Dear friends. We bet you all more or less like French cuisine, and most of you have probably tried the experience of fine dining, maybe even at a Michelin-starred restaurant, anywhere in the world.
And while most of us do enjoy this incredible gustative experience of “haute cuisine”, we are sure that some of you deep down actually wonder: why is it that the service is so particular with these courses coming one after the other? And why, yes, why is it taking so long ? The later being completely related to the former.
Come with us in a historical journey to discover the cultural origins of French gastronomy! And whether it will make you look at your next meal under a different light, or just enrich your social conversations, we’re sure it is something you will remember: no wonder French cuisine made it to the UNESCO cultural intangible heritage list!
On the importance of eating for the French
Once upon a time (yes, yes), during the Middle-Ages, French nobles became famous across Europe for their infamous banquet dinners. Almost buffet style, the meals would resemble an extravagant feast of roasts, tarts, quiches and beautifully decorated dishes. Spices were used heavily in the cuisine, such as mustard for instance which is still pretty iconic in French cooking. Nowadays you can even visit some historical mustard-processing workshops in France.
The service style and method was actually closer to what we can encounter today in….China! All the dishes would be put together on the table and guests would help themselves at their convenience.
Meals were already very long and banquets would be held for nobles during special celebrations such as a good harvest, the comeback of a honorable guest or a wedding. But already at that time, France’s cuisine was distinguished among others in Europe and the King’s cook in particular enjoyed a particular important status.
The three-courses meal….
…is actually not French ! Historically, the “French service” was this habit of phasing diner into several themes such as soups & lights, roasted meats etc where for each phase, many different dishes would be brought to the table as we saw. But when France’s King Louis XV married to a Russian princess, she brought with her what was at that time called the “Russian service”: food is actually pre-served in plates and brought to the table, individually for each guest, course after course.
As the plates are changed for each course, the cutlery is however entirely placed on the table beforehand. Hence the several layers of forks and knives you still witness today in restaurants: you start with the outer layer and progressively use the cutlery nearer to your plate as you progress through your dinner. Marie Leczinska also brought with her some new culinary habits such as lighter sauces based on broth rather than the heavy mixtures of flour and creams.
What probably made this three-courses eating style assimilated to French cuisine, was that French chefs and cooks, already very recognized in Europe for their talent, strictly codified how a fine meal should be made and should be served at the beginning of the 20th century. Augustin Escoffier, now considered as the father of modern cooking, edited over 5th versions of his Culinary Guide book first published in 1903.
The Guide provides guidance on everything: from a professional kitchen organization and staffing, to service methods and recipes which are meant to define French cuisine, for example the Crepes Suzette. Since then, it is widely accepted that a French meal would be served in a series of courses, usually from three to five depending on the Chef’s creations.
And how about today?
All of you who have been to a fine restaurant know it is an amazing experience, which also takes time. But beyond the glamour and the white tablecloths, French people still place a high importance and focus on eating in a certain manner, and most importantly, eating together.
Eating is and remains a celebration for Frenchies! That is particularly noticeable during Sunday family lunches, which can take over 3 or 4 hours, and for Christmas meals which are longer than really long, that is: endless. Expect a feast of gourmet treats, roasted delicacies or expensive fishes, gorgeous cheese platters and many, many sweets and desserts in almost a continuous service for 2 days!
You now know the secret behind this weird 3 to 4 courses combination most of us stick with, that is the starter – main – cheese – dessert suite.
Bon appétit ! And give us a ring if you are curious to come to visit France in a customized trip, learn more about its history and culinary delights!