French Themes

A brief history and outline of french cooking

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French cuisine is, arguably, the purest expression of love. Considered the backbone of western cuisine and the birthplace of inventive cuisine, there is no mistaking its decadence and attention to detail. 

HISTORY

Traditional french food largely consisted of meat with rich, heavy sauces – what, today, might be considered peasant food. Over time, it developed into what is known as haute cuisine (high-class cuisine), world-renowned food made famous for its elaborate preparation and meticulous presentation. Many believe that haute cuisine commenced on the backs of gastronomic greats like Marie-Antoine Carême, an important French culinary figure who developed France's own indigenous style of cooking and is responsible for hundreds of french sauce recipes as well as the classification of mother sauces.

Next came nouvelle cuisine (new cuisine) – a 1970's backlash to the classic heavy French cuisine. It lightened up cream sauces and focused on simplicity,  using fewer ingredients. Today, the emphasis in restaurants is still on new cuisine for the most part. 

COMMON THEMES

Classic cooking techniques such as flambéing, sautéing, braising and poaching are all basic French cooking methods and there is a huge amount of respect for food and attention to detail in the French cooking tradition, with skilled knife work like brunoise and batonnet. 

Typically, French cooking relies heavily on local products. There is a focus on fresh, simple ingredients like berries, leeks, mushrooms, and stone fruits and a plethora of fresh, aromatic herbs are used across dishes. As for the pantry, you’ll find bread, tarragon, shallots, and olive oil, not to mention lots of butter and cream – both of which are employed heavily and often. It is also common to add wine to many stews and soups. 

As for the pantry, you’ll find bread, tarragon, shallots, and olive oil, not to mention lots of butter and cream - both of which are heavily employed.

Of course, many classic French dishes are influenced by the agriculture of the region. For example, wine-based stews in Burgundy, like Beef Bourguignon. If you’re in the French Riviera, the cooking style borrows from neighboring Mediterranean cuisines, resulting in beloved classics like Salad Nicoise, a salad that features fresh tuna, anchovy fillets, hard boiled egg, olives, and green beans. While many french cooking terms and recipes can be intimidating to home chefs, many dishes are very attainable. It is of utmost importance to use good knives, excellent ingredients and master the five mother sauces, which are the foundation of all French cooking.

While many french cooking terms and recipes can be intimidating to home chefs, many dishes are very attainable.

THE MOTHER SAUCES

Earlier in this article, we mentioned an important person by the name of Marie-Antoine Carême. He was the first chef to organize all the french sauces into groups that were based on four foundational sauces. Later in the eighteenth century, another French chef by the name of Auguste Escoffier added one more sauce, so today there are five “mother sauces.” They are the starting point for hundreds of sauces. 

The first two are béchamel and espagnole. The first is a milk-based sauce, thickened with flour, the latter, a brown veal stock sauce, thickened with a roux. Then there’s velouté, a light stock-based sauce that combines egg yolks and cream, thickened with a roux, and hollandaise, an emulsion of egg yolk, butter and lemon. Last, but not least, there’s sauce tomate, a tomato-based sauce. If you’ve ever made a white sauce for lasagna or a cheese sauce for pasta, you’ve made a variation of one of the five french mother sauces. 

If you’ve ever made a white sauce for lasagna or a cheese sauce for pasta, you’ve made a variation of one of the five french mother sauces.

CROISSANTS

A patisserie is a bakery specializing in pastries and led by a pastry chef. Amidst the mountains of fancy cakes, ganache, and cream-filled delights, you will see croissants by the dozens. Given that they are commonly recognized as french, it is highly ironic that the crescent-shaped parcels actually originated in Vienna. It is Queen Marie Antoinette who is often credited for making them popular in France. Made by layering a dough with a shocking amount of butter while folding and refolding it, croissants have a buttery, rich flavor. Their texture is similar to puff pastry, airy and soft on the inside, with a flaky exterior.

THE SWEET STUFF

Dessert, whether simple or intricate, is a huge part of french cuisine. Small, bite-sized confectioneries such as macarons (the French equivalent of a cookie) and petit fours (tiny cakes) are held as dear to the french as rich custards, like creme brulee and crepes, which are traditionally made every Sunday, by french families. You’ve likely seen “Crêpes Suzette” on restaurant menus. French crêpes are typically served with either a milk chocolate or suzette sauce (Grand Marnier, oranges, sugar and butter) as well as whipped cream and jam.