French cuisine has influenced the eating habits of people around the world, especially those who enjoy "haute cuisine" in restaurants. But there are also many regional (or "provincial") styles of cooking that remain unique to France.
France is internationally recognized for its exceptional cuisine and famous chefs. But France did not earn this recognition overnight.
Food historians credit the ancient Romans for initially bringing cooking to the level of an artform. But the pre-Renaissance food of France was heavy and highly spiced. Ironically, it was Italian-born Catherine de Medici, whose arrival in France in 1533 was pivotal in the development of France's culinary arts. De Medici and her cooking staff introduced delicacies previously unknown to the French, as well as strict etiquette policies. Her presence in France not only elevated the civilized dining experience, but also influenced the future of French cuisine.
In the 1600's, chef Francois de La Varenne made great strides in the development of French cooking. He created sauces that would later become the basis of haute cuisine. Haute cuisine is precise, skilled artistry, as opposed to cuisine bourgeois which, loosely translated, is home cooking.
In the early 1800's, Marie Antoine Careme set the standards for classic French cooking with a 5-volume publication. Georges Auguste Escoffier later modernized and perfected Careme's work. He created thousands of recipes, and helped publicize French cuisine. Both Varenne and Escoffier have prestigious cooking schools named after them: La Varenne in Burgundy (directed by Anne Willan), and the Ritz-Escoffier Ecole de Gastronomie Francaise in Paris.
In modern times, American Julia Child is distinguished not only as a chef and cookbook author, but also for her passion and respect for French cuisine. She was the host of a television cooking show, "The French Chef", in the early 60's. Through this relatively new medium, Julia Child revealed the skill and glamour of classic French cuisine to the rest of the world.
The country of France, although slightly smaller than the state of Texas, has been described as having as many as 30 diverse food regions! This is partially the result of geographical diversification. To fully appreciate the differences between some of France's major food regions, it is best to look at a map of Europe.
To the southeast of France lies Italy, which has strong ties to Provencal cuisine. Basque cooking results from the wonderful fusion of French and Spanish cuisines to the southwest. Belgium influences are particularly evident in the northern regions of France. In the northeast, Alsacian food prevails, with obvious German influences. The French countryside that borders Switzerland in the east is best known for its cheese specialties. And southern French food even reveals north African influences from across the Mediterranean.
The development of France's regional cuisines result also from locally available ingredients. Thus, seafood dishes predominate along France's coastal regions of the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. A bounty of fruits and vegetables are harvested in Central France, in the fertile Loire River valley. Meat dishes prevail to the north, where the land provides the best grazing for lamb and sheep. Those infamous truffles have created unique food specialties in southwestern France. And, of course, France's regional cuisines are also uniquely defined by the various wine regions in France, as well as local cognacs, champagne, liqueurs, and cordials.
But to enjoy French cuisine is to eat it. Leave the work to the food historians and indulge, for that is what French food offers ó true indulgence!
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This page modified January 2007
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