France: National and Regional Cuisines

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

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In France, cuisine is not simply a source of pleasure but a multifaceted discipline. For centuries, French gastronomes have articulated opinions in their writings and woven historical, sociological, and biological elements into personal philosophies of taste. A true ‘Science of the table’ has developed with its grand masters, heroes, and even its martyrs all serving the cause of la gastronomie française.

The enduring image of France as a epicurean paradise is due, at least in part, to the wide range of fruits and vegetables grown in its soil, to the attention given to breeds of animals raised for its tables and to the abundance of seafood culled from its waters. The existence of such natural resources would, however, amount to nil were it not for the savoir faire of specialists who transform pork into pâté, milk into cheese, and flour into bread, an army of professionals baking pastries, making candies, creating dishes, not to mention the existence of vineyards producing some of the finest wines in the world. Naturally, France is not the only country to boast of its gastronomic resources or culinary traditions but, thanks in particular to one of its most important exports, its reputation for culinary excellence has spread throughout the world. We are referring to the influence of expatriate French chefs who initially oversaw the kitchens of the wealthy and later ran restaurants with gastronomic pretensions. Never claiming to feed the masses or provide food to those of modest means, French chefs have long cultivated an artistic detachment from those they served and have traditionally claimed that their cuisine was only for those with sophisticated palates and discerning taste. Such chefs also promoted the impression that their cuisine was based on closely guarded secrets that the non-initiated could not comprehend and required the mastery of daunting techniques which could only be acquired in France. In a word, French cuisine was the exact opposite of its rivals that promoted a more democratic approach to cookery and, perhaps because of its very aloofness, became surrounded by a certain mystique.