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May 01, 2000

The Cuisine of France

PrintThe Cuisine of France  

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The epiphany didn't happen in Paris but in Carcassonne. It was a cold day in January as we left Montpellier, heading west across the Languedoc countryside to visit this medieval walled city that rises up out of the plain atop what we would call in the American West a mesa. You leave your car outside the ancient portals to the city, for this is not a town designed to accommodate such modern contrivances as cars. After a long morning's drive with nothing but a few, albeit delicious croissants to sustain us, the idea of traipsing about the town somehow lacked luster. We passed several small restaurants, each one packed with college students, schoolchildren, and tourists. One place stood apart for the simple reason that it was empty by comparison and the few diners that were there looked like local workmen. We sat down and Madame came out of the kitchen to greet us. There were no menus. They served only one thing, she said. Cassoulet.

Cassoulet, for those unfortunate enough to have never had it, is a peasant dish, relying chiefly on beans, garlic, pork sausage, and confit de canard, or duck cooked and preserved in its own fat. It is also the quintessential dish of southern France and indeed, one of the great dishes of the world. Like most great dishes, cassoulet takes time to make properly. It cannot be made in a day. It needs to be prodded and poked and tended to. Of the three towns in southwestern France that lay claim to inventing this marvelous dish, Toulouse, Castelnaudary, and Carcassonne, the latter usually gets short shrift, but for us it was the best. Why? Maybe because it was the first, on French soil anyway, or maybe because that day it was the best, with its crackling crust that gave way to the succulent beans and meat underneath that had no doubt been cooking continuously for years and added to daily like a farmhouse vinegar. Maybe it was the four perfectly prepared duck legs sticking up through the crust, judiciously, one for each of us. Whatever it was, it precipitated, like Proust's Madeleine, a flood of emotion and the genesis of a lifelong love affair with France and her extraordinary cuisine.


The French themselves are making it easier to promote and merchandise the products of France. Their ad campaign that invites consumers to experience the "oui" hours and "Say 'Yes' to Foods and Wines from France" has generated a great deal of excitement. In fact, it has been so successful that the entire campaign is being used as a textbook case in university marketing programs across the country. Much of the packaging that one sees at the Fancy Food Show is very sophisticated and designed to sell. French culture also lends itself to any successful merchandising strategy. The art, music, films, and national festivals and holidays of France can all be used to create a festive French flair to your store and draw interest to the products. The most famous French holiday of all (at least to Americans), Bastille Day, is right around the corner on July 14th, conveniently close to our own Independence Day. You won't even have to change the colors on the bunting!

One of the biggest obstacles to selling French cuisine has been the irrational fear of fat and the perceived health problems related to the richness of the food. Fortunately, most of this misinformation has been debunked by studies done over the past several decades that show the French, when adhering to a traditional diet, have a much lower level of cancer and heart disease than do Americans. The "French Paradox," the much-talked-about report that was first brought to the American public's attention on 60 Minutes, credits the moderate consumption of red wine to be a key factor in lowering blood cholesterol and counteracting the effects of such high fat foods as foie gras and butter. Also as Americans become more familiar with French customs, they learn that the average French citizen doesn't consume those products on a daily basis, nor are the portions as great as a typical American meal. Where the French diet is concerned, less is more.

Like their peninsular neighbors the Italians, French food is heavily reliant on fresh, seasonal produce; fish; and grains, particularly in the Mediterranean regions and the coastal areas along the Atlantic Ocean. Of course, the northern and mountainous regions rely more on animal products, with lard as the cooking medium, eggs, and butter, but even these foods eaten in moderation for Americans are a sound addition to the diet. On the whole, French food fits in neatly with the precepts of the "Mediterranean Diet" and need not take a back seat to any cuisine in terms of a healthy, robust lifestyle. Certainly fast food is creeping into French life as it is everywhere else but the French still maintain attitudes about food and dining that Americans would do well to emulate. For example, even though you may espy a French person occasionally enjoying le Big Mac, you will rarely see one eating their lunch while scurrying down the street. In France, dining is sacred and meals are taken at the table; the French take their time. Vive le France!

