The Origins And Influences Of Traditional Gourmet French Foods

Published: 15th June 2009
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Traditional French food has a global reputation for being both extremely palatable and highly distinctive. The French have always been known for their attention to detail and the care taken over even relatively basic recipes. The very words 'French' and 'cuisine' seem to be paired up as beautifully as 'duck and 'confit'. Indeed. Even the word 'gourmet' is French for 'wine taster', and if there is one thing the French do superbly besides creating a good meal it is to create a fine wine to go with it.

Whether it is the association between the French language and the richness of French cuisine I'm not sure, but even the names of some of the more traditional gourmet French foods are enough to make the mouth salivate in anticipation - just try rolling the sound of a fine French goose and duck foie gras or a cassoulet perhaps and you'll almost be ready to choose your complimentary wine.

But although it's easy to lump all French cuisine into the same pot, as it were, there are in fact very distinct areas of France, each of which has contributed its own distinctive tastes, and cooking methods. France is a large country, and one would hardly expect the culinary and gourmet influences to be uniform throughout. Indeed, it is not just geography which has had an influence on French cooking methods, but modern restaurant requirements have also made their mark. Many French recipes require slow cooking or laborious preparation - neither of which proves terribly convenient in the heat and steam of a frenetic Parisian kitchen during the peak season.

The areas of France, and the distinct branches of what we would term traditional French food include the north west and south east regions, and the southern and south western regions. Although there are general similarities and shared characteristics, what we might refer to as gourmet French foods are more likely to originate from a distinct area of France. For example, one of the more distinctive aspects of the French cooking in the north eastern vicinity is the high use of milk, cream and butter. Many of the traditional French food originated here tends to butter ingredients quite heavily, and so this can have the effect of creating a rather rich meal. It is also quite noticeable that apples often feature quite prominently as a major ingredient in recipes from this area.

It would only be natural for France's gourmet foods to be heavily influenced by its neighbours, and this is certainly true for the south eastern regions of France, which border Germany. There are clear Germanic influences in the styles of food and choice of ingredients around this whole area, including the generous use of lard as well as foods more commonly associated with German cooking such as sauerkraut and pork sausages.

When one thinks of traditional French food and gourmet French foods one tends to consider those meals more traditionally served in French restaurants, and these recipes generally originate from the south of France. Such recipes tend to be much lighter, with much less use of butter and lard, and easier on less accustomed palates. Think of a traditional French meal which one might enjoy at a restaurant and the chances are high that it originated in the southern region.

Travel further towards the west and you will encounter yet another traditional style of French cooking, almost Spanish in its influence, with a higher use of light oils such as olive oil as well as a much more widespread use of herbs. It is also noticeable in this region that tomatoes and tomato based products are used much more. These traditional French foods tend to be lighter, and again receive more widespread popularity.

But although the regions of France all have played their part in developing recipes and styles of cooking, there has been another influence which has affected what we tend to view as traditional gourmet French food today. The usual methods of cooking meals in France takes time, and in busy restaurants this just isn't possible. This has given rise to a new style of cooking which relies on much quicker cooking methods, and this has become known as cuisine nouvelle - literally new cooking. This style of cooking is not only quicker, but it generally is served in much smaller portions, as well as incorporating plate decoration and dressing of the meal for presentation.

Today, what we might refer to as traditional French foods are more than likely either recipes which originate from a very distinctive region of France, or have been borne out of the newer style of cooking which has surfaced in the last four decades. But whether the style of cooking is traditional or modern, and whether the ingredients are regional or more widely accepted, there can be little doubt that gourmet French foods have had a major influence on the way much of the world views fine food and quality cooking.

Karl Mabrook is a professional food critic, nutrition expert and journalist with a particular interest in traditional French food and gourmet French foods.

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