x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

A reluctant embrace of French cuisine

There is so much fuss about French cuisine that it's easy to reject it out-of-hand. A taste here and a thought there, however, and the French may be onto something.

In spite of all the cheese in French cuisine, the French can still teach us all a thing or two about eating well.
In spite of all the cheese in French cuisine, the French can still teach us all a thing or two about eating well.

Last week a small group of friends celebrated Bastille Day with a big, fat, French-themed pétanque party. There were contraband cheeses, gnarled baguettes, imported Poilâne bread, bouillabaisse with a spicy rouille, duck rillettes and tarte tatin. Being that the hosts were a mix of people with Cajun and Lebanese backgrounds, we also celebrated the varying degrees to which France had influenced those cultures - and the ways in which it hadn't. In other words, there was hummus, and plenty of it.

At some point in the afternoon, a friend began recounting tales from a recent trip to Hawaii with a skincare specialist who admonished her for not being more judicious with the sunscreen. "Can you imagine," she asked, rolling her eyes, "going to Hawaii with a dermatologist? What was I thinking?" "That's almost as bad as going to France with a cardiologist," I quipped. Judging from a comment like that, you might think I am a Francophile, impulsively referencing France as a culinary last frontier as many food geeks are prone to do. And if the amount of bread and cheese I scarfed down that afternoon is any indication, it might misrepresent my gluttony as a singular love for all things French. But, despite the fact that France is often perceived as the be-all and end-all of haute cuisine, it took me a very, very long time to become a believer. And though I am still a work in progress, I've come a long way.

Is this about playing devil's advocate because French food is touted as the perennial bee's knees? I hope not. My earliest exposures to classic French cuisine came after a crucial year of history lessons, after which I understood how many of the recipes were formed with the intention of complicating poor ingredients in order to conceal their inferiority. Even French bistro food leaves me lukewarm. If I'm going to enjoy a roast chicken, I want to know where it comes from. I'd like to savour the backs and the oysters, and then use the carcass to make soup.

For as long as I can remember loving food, I have found the fussiness of French food off-putting, because of how inaccessible it often seemed. So what if I am more interested in ribeyes than filet mignon; if I like a green salad alongside my main meal, and will gladly forgo heavy sauces for simpler, clearer flavours? What I lack in refinement I make up for with enthusiasm. I became interested in Spanish and Italian cuisines, finding them more expressive and vibrant than French, which was an unfair assessment. Paris, whose charms had eluded me, never stood a chance against Barcelona and Rome. Why? Because my only clear memories of Paris involved a flurry of escargots; rare steaks dripping with sauce Béarnaise, and the hazy funk of some stinky cheeses. I was fearful in Paris, and paralysed by my own opinions.

The truth is that classic French cookery provides the foundation for much of how we cook and think about food today. Understanding these principles is what informs and hones our instincts, so that we may go on to create our own dishes, and develop an understanding of whether and why they will succeed or flop. Eventually, Escoffier and Carême became like friendly ghosts in my kitchen, though I'd just as soon watch reruns of the late Julia Child, who brought the art of French cooking to American audiences when they were ready for it. My copy of Larousse Gastronomique, an encyclopaedia of near-biblical proportions, is not as dog-eared as my Nigella Lawson books, but it's getting there. Baby steps.

Oddly, it was a visit to farms in Lebanon a few years ago that awakened my eyes and my palate to the magic of French farmhouse dinners; the rustic, Mediterranean flavours, the family-style meals, the communal tables, the way everybody pitches in to contribute to the meal, regardless of age or gender. Later, I learnt that French farm food is the quintessence of unfussy, and some of my preconceptions were dispelled. It was the form, and not the content, with which I fell in love. Nowadays, it seems like the family-style dinner is going extinct. Did the Lebanese pick up a little appreciation for such meals from the French, or is it such a natural and fundamental human pleasure that it's a miracle more people don't eat this way? I don't know the answer, but when I compare the rates of type-2 diabetes in the UAE and the US, both compulsive snacking cultures hooked on convenience foods, I start thinking seriously about a hardcore revival of the real-food dinner, eaten at the table in the company of others. I can see that the true soul of French cooking is not a white-gloved waiter, but a barefoot farmer, revelling in the fruits of the earth and sea.

Since the controversial publication of French Women Don't Get Fat by Mireille Guiliano, the French paradox has undergone some demystification. It notes the comparatively low incidence of coronary heart disease in the French, despite their love of saturated fat. And the French paradox has a parallel called the Mediterranean paradox, based on the relatively low rates of cardiovascular disease in some Mediterranean countries where high quantities of fat consumption (albeit a different kind of fat than the French eat) are prevalent.

One winter in a rental cottage in the French Alps, my brother and I spent an hour trying to unearth the source of a stench so potently foul that we had assumed it to be a dead bird or mouse caught between the radiator and the wall. We ended up tracing it to a wedge of Raclette that my mother had bought earlier in the day. I've grown to love ripe, smelly cheeses, but like most French food, they're not something I would want to eat every day. Then again, I wouldn't want to eat Indian food every day, or Emirati food, or Moroccan food. What fun would that be? After all, if variety is the spice of life, then pleasure must be the condiment.