<head>An Embarrassment of Riches </head>

The wealth of products coming to us from our Gallic friends is greater than ever before and in the specialty food business is rivaled only by the Italians. The following is a brief look at some of the more interesting foodstuffs to grace our shores and our tables recently.



<head>Cheese</head>

"How can you govern a country that has over 400 kinds of cheese?" If this lament by Charles DeGaulle isn't the most famous quote about French food, it's certainly the most apt for our purposes. What can be said about the glorious cheeses of France? Without question, they have the greatest variety of cheese of any country. They may not have invented cheesemaking, but they have influenced the world, especially with such ubiquitous types as brie, camembert, the sublime Roquefort, and their seemingly infinite variety of chevres, or goat's milk cheeses. No self-respecting cheese case should be without a selection of these defining examples.

Jenkins, one of the premier cheesemongers in the U.S. and author of Steven Jenkins Cheese Primer (Workman), notes, "At any given time, my cheese case contains 60% French cheeses." That is significant considering how many countries comprise the remainder of his case, including an ever-expanding variety of American cheeses, many of which are derived from their French cousins. In the same category, there is also the marvelous butters, crème fraîche, and now a goat's milk butter.

Many Americans wonder how the French can eat cheese every day and remain thin. For starters, there is much less fat in cheese than you are led to believe. When a label says a cheese is "60% fat," it really means that 60% of the dry matter is fat, not of the entire cheese. The dry matter may only comprise half or less of the cheese's total weight. It is also highly nutritious, full of calcium and protein, so don't be afraid to serve up those cheeses to your customers. And don't forget that nothing goes better with French cheeses than French wines.

<head>Vinegar</head>

The French word for vinegar is vinaigre, which means "sour wine" and is the root for the term "vinaigrette." Although humans have made vinegar since antiquity, indeed since they have made wine, the method that is still the standard of artisanal vinegarmaking today was invented in Orleans, France. It is called appropriately enough, the Orleans Method; it involves the slow transformation of the wine, and subsequent aging of the vinegar, in oak barrels. The French continue to make a variety of excellent vinegars using this method, both in Orleans and around France. It's not surprising that a country that makes such outstanding wine would also make great vinegar. They make outstanding varieties from red wine, white wine, Champagne, apple cider, honey, and the aforementioned sugar cane and cider in the method of balsamic vinegar. They were the first to perfect the methods of infusing wine vinegars with fruits such as raspberries, blueberries, etc. Their biggest contribution to this category was to show the world that good vinegar makes good flavored vinegar. Sounds simple enough, but many producers still don't get that fact. French vinegar is a joy to cook with, adorn a salad with, or simply anoint some good country bread; it is likely to set the standard for some time yet to come.

<head>Produce</head>

It has been reported that advertisements in the Paris Metro depict a group of ballerinas (another French contribution to the world) wearing tutus made of mache, the tender, mild salad green also known in English as lamb's lettuce or corn salad. The French take their greens, and produce in general, very seriously. Freshness, quality, and flavor are all important. Many excellent types of French produce have long been imported to this country, but one of the most interesting and delicious are the échalotes, or shallots, from Brittany on France's northwestern coast. The mild climate and fertile soil of this region has proved to be ideal for growing shallots. It differs from regular onions in that instead of a single bulb, it breaks out into a cluster of small bulbs for each plant. They are milder in flavor and less powerful in smell than onions which makes them better for certain sauces and other dishes. They are typically eaten raw in salads as well and are fabulous in a risotto. According to Veronica O'Connor of SOPEXA, they are the "new essential in American cuisine, renowned for their taste and quality," and have been highly touted by many of today's most respected chefs.

No discussion of French produce would be complete without mention of the extraordinary black truffles that each year are rooted up by erstwhile pigs after the first rains of autumn. As famous as their Italian counterpart, the white truffle, the black differs in that its flavor is best appreciated when cooked or made into truffle products such as truffle oil, butters, or mayonnaise. They are prized little jewels of the undergrowth and fortunately, are available from France in a variety of products that make them accessible year round.

