superb dish of salmon steamed in champagne, Kaiser Wilhelm II asked him, 'How can I repay you?' His alleged reply was, 'By returning Alsace-Lorraine to France.'
In the later twentieth century French haute cuisine was 'simplified' yet again (although somehow, these progressive simplifications never really made it simple), this time by the nouvelle cuisine of the 1960s: smaller portions, lighter ingredients, fewer buttery sauces (or, as Elizabeth David cuttingly put it, 'lighter food, less of it, costing more').
French gastronomy undoubtedly has an illustrious history, but is it still the king of cuisines and the cuisine of kings? Many think not. French gastronomy has had to take a lot of heat in recent years. The artery-clogging richness of the food, the pernickety presentation, the grandiose self-importance of the French restaurant, the traditional froideur of the waiting staff – all have been subject to a grilling. The French just got too complacent, it is said, and their top chefs became too glitzy. Food fashion has supposedly moved elsewhere – to the simplicity and freshness of Italian cooking, the gutsy innovation of Spanish, or the modernist minimalism of Japanese. The buzzwords are no longer French (= stuffy and boring), but new and trendy concepts like Fusion Food, Molecular Gastronomy or – even better, combining two for the price of one (sorry, price of three) – Science Fusion. Who, after all, wants a plain old escalope de saumon à l'oseille, when you can have exploding milkshakes, foaming mushrooms or bacon and egg ice-cream?
Even the 'Red Bible', France's own Michelin Guide, has recently given the cuisine of its homeland the cold shoulder. The 2012 Guide declared Tokyo the culinary capital of the world, awarding it a total of sixteen stars over Paris' fourteen.
Michelin itself has felt the heat recently for its alleged stuffiness, with a clutch of decorated chefs handing back their stars to great media acclaim (cynics might point out that giving back stars actually attracts more column inches than getting them). But it is not only Michelin that is sounding the death knell for French cooking. Every other food journalist has been proclaiming the demise of French cuisine, which judging by the stream of journalistic commentary in recent years, must have died more often than Darla in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The fact that French food was recently added to UNESCO's list of 'intangible cultural heritage' (along with Peking opera and Corsican polyphonic chant) seems only to have had the effect of laying a funeral wreath on a moribund institution that is now officially a museum piece.
Bouillabaisse is only good because cooked by the French, who, if they cared to try, could produce an excellent and nutritious substitute out of cigar stumps and empty matchboxes. NORMAN DOUGLAS, BRITISH NOVELIST (1868–1952)
But is French cuisine really dead? The French themselves don't seem to think so. Over the last few years, the nation's favourite dish has been consistently French, although the dish traditionally occupying the top spot, the hallowed blanquette de veau (veal in white sauce), has now been usurped by the upstart, smoky duck dish magret de canard, a child of 1960s nouvelle cuisine.
Nor do ordinary British people (as opposed to their journalists) seem to think French food is dead: French cuisine was ranked number two in a 2010 survey of British tastes in food, after Italian. For the untrendy amongst us who are not rushing to pay a fortune for a prandial pyrotechnic display out of a test tube, regional French cuisine retains its timeless appeal: the crispness of a real salade niçoise in summer, with crunchy crudités and ripe Saint Pierre tomatoes; a hearty bouillabaisse with croutons and a fiery cayenne rouille sauce on a winter's day; Breton crêpes doused in burnt sugar and Calvados for a romantic dîner à deux.
The caillette olives in an authentic salade niçoise are found nowhere else on the planet except the area around Nice, and every French region boasts similar fruits of the earth, sea and sky unique to it (and as many government protection orders). French cuisine is really a thousand regional cuisines, of which haute cuisine is a rarefied distillation. Whether contemporary French cuisine retains the global top spot remains an argument between food critics, but France's contribution to the history and development of cuisine remains unmatched. And having given the world its first restaurant, menu, restaurant ratings service, food critic, philosophy of cuisine and back office system, not to mention the delights of tournedos Rossini,caille en sarcophage and a myriad other exquisite dishes, does French cuisine really have anything for which to apologize?
Myth Evaluation : Arguably true. French cuisine is certainly one of the greatest in the world, although competition is increasingly stiff, notably from the Orient, and its primacy is contested by a new brand of edgy cuisine which banishes garlic butter and the mother sauces in favour of liquid nitrogen and molecular mixology.CHAPTER 2
THEY EAT HORSES, DON'T THEY?
I'm so hungry, I could eat a horse. ENGLISH SAYING
Everybody knows the French are into hippophagy. What is hippophagy, you ask? Well, it's got nothing to do with devouring the large, foul-tempered pachyderm that inhabits the waterways of Africa (a step too far even for the omnivorous French). Rather, quite simply, it is the consumption of horses. The English seem to be convinced that the French regularly serve man's second-best friend at the dinner table with the insouciance that would accompany an ordinary steak au poivre. It goes with the general perception of the French as a people who are prepared to shoot (and eat) more or less anything that moves, and who consider all creatures great and small as being potentially part of the mundus edibilis. But is this perception correct?
It's a strange fact that horse consumption in France was socially engineered and a relatively recent phenomenon. Hippophagy in ancient cultures has a long and distinguished history: it is said, for example, that the horse-eating Tartars or Mongols of Central Asia would put a piece of raw horsemeat under their saddles in the morning, to be pounded to a fine mince by the end of the day – allegedly the origin of the celebrated steak tartare. Sadly, this romantic myth is probably untrue, as it is thought that the dish owes its name to the more prosaic fact that it was originally accompanied by Tartar sauce. In the Christian world, however, hippophagy was traditionally strictly taboo, and until the mid-nineteenth century, the French were as squeamish about eating horses as anybody else in Europe. Hippophagy had been forbidden by Pope Gregory III in the eighth century as an 'abomination' – although the pope, needless to say, was at the time at least as interested in quashing the pagans of the North, who sacrificed and ate horses, as he was in animal welfare. Horsemeat was a food to be resorted to only by those in the direst straits – such as the French peasantry during the food shortages of the Revolution, or the armies of Napoleon on campaign in the depths of the Russian winter.
Excerpted from They Eat Horses, Don't They? by Piu Marie Eatwell. Copyright © 2013 Piu Marie Eatwell. Excerpted by permission of Head of Zeus Ltd.
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Table of Contents
Display Options Notice,
Apéritif The archetypal Frenchman wears a beret and striped shirt and rides a bicycle festooned with onions,
Part 1 The King of Cuisines and the Cuisine of Kings Myths about French Food and Drink,
Part 2 Trop Belle Pour Toi Myths about French Women,
Part 3 Dangerous Liaisons Myths about French Sex, Marriage and Children,
Part 4 Merde alors! Myths about French Plumbing,
Part 5 Bof! Je m'en Fous! Myths about French Manners,
Part 6 Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité Myths about French History and Society,
Part 7 A Land of Cultural Exceptions Myths about French Culture,
Part 8 City of Light Myths about Paris,
Part 9 La France Profonde Myths about the French on Holiday,
Part 10 The Best of Enemies Myths about the Entente Cordiale,
Picture Captions and Acknowledgements,
About this Book,
About the Author,
An Invitation from the Publisher,