food in the arts




At the Second London Food Film Fiesta Marie-Pierre Moine and Eric de Blonde, Executive Chef at the Four Seasons Hotel, demonstrated how to bring haute cuisine into the kitchen. Marie-Pierre is the author of many books on French cookery, including a new edition of Cuisine Grande-Mere, the Food Editor of The Marks and Spencer Magazine and a regular contributor to House and Garden Magazine.

Triumph of French Cuiusine

During the reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI, culinary methods were refined and a new order and logic were introduced into the French cuisine. Brillat-Savarin noted that in the reign of Louis XV there was generally established more orderliness of meals, more cleanliness and elegance, and those refinements of service, which having increased steadily to our own time . . . .

By the time of the Revolution the interest in the culinary arts had intensified to the point where Brillat-Savarin could report:

'The ranks of every profession concerned with the sale or preparation of food, including cooks, caterers, confectioners, pastry cooks, provision merchants and the like, have multiplied in ever-increasing proportions . . . New Professions have arisen; that, for example, of the pastry cook—in his domain are biscuits, macaroons, fancy cakes, meringues . . . The art of preserving has also become a profession in itself, whereby we are enabled to enjoy, at all times of the year, things naturally peculiar to one or other season . . . French cookery has annexed dishes of foreign extraction . . . A wide variety of vessels, utensils and accessories of every sort has been invented, so that foreigners coming to Paris find many objects on the table the very names of which they know not, nor dare to ask their use.'

The Revolution changed almost every aspect of French life: political, economic, social, and gastronomic. In pre-Revolutionary days the country's leading chefs performed their art in wealthy aristocratic households. When the Revolution was over those who had survived the guillotine and remained in the country found employment in restaurants. The restaurant became the principal arena for the development of the French cuisine, and henceforth French gastronomy was to be carried forward by a succession of talented chefs, men whose culinary genius has not been matched in any other land. From the long roll of great French chefs, a select company have made a lasting contribution to gastronomy.

surtout de table

The surtout or centrepiece first appeared in France around 1700. As its name suggests, it was the centrepiece of the table display. Called a ‘machine’, it had a double function. As well as candlesticks, it included a tureen and cruet stands for the service of the savoury, and caster stands and dishes for dessert.

The great French chefs

The first, and in many ways the most important of all French chefs, was Marie-Antoine Carême, who has been called the Architect of the French Cuisine. As the French novelist and gastronome Alexandre Dumas père related the story, Carême was born shortly before the Revolution, the 16th child of an impoverished stonemason; when he was only 11, his father took him to the gates of Paris one evening, fed him supper at a tavern, and abandoned him in the street. Fortunately for gastronomy, Carême found his way to an eating house, where he was put to work in the kitchen. Later he moved to a fine pastry shop where he learned not only to cook but also to read and draw.

Carême was an architect at heart. He liked to spend time in strolling about Paris, admiring the great classic buildings, and he fell into the habit of visiting the Bibliothèque Royale, where he spent long hours studying prints and engravings of the great architectural masterpieces of Greece, Rome, and Egypt. He designed massive, elaborate table decorations called pièces montées ('mounted pieces') as an outlet for his passionate interest in architecture. In an age of Neoclassicism his tables were embellished with replicas of classic temples, rotundas, and bridges constructed with spun sugar, glue, wax, and pastry dough. Each of these objects was fashioned with an architect's precision, for Carême considered confectionery to be 'architecture's main branch,' and he spent many months executing these designs, rendering every detail with great exactness.

Carême was employed by the French foreign minister, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, who was not only a clever diplomat but a gastronome of distinction. Talleyrand believed that a fine table was the best setting for diplomatic manoeuvring. Following his service with Talleyrand, Carême practiced his art for a succession of kings and nobles. He catered a series of feasts for Tsar Alexander of Russia, was chef de cuisine to England's Prince Regent (who later became George IV), and finally was employed by Baroness Rothschild in Paris.

