Unlike other cuisines of the world, French cuisine is codified, organized and set out in almost canonical terms — at least, the “grande cuisine” part of French cooking is. It’s owing partly to the politically centralized nature of France itself, and partly to the fact that writers and consumers alike of the “grande cuisine” treat it as an art form approaching a science.
Cooks in other cooking traditions, such as Japanese or Chinese, may be as rigorously trained as French cooks are, but French cooks have had access to a wealth of written material.
It should be noted, though, that aristocratic cooking wasn’t always necessarily good. Quality was often sacrificed for show and presentation, and with the kitchens being so far from the dining tables, food would often arrive quite cold.
France is actually still a country of its old feudal provinces, though the Revolution tried to sweep those away by reforming everything into Départements whose geographical lines differed from the historical ones. French regional cuisine is based on these old historic regions or provinces, not on the relatively new “départements”, so you could say that the concept of regional cuisines has now become just a cultural construct — but an important one none-the-less. France is highly centralized country. In order to keep the agricultural outlying regions happy and quiet, the centre in Paris has always favoured pro-agriculturalist policies. And, in order to create a strong sense of nationalism, the centre has always celebrated its regional variety as part of the whole and appropriated it as one of the symbols of France
French cuisine largely has two categories: cuisine bourgeoise (home cooking), and haute cuisine (high cooking.) The haute cuisine is refined, complicated cooking done by highly trained people. But nowadays, with kitchen appliances and tools, more haute cuisine cooking can be imitated in homes.
French “peasants” are now becoming middle-class, and can afford the food that they hear about and see advertised on TV. This has helped French cooking to become more homogenized than it was. For instance, crêpes are pretty much universal food in France now, and almost every town has a crêperie, or a combination crêperie/pizzeria.
Supermarkets in France are chock-full of convenience goods and ready-made foods now, everything from frozen pizza to packaged ham slices and pre-washed salad greens. In fact, the contents of the average grocery cart wouldn’t look very different now from those in North America or the UK. You can even buy eggs already boiled to save time. France is the second biggest market for Nestlé after North America. In France, Nestlé has a strong market (as of 2004) in individual portion ready-made chilled meals.
The French are now discovering sandwiches as meals, especially the kinds of gourmet sandwiches — for instance, apple, Brie and walnut — that the English are now used to.
And, they are discovering more aspects of English food. Simple Simon is a franchise chain in France that is selling English pies, as well as apple crumbles, bakewell tarts, scones, and custard. In the restaurants, tea is served from silver pots into china cups. The first Simple Simon shop was set up in Avignon in the early 1970s (rue Petite Fusterie) by two English women who couldn’t get a decent cup of tea there.
In 2006, a survey conducted for the French magazine VSD found that couscous was the favourite dish in France. Paella, pizza and spaghetti bolognaise also ranked highly. 
The French remain indifferent to rice.
Many food traditions remain, however.
As of 2001, people in France still preferred homemade soup to commercially prepared soup — and put their pots where their mouth is. 70% of the soup they eat is homemade, and only 30% bought ready-made. When they do buy ready-made soup from the supermarket, 60% of it is in cartons or bottles, as opposed to canned or dehydrated form. [*Research and Markets, The Soup Market Market Assessment, Report 3895. Jan 2001.]
Most French still don’t drink tap water, drinking bottled water instead, even at restaurants. Restaurants in France prefer you to order bottled water anyway, as they generally have a markup of 6 to 8 times on it, which they count on.
And many French cooking habits still defy current Anglo-Saxon “health thinking”, in areas for instance such as the use of fat. In Aquitaine, where many traditional dishes are based on goose and duck, goose fat is still preferred over oil or butter, as it is in Gascony as well. And in Périgord, the preferred fat is goose fat again, supplemented by walnut oil. An English speaker would run screaming to the nearest hospital, pleading for an angioplasty.
Restaurants in France
- Brasserie: means “brewery.” Beer is served along with hearty food.
- Bistros: small restaurants in neighbourhoods that offer home-class cooking; they are often family run. The menus are short, though the daily specials will change frequently. Most still use the traditional red-checkered tablecloths. Some bistros, though, classed as “Belle Époque bistros”, will have a fancier decor with brass and velvet.