<head>Seafood</head>

Except for the great Parisian caviar houses, one doesn't usually associate France with caviar, but as a result of farms that were created in the late 60s to breed Siberian sturgeon, there is some first-rate caviar being produced now in Bordeaux. It has only been tested in American markets, but is delicious and has received very favorable responses. Boutargue, a pressed fish roe delicacy, is available from the south of France. It is typically eaten there with an aperitif such as one of the many pastis varieties. More and more fresh fish such as turbot; loup de mer, or European seabass; and dorade, or seabream; are coming into the U.S. from France. Most of these are farmed fish which ensures their quality and availability. They are flown in fresh and delivered directly to restaurants and retailers.

<head>Sweets</head>

To Americans with a sweet tooth, France is best known for its pastries, chocolates, candies, preserves, and other sweets. All sorts of high-quality sweet things are available such as frozen pastries, incredible jams and preserves, compotes, and chocolate both in the form of bars and filled chocolate and in bulk for baking. France also makes a wide variety of packaged cookies that have always been known for their freshness and great taste. Candied chestnuts, or marron glacé, are very popular both in France and in the U.S. They are quite unique and are particularly in demand around the holidays. France also produces many excellent wild honeys, as evidenced by shops devoted to their sale. Our favorite is in Paris around the corner from the Madeleine, near the famous food shop, Fauchon. Nougats, made from honey and almonds, and nougat sauces are specialties of Corsica, an island off the southern coast of France, also known for their great sheep's milk cheeses and as the birthplace of Napoleon.

<head>Wines and Spirits</head>

Summing up the wines of France in anything less than a book is even more difficult than summing up the cheeses. They are natural partners and equally diverse and complex. France produces a staggering amount of wine both in sheer volume and in variety, and have had superlatives heaped upon them for centuries. Many of the principle grape varieties and the styles of winemaking have spawned hybrids around the world, and they continue to be imitated and emulated everywhere.

French wines are typically named for their region, or particular vineyard rather than the grape. However, a number of progressive wine companies are coming out with labels named for the grape, making them even more accessible to consumers in America where the wines are consistently named for the varietals. Whether they are doing it of their own volition or are making an effort to cater to the American market, the result will be an easier time for purveyors of French wines.

The French have always been master distillers as well as vintners and the great brandies of Cognac and Armagnac are world renowned. There are many other supreme distillates as well such as the lovely eau de vie; marc, which is similar to the Italian grappa; and all sorts of aperitifs. One of their latest entries into the world of spirits is the premium vodka, Grey Goose, which has received high marks whenever it is judged.

<head>Bon Voyage</head>

The world of French food and food products is vast but well worth the effort to navigate your way through it. We urge you to look further this summer in the French Pavilion and throughout the Fancy Food Show in New York to learn more about these products and to discover others. Like that cassoulet, tasted some 15 years ago but remembered as if it were yesterday, one taste of these marvelous foods will make a believer out of you. The rewards will come in the form of grateful customers who come back again and again for a taste of France.

<head>Books</head>

To further enhance your enjoyment and knowledge of France and its wonderful cuisine, here are three books to savor and two to travel with.

Two new cookbooks that are welcome additions to the cooking library are Savoring France (Time Life Books) by Georgeanne Brennan and Saveur Cooks Authentic French (Chronicle Books) by the editors of Saveur magazine. The former takes a personal view of France by a woman who has traveled and lived there for most of her adult life. Brennan is a fine cook and recipesmith, who is as much at home in the garden as she is behind the stove. This too has beautiful photography that will make you salivate at the turn of every page.

The latter is a thorough exploration of French cuisine and what makes it so great is its many interesting sidebars dealing with artisans, ingredients, the terroir, and the people. It is full of the same evocative photographs, many by Christopher Hirsheimer, for which Saveur is known and graced by the excellent food writing of Colman Andrews; R.W. Apple, Jr.; Richard Goodman; and others.

Every specialty retailer should own a copy of Waverly Root's The Food of France (Vintage) if for no other reason than to glean some of the best food quotes for signmaking you'll ever find. His historical account of the cuisine in France is very readable, lively, and informative. His essays at the end of each regional chapter on wine are worth their weight in foie gras.

If you're going to France, or just want to pretend you are, get Patricia Wells' A Food Lover's Guide to France and/or A Food Lover's Guide to Paris (Workman). Like your American Express card, don't leave home without them.






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