Today Carême's monumental table displays seem ostentatious almost beyond belief, but he lived in an opulent age that was obsessed with classical architecture and literature. To appreciate him fully, one must put him in the context of his time. Before Carême, the French cuisine was largely a jumble of dishes; little concern was given to textures and flavours and compatibility of dishes. Carême brought a new logic to the cuisine. 'I want order and taste,' he said. 'A well displayed meal is enhanced one hundred per cent in my eyes.' Every detail of his meals was planned and executed with the greatest of care. Colours were carefully matched, and textures and flavours carefully balanced. Even the table displays, mammoth as they were, were designed and carried out with an architect's precision.

Carême's voluminous cookbooks, L'Art de la cuisine au dix-neuvième siècle (1833) and Le Pâtissier royal parisien (1815), included hundreds of recipes, menus for every day in the year, a history of French cooking, sketches for Carême's monumental pièces montées, instructions for garnishes, decorations, and tips on marketing and organizing the kitchen.

After Carême, the two men who probably had the greatest impact on French gastronomy and that of the world at large were Prosper Montagné and Georges-Auguste Escoffier. Montagné was one of the great French chefs of all time, and he achieved a secure place in gastronomic history by creating Larousse Gastronomique (1938), the basic encyclopaedia of French gastronomy. As a young man, while serving as an assistant chef at the Grand Hotel in Monte-Carlo, he came to the conclusion that all pièces montées, as well as superfluous garnitures and decorations, should be discarded. This was a drastic step, and Montagné's call might have gone unheeded had it not been brought to the attention of Escoffier. Escoffier was unimpressed at first. But his friend and literary collaborator Philéas Gilbert (also an outstanding chef) persuaded him that Montagné was right. Escoffier became a zealot for culinary reform, insisting on refining and modifying nearly every aspect of the cuisine. He simplified food decorations, greatly shortened the menus, accelerated the service, and organized teams of cooks to divide and share tasks in order to prepare the food more expertly and efficiently.

All of this progress was greatly facilitated by the introduction of the Russian table service around 1860. Before then, the service à la française was used. Under that method the meal was divided into three sections or services. All of the dishes of each service were brought in from the kitchen and arrayed on the table at once. Then, when this service was finished, all of the dishes of the next service were brought in. The first service consisted of everything from soups to roasts, and hot dishes often cooled before they could be eaten. The second service comprised cold roasts and vegetables, and the third was the desserts. Under the Russian table service, which was popularized by the great chef Félix Urbain-Dubois, each guest was served each course individually, while the food was at its best.

Escoffier invented scores of new dishes. One was poularde Derby, roast chicken with rice, truffles, and foie gras stuffing, garnished with truffles and foie gras. Other better known Escoffier inventions were pêche Melba, a dessert made with peaches, and Melba toast, tributes to the Australian soprano Nellie Melba.

In naming some of his culinary creations after friends and celebrities Escoffier was following a well-established tradition. Tournedos Rossini, the tender slices of the heart of the fillet of beef, topped by foie gras and truffles, was named after the celebrated Italian composer. The composer Giuseppe Verdi and the actress Sarah Bernhardt were among those who were similarly honoured. Many famous dishes have taken their names from the chefs who invented them—Sole Dugléré, for example, was named after the chef Adolphe Dugléré, who presided at the Café Anglais in Paris in the middle of the 19th century. French dishes have also been named after their dominant colours, such as carmen or cardinale, which refers to a pinkish-reddish hue. Great events have also given dishes their names: chicken Marengo, for example, was named after the battle in 1800 in which Napoleon defeated the Austrians.

Escoffier created a cold dish called chicken Jeannette. It was named after a ship that was crushed by icebergs. Escoffier's creation was stuffed breast of chicken, and, in honour of the ill-fated ship, he served it on top of a ship carved out of ice.

The grande cuisine of France is the only structured and organized system of gastronomy in the world. Many dishes are interrelated, and their names contain clues as to their ingredients. For example, soups are broken down into consommés (clear soups), potages (thick soups), crèmes (cream soups), and veloutés (made with a white sauce). Within each of these categories there are sub-categories, depending upon the base used, the thickening agent, the garniture, the flavouring spice, herb, or alcohol, and other considerations.