- Café: a place where you may sit and have coffee or beer. Snacks such as sandwiches, patés and salads served
- Restaurants: restaurants are for haute cuisine. Reservations are needed. Dinner will take an entire evening; you won’t be rushed out. Many restaurants won’t put salt and pepper on the table, and some chefs will be insulted if you ask for it. Entrée here means “enter” as in appetizer, starter. Coffee is served after the meal on its own. There is no such thing as “doggy bags.”
Restaurants of all types in France are now having to juggle increasingly high expectations of customers with:
- The limitations of the French 35 hour work week on their workers (as of 2007);
- Five week vacation per year for workers;
- Escalating employee taxes;
- High tax rate overall having inflationary effects on restaurant costs.
Consequently, in order to square the circle and stay in business, restaurants are starting to take more short cuts and cut back in small areas, because they have had to cut back on the number of employees. The answer may lie in more prepared food — such as sauces in vacuum-packages ready to use — being used in restaurant kitchens; or it may lie in re-examining the science of the kitchen, to see what time-honoured practices in the French kitchen actually matter to the end product. Some bistros now even buy and serve completely-prepared meals.
French sauces are based on fat and starch. While it’s now fashionable to look down on these sauces as old and artificial, they were once considered revolutionary and more natural. They replaced Medieval sauces, which were all at once vinegary, sweet and spicy, and overwhelming in taste. At the end of the Middles Ages, the taste amongst the wealthy for strong sauces had diminished, and they came to prefer more delicate ones.The new sauces absorbed better the flavours of other ingredients and complemented rather than changed or competed with the taste of the rest of the food. The new sauces were seen as “Nouvelle Cuisine.”
In the 1600s, the use of many spices such as cumin, cardamom, anise, etc, diminished in French cooking. Cinnamon became associated with sweets. Black pepper was used more widely but more sparingly, and only as an ingredient in savoury dishes.
In fact, also at this time, a strong distinction started to be made between sweet and savoury. Previously, anything grown in the ground was called a fruit, as in the “fruit of the earth.” By the 1600s, the word “fruit” started to be used only for sweet things. Previously, an olive and even a truffle would have been called a “fruit.” Anything with sugar in it or that tasted sweet started to drift slowly to the end of the meal. Fruit moved to the desert course. Previously, based on dietetics (see the entry on Medieval Food), it had always been served first.
Other cultures which continued to serve sweet sauces with meat came to be seen by the French as more baroque. French abroad started complaining about the mixture of sweet and fruit with meat they encountered. They also complained that cooking in other European countries, which had not kept up with French cooking, was so spicy they could not eat it.
The French started to break the link between dietetics and food in the 1600s. Instead of being linked to health, food started to be linked to taste — both actual taste, and taste in the sense of class distinctions or refinement of spirit. By the mid 1600s in France, the sense of taste was also applied to art, literature, music, etc, to distinguish between what was good and bad in the estimation of “le tout monde.”
From the 1600s on, the number of vegetable dishes increased among the elite. They were no longer seen as base because they grew in the soil and therefore fit only for the lower classes. Meat from creatures that lived in the air (aka birds and poultry) lost its distinction as being more elevated than meat from creatures that walked the ground.
In the 1600s, the word “gourmandise” had equalled gluttony; so “friandise” was used instead to signify “enjoyment of food.” By the start of the 1800s, the words gourmet and gastronome came into being. In 1742, Memon, a food writer, in the third volume of his “Nouveau Traité de cuisine”, re-introduced the expression “Nouvelle Cuisine” to describe what was happening to food at his time.
By the 1700s, every aristocrat had a room designated as a dining room and a permanent, dedicated dining table. Fork use in France also began at this time. It’s pretty much acknowledged by everyone now, though, that it’s a myth that Catherine de Medici introduced the fork to France. Its introduction simply came about through contact between Italy and France over a period of time. In fact, though fork use started in Italy in the 1300s ,the fork actually was invented in Byzantium and may have come in to Italy via Venice. The first painting in France showing a knife and fork at a table was done by Le Nain in his “The Family Dinner” in the 1640s. By the early 1700s in France, the use of a fork in good society was de rigeur, though some nobility, such as King Louis XIV, couldn’t be bothered with one and would still eat with fingers.
