There is an old myth going around that French cuisine is essentially just a knockoff of Italian cuisine. I know that sounds crazy. You probably have heard this myth.
According to the story, there was a French queen who came from one of the noble houses of Italy. In particular, she was a Medici princess, and when she married the king of France, she not only went by herself but she also took a fairly large group of people with her. This is her retinue or entourage and among these people are her personal chefs.
According to the legend, this was how Italian cuisine pretty much reshaped preexisting rustic or provincial French cooking and French food ideas into modern French cuisine.
Well, a lot of people have been poking holes at that theory, and there have been a lot of people who argued back and forth as to the historical accuracy of the story, but what’s really lost from all the debate is that the story highlights the importance of French provincial cuisine.
In other words, while we can disagree as to how Italian cooking methods have seeped into, mutated and otherwise transformed French cooking in the form that we understand now, what should be celebrated are the provincial aspects of French cuisine.
French people are very big on fresh taste. They view food quality as necessarily flowing from how fresh the ingredients are, and you may be thinking that this is pretty straightforward. You might be even thinking that this is common sense, but this is not at all a universally held view. In fact, a lot of people think that great ingredients come in a can or can be frozen.
A lot of French chefs are actually scandalized if somebody comes in with frozen meat. If you have ever spent any time in the kitchen, you would know full well that once you freeze meat, the texture has changed and with it, the flavor. Seriously. This is the unvarnished truth.
Many people would try to get around it. Many people would try to use cheese or some sort of sauce or spices to cover it up, but it’s there. The moment you freeze that meat or the moment the internal temperature of that ingredient sinks below a certain point, it’s changed permanently. It’s no longer the same.
French people know this, and that’s why they’re very big on freshness, and it’s this provincial emphasis on an earth-based back-to-the-basic cuisine philosophy that fuels the contention that provincial French cuisine is superior to other cuisine.
Whenever you do cuisine cross-comparison analysis, there will always be politics. There will always be a clash of egos. There will be national pride issues involved. It can be quite a mess. However, if you look at the almost monomaniacal focus on freshness and its relationship with taste, texture, aroma and everything else, you cannot deny that the French provincial cuisine philosophy is onto something.
If you don’t believe me look at the fresh food movement in the United States starting in the 1960s. There was vegetarian restaurant in Berkeley, CA that really set the culinary world on fire in the United States because people suddenly discovered that they had taste buds.
I know that’s kind of an exaggeration, but that was the effect because when this chef started emphasizing and evangelizing the power of fresh ingredients, it really took the flavor level and threshold of American cuisine to a whole new level.
That, in turn, can be traced to French provincial cuisine. Funny how that works, right? Maybe it’s time to give credit where credit is due. Perhaps we can start wrapping our minds around the conclusion that French provincial cuisine might actually be superior.