In reflecting on my post the other day (in which I waxed snide about French cooking) I realized that what I meant was “classic” French cuisine (whether haute or bourgeoise), and not necessarily the cuisine of France, which has evolved considerably in the half-century since I first experienced it and since Julia Child (and her French coauthors) first brought its gospel across the Atlantic. Unfortunately most Americans still think of “French cooking” as what Julia Child, and such other apostles as Jacques Pépin, has taught them on television and in cookbooks.
I still remember hearing, from the French professor under whom I had done my postdoc at the Ecole Polytechnique, about his amazement at the salad bar that he had encountered when attending a symposium in Providence, RI, in 1962. Well, by now the buffet de salades is quite common in restaurants in France (though not in “French” restaurants elsewhere). Under what foreign influence it got there, I don’t know.
What I do know is the influence on the cooking of France from her neighboring countries, whose cultures overlap into French territory. On its fringes, the population of France is, for the most part, not ethnically French. This is true in particular in the six corners of the hexagone: it’s Flemish in the north, German (Alsatian) in the northeast, Italian (Ligurian) in the southeast (Corsica is also ethnically Italian), Catalan in the south, Basque in the southwest and Breton in the northwest. What’s more, the Camargue in the Rhone delta is populated by descendants of Andalusian Gitanos (it’s the homeland of The Gipsy Kings). The cooking of these regions reflects the influences. So, for example, all along the Mediterranean coast you can find, besides the overrated bouillabaisse, some wonderful Spanish and Italian food.
I still remember that, in the 1980s, the sidewalk restaurants of Port-Bou (on the Spanish side of the border on the Mediterranean) were overflowing with French gourmands gorging on tapas and paella. No more: you can now get great paella and tapas in France, at least in the south and southwest (and of course in Paris). Especially memorable is an exquisite assortment of tapas that I had as an entrée (i.e. appetizer, not entree in the US sense) at a restaurant in Montpellier in 2003. I have no recollection of the main dish.
And tapas are called, in French, tapas. Traditional French cuisine has no equivalent of the Spanish tapas, the Italian spuntini, the Eastern Mediterranean meze, the Korean banchan or the Chinese dim sum/dianxin. In France, everything — cold cuts and other hors d’oeuvre, cheese, fruit, soup and fish and meat — somehow had to be crammed into the confines of a super-heavy meal. I had only one such meal in my life, in 1961 at a restaurant in Dijon. It was tasty, but overwhelming. I could not eat for 36 hours, and it killed whatever enthusiasm I might have had for la cuisine française (originally kindled, before I had ever set foot in France, by the writings of Ludwig Bemelmans and Joseph Wechsberg). But la cuisine de France, de nos jours, c’est autre chose.