The advent of porcelain factories in the early 1700s sped the demise of the Medieval custom of using bread as a plate. The plates made were something beautiful that every hostess would be proud to show off and want to use on her table. They also made a table look more unified and decorated.
As early as the mid 1600s, French cooking had already broken away from all other cuisines and was seen as the best in Europe.
Not everyone was universally happy with French cooking, though. The English have always judged other cooking by the quality of the beef, whereas the French and Italians judge on the quality of the bread. In the 1700s, the English were complaining that the French didn’t know how to cook beef — the French were still boiling it, and when they did roast it, they roasted pieces so small that they couldn’t cook properly. A French writer noted that the wealthier English of the time cooked roasts of 20 or 30 pounds (9 to 13 kg) and up. In fact, though, it could be argued that this difference showed that the French were actually more advanced than the English at this point, because it shows that the French were starting to understand meat cuts, and thus the smaller pieces. In fact, as early as the 1600s, cookbooks in France had no longer just said beef, but called for specific cuts. The Italians, of course, mystified everyone by boiling meat and poultry, and then roasting it, well into the 1700s.
Before the food revolution, the French elite used to serve many different dishes at the same time so that each individual diner could pick and choose what s/he felt best for his/her health and inclination. Taste and distaste weren’t seen to be universal, but rather based on an individual person’s physiology. After the food revolution, though, food taste was held to be universal. What one discerning person held to be good, others would too.
This style of service (putting everything at once on the table), which we now call French service, continued up until 1800s. The popular style of serving food later changed to Russian style, perhaps aided by how people saw food being served in the newly-appearing restaurants.
By the mid 1700s in France, cooking seen was definitely seen as one of the fine arts. Previously, cookbooks had been catalogued in with books on health and medicines. By the end of 1700s, the intrinsic goodness and quality of a dish was seen as something objective, rather than as subjective or relative to the person who eats it. And now that cooking was something objective, it was something that could be treated as a science. In 1825, Brillat-Savarin was able to write, “Gastronomy is a scientific definition of all that relates to man as a feeling animal.”
Restaurants in France really started in 1765 when a man named Boulanger opened a store in rue des Poulie in Paris. At this time, the word “restaurants” meant “restoratives” — broths, soups and stews made of meat & herbs. And, owing to strict monopolies held over certain foods by many guilds (medieval unions), that is all that he was legally authorized to sell. His sign said “Venite ad me; vos qui stomacho laboratis et ego restorabo vos” (“come to me, ye whose stomachs labour, and I shall restore you.”) Nevertheless, Boulanger decided to set the fox among the chickens by also selling lamb with sauce. The French philosopher Diderot went there to eat, and thought the food was good, but expensive (the restaurant didn’t actually last for long.) But the lamb was a step too far, and the caterer’s guild was livid that their monopoly had been violated. They sued, but everyone was surprised when they lost. The door to the new style of public eating establishments had been opened, and more sprang up.
Previously, you could only get public food at inns and taverns, which served indifferent food at common, shared tables. The new places had private tables, with linens and fine utensils, and a menu to choose from (at taverns, there was often no choice at all.) Restaurants provided a place for the up and coming elite to get a fancy meal, without being invited to the homes of aristocrats, and for the less wealthy, less fancy restaurants allowed them to step out for an evening to dine above their station in life.
The French Revolution had a big impact on food in France. Chefs lost their jobs in the great aristocratic houses as the aristocrats were marched to the guillotine, and the bourgeois hangers-on that used to eat the great meals the chefs cooked in those houses were now left without a place that they could enjoy that cooking at. Some chefs left France, to be hired eagerly by aristocracy in other countries; others solved both the problem of their employed and the problem of bourgeois appetites by opening restaurants. Before the French Revolution, there were 100 restaurants in Paris. By the time of Napoleon, there were between 500 and 600. Carême (1783-1833) emerged as a great chef and restaurateur during this period.
After the Revolution, most guilds were abolished, and the food market in France experience phenomenal growth in quality and quantity with the disappearance of state monopolies.
