Such a quaint cuisine!
The reputation of French cooking is both due to its inherent qualities and a few unusual specificities, developed as if they were national symbols. Among the most peculiar ingredients are the frogs, snails, strong cheese and foie gras.
Smells like cheese spirit...
Touch, smell and even taste... this is a ritual the French love to do when buying cheese, and it tells a lot about them. In this French jungle of 300+ cheese types, only the strongest prevail!
On the Richter scale of stinkiness, soft and washed rind cheese reach exceptional heights, from the Camembert to the Epoisse. In 2004, British scientists tried to answer this key question: which cheese smells the most? They used devices capable of measuring the strength of fragrances released by a product, and managed to list a Top 10. Strong smells lovers, we're proud to tell you that the winner is the Vieux Boulogne, produced in Boulogne-sur-Mer.
Proud to be a Froggie
The nickname is known all over the planet: by calling the French "Frogs", the Brits showed a highly British irony towards French cooking. But in 2013, a team of archaeologists found out that the first settlers of the British islands ate frogs 7,000 years before our time... long before the French did! Today, with 4,000 tons of frogs eaten every year, France is still the biggest consumer in the world.
Since the 18th century, French cuisine is full of recipes starring frog legs. François-Pierre de La Varenne, considered as the father of modern French cuisine, used them as high class appetizers in his 1651 book, Le Cuisinier françois (The French Cook).
Frog legs then became a trademark exercise of style in haute cuisine: Antonin Carême, Auguste Escoffier, Prosper Montagné or more recently Paul Bocuse… each major figure can offer a specialty dedicated to this peculiar dish. Even writer and food-enthusiast Alexandre Dumas had an opinion: he used frogs in soups or as fricassee, as described in his Grand Dictionnaire de la cuisine (Great Dictionary of Cuisine).
But the most traditional recipe, the frog legs sauté in butter, garlic and parsley is still the most popular, including among the Germans and Swiss.
Drooling over snails
Drooly, slimy, earthly... snails are not particularly appetising for outsiders. However, all of Europe ate them at all times: piles of shells have been found on certain Palaeolithic sites. The Romans considered snail a fine dish and raised them in pools. In the Middle Age, it's a meat product available to the poorest. Later, in the Renaissance, it’s fresh meat that can be brought to the New World...
Thanks to Antonin de Carême, snail has become a symbol of French cuisine. Nicknamed "the king of chefs and the chef of kings", he gave the snail its fame when he served tsar Alexander Ist snails garnished with parsley, called "snails à la bourguignonne" in 1814.
The consumption of this gastropod accelerated in the early 20th century and became popular during the roaring twenties. Both rough and fine, this speciality matched the state of mind of the time. Foreigners in Paris met at the Escargot restaurant, on Montorgueil Street to try this trendy dish. As a consequence, they contributed to its diffusion throughout the world.
Today, snails are still eaten everywhere in Europe in popular cooking, but only the French managed to give them their status of luxury product.
Foie Gras: fat is so chic
At a time when fat is not welcome in our plates, the foie gras market has never been better. It managed to keep its reputation of being noble.
The force-feeding technique of gooses was invented by the Egyptians during the Antiquity period, who then taught it to the Byzantines. During the Middle Age, Jewish communities played a key role in its spreading throughout Europe. The technique was developed in the 16th century with the discovery of corn in America: the nutrient allows a good synthesis of lipids. At the time, France discovered the foie gras and made it its speciality. Today, 80% of global production comes from the Southwest of France, where the tradition was passed from generations to generations.
But the force-feeding technique is controversial, and the Spanish Basque found a way to compete with their French counterparts: since 2013, a few farms offer "respectiful" foie gras, produced through slow force-feeding. But a full year is needed to raise a goose in Spain, while 15 days are enough in France, which raises the price from 40 to 900 euros for a kilo...
A not so exceptional exception
You could add tripe, blood sausage or even oyster to the list. But those specialities are shared by many countries and seem almost mundane compared to the Chinese poached tuna, the Icelandic fermented shark, the Italian grilled cow's udders, the Peruvian roasted guinea pigs the Thai fried tarantulas, the Vietnamese hot cobra or the Indonesian spit roasted bats... different strokes for different folks, but everything can be shared!
Photo credit: Rog01 (header) / Jun Sungahara (text)