Escoffier's fame today rests mostly on the cookbooks he wrote—Le Livre des menus (1924), Ma Cuisine (1934), and Le Guide culinaire (1921), written in collaboration with Gilbert—in which he codified the French cuisine in its modern form, setting down thousands of menus and clarifying the principles of French gastronomy. With the great hotel entrepreneur César Ritz, he established a string of the world's most luxurious hostelries in Paris, Rome, Madrid, New York, Budapest, Montreal, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh.

In the late 1950s a group of young French chefs led by Paul Bocuse, Michel Guérard, the Troisgros brothers Jean and Pierre, and Alain Chapel invented a free-form style of cooking (named nouvelle cuisine by the French restaurant critics Henri Gault and Christian Millau). Their style disregarded the codification of Escoffier and replaced it with a philosophy rather than a structured system of rules, creating not a school but an anti-school, in reaction to the French grande cuisine. The basic characteristics of nouvelle cuisine included the replacement of the thickening of sauces with reductions of stocks and cooking liquids; the serving of novel combinations in very small quantities artistically arranged on large plates; a return to the importance of purchasing of food; and infinite attention to texture and detail.

At its best, nouvelle cuisine produced dishes that avoided rich sauces and lengthy cooking times, and its creative and inventive practitioners aroused interest and excitement in gastronomy generally and in restaurants specifically. One of its most important results has been the recognition of the chef as a creative artist.

Use of wines and sauces

French gastronomy is distinguished not only by the genius of its chefs but also by well-established culinary practice. One of these practices is the use of fine wines, such as those produced in Bordeaux and Burgundy, as accompaniments to good food. The proper choice of wines—according to vintages, vineyards, shippers—is an indispensable part of French gastronomy.

In the preparation of food, the hallmark of French gastronomy is the delicate sauces that are used to enhance the flavours and textures. Sauces are prepared with stocks, or fonds de cuisine, “the foundations of cooking.” These stocks are made by simmering meats, bones, poultry or fish trimmings, vegetables, and herbs in water to distill the essence of their flavours.

There are literally hundreds of French sauces, but among the more familiar ones are the families of white sauces, brown sauces, and tomato sauces, the mayonnaise family, and the hollandaise family. White sauces, which are served with poultry, fish, veal, or vegetables, are prepared by making a white roux, a mixture of butter and flour, which is cooked and stirred to smoothness. Béchamel sauce is prepared by adding milk and seasoning to this thickening agent. Sauce velouté is made by mixing a fish, poultry, or veal stock with the roux. A broad variety of sauces is derived from these basic white sauces. Sauce mornay is simply sauce béchamel with grated cheese and seasonings. Sauce suprême is béchamel with cream. Sauce normande is prepared by mixing a fish velouté with tarragon and white wine or vermouth.

Brown sauces, which are served with red meats, chicken, turkey, veal, or game, are prepared by simmering a meat stock for many hours and then thickening it with a brown roux, a mixture of butter and flour cooked until it turns brown. Among the better known brown sauces are sauce ragout, which is flavoured with bone trimmings or giblets; sauce diable, which is seasoned with lots of pepper; sauce piquant, a brown sauce with pickles and capers, and sauce Robert, which is seasoned with mustard.

The hollandaise family is another important branch of French sauces. Hollandaise is closely related to mayonnaise. It is prepared by delicately flavouring warmed egg yolks with lemon juice and then carefully stirring in melted butter until the mixture achieves a creamy, yellow thickness. Sauce mousseline is made by adding whipped cream to hollandaise, while sauce béarnaise also has an egg and butter base with tarragon, shallots, wine, vinegar, and pepper. Sauce vin blanc is made by adding a white-wine fish stock to the basic hollandaise.


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According to Joseph Gilliers' dictionary on dessert service, Le Cannameliste Français, the surtout was an elevated centerpiece that remained on the table for the entire meal. It was decorated with cruets, salt cellars, sugar bowls, artificial flowers, and delicacies such as lemons, Seville oranges, and caramel.

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