The Revolution also meant that you could eat eggs whenever you chose. Until 1784, it had been forbidden to eat eggs in France during Lent. Eggs laid by chickens during this time were either allowed to hatch, or if Easter weren’t too far away, preserved by being dipped in wax or fat. The French Revolution did away with this stricture.
Miscellaneous French Food History Facts
- By the time of the French Revolution, France was the world’s leading producer of sugar owing to its possession of the island of Santo Domingo;
- By 1790, the French were eating 1.8 pounds of sugar per head per year. Compare this to the English, who were eating 15 1/2 pounds of sugar per capita a year in 1792;
- In France, by 1830, wheat was 51% of the grain consumed. Rye and buckwheat combined were 39%;
- By 1812 in France, potato consumption per year was 45 pounds per head; by 1844, 4 times that; by 1913, 350 pounds per head;
- In 1876, Charles Tellier, a French engineer who designed meat refrigerators on land, built a refrigerated ship called “Le Frigorifique”, and used it to transport meat from Buenos Aires to France in 105 days.
- War rationing was introduced in France in the fall of 1940, and continued until 1949. One vegetable that wasn’t rationed was Swede, which the French called “le rutabaga”. When rationing ended, they were so heartily sick of Swede that they banished it from their tables.
- During the Second World War, the French too learned to eat Spam, as did the British.
- Homes in France only got refrigerators in the 1950s;
- French farmers receive 21 per cent of Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) payments, to the tune of £7 billion a year as of 2004. At this time, the entire continent of Africa was receiving only £15 billion pounds a year in all aid in total.
Pounds of meat consumed per capita per year:
|Just prior to French Revolution||2 oz a day|
|1855||> 66 pounds||< 44 pounds|
|1899||104 pounds (55 pounds of this was pork)|
|1913||105 pounds||99 pounds|
|1938||127 pounds||130 pounds|
|1950||81 pounds (44 pounds of this was pork)|
|1975||187 pounds (99 pounds of this was pork)|
Egg Consumption, France per capita per year:
Literature & Lore
“The Gauls at that time had no knowledge either of wine made from grapes or of oil such as is produced by our olive trees, but used a foul-smelling liquor made from barley rotted in water, and for oil, stale lard, disgusting both in smell and taste.” — Dionysius of Halicarnassus, circa 25 BC. In: The Roman Antiquities of Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Book XIII, para 11. Loeb Classical Library edition, 1950. Vol VII, page 256.
“If you wanted to be heard at a [French] dinner party, you had to talk very loud, and very fast, and to have a very firm opinion about whatever it was, or else you’d be ignored.” — Julia Child. Quoted by Alex Prud’homme in “Writing Pulia”. Gastronomica. University of California Press: Berkeley, California. Summer 2005, Vol. 5, No. 3, Pages 23-25.
“This nouvelle cuisine has been extremely useful because it has released chefs from the traditional straitjacket and makes them feel freer to do what they want. But sometimes they go overboard. The next thing you know, we may get poached cow’s udders with oysters!” — Julia Child. As quoted by Suzy Patterson in “Vacation doesn’t mean getting away from food”. Charleston, West Virginia: Sunday Gazette-Mail. Sunday, 3 September 1978. Page 83.
“La Cuisine n’est pas seulement une science de Gueule, elle est avant tout une science de haute portée morale qu’il faut apprendre et comprendre.” [Ed. – Food isn’t just a science of the mouth, it is above all a science of elevated morality that one must learn and understand.] — Montaigne (1533-1592). From his “Essais.”
The word “restaurant” wasn’t recognized by the Academie Francaise until 1835.
In France, “boulangers” is a “new” word for “bakers”, that came about in the 1400s. Prior to that, they were called “talemeliers”.
 Randall, Colin. French abandon traditional cuisine in favour of couscous. London: Daily Telegraph. 31 March 2006.
Cahill, Dominique Magada. Quelle horreur – is it true that the French can’t boil an egg these days? Daily Telegraph. 9 November 2004.
Jean-Louis Flandrin & Massimo Montanari, Eds. Food: A Culinary History. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
Randall, Colin. Bread and butter issue for France. London: Daily Telegraph. 11 March 2006.
Simon, François. It’s What’s For Dinner. New York: Gourmet Magazine. March 2001.