Going … The Great Dishes of France?
John Baxter an Australian author film critic, biographer and Paris resident for more than two decades is a man on a mission – to record the taste of the last great French dishes around the country before they disappear forever.
French dishes disappearing forever! Surely not? After all UNESCO in 2010 declared the French “gastronomic meal” or repas an aspect of the “immaterial heritage of humanity,” to be treasured and protected.
Ah, says the author, explaining the paradox to an interviewer: “But the kind of meal UNESCO described—a formal dinner for more than ten people, usually to celebrate a wedding, retirement or the conferring of an honour, with multiple courses, wine, an aperitif before the meal, a digestif after, and toasts between each course—barely existed, at least in the big French cities like Paris, Lyon and Bordeaux. City restaurants no longer possessed the space, the staff or the expertise for such elaborate meals.”
In the interview with the website A WOMAN’S PARIS™ (AWP) he went on: “I decided to see if this traditional cuisine still existed somewhere in la France profonde. As a symbol of the kind of feast honoured by UNESCO, I chose the roasting of an entire ox or steer. This was once a fairly common occurrence, but now it’s almost unknown. To find and attend an ox roast would prove that the French repas was still alive and well somewhere, if not in the cities. And … I succeeded. The book ends with my wife Marie-Dominique and me sharing a roasted ox with five hundred other people in a field in Picardy…”
Now he has turned this rich, meaty and heavy-duty gastronomic odyssey into a fascinating tale : The Perfect Meal: In Search of the Lost Tastes of France just published by Harper Perennial and also available on Kindle.
As a brief explainer on the Amazon site for his book notes: ” …just as species of plants and animals are rapidly facing extinction globally, so too are the traditional ingredients and techniques of classic French cooking and eating. Indeed, (John Baxter) worried that the soul of the world’s most revered national cuisine is in danger of disappearing, as centuries-old ways of cooking, preparation, and farming wither away. Spurred to action, Baxter set off across the country on an unforgettable quest to taste the last great French dishes before they disappear forever—from Paris’s surviving haute cuisine establishments to the tiny local restaurants that still serve the remarkable regional dishes of Provence, Normandy, Cote d’Azur, and more…” .
Here are a few more extracts from his AWP interview recounting what lay behind his epic food adventure to record a crucial element of French culture.
“AWP: You went on a quest to taste the last great French dishes before they disappeared forever…
“JB: It wasn’t simply the individual dishes that had disappeared from French city life but the tradition of the repas: the coming together of a family or group to celebrate a shared experience, like the American Thanksgiving or the British Christmas.
“AWP: What did you like best about each region?
“JB: The surprise was more collective than individual. I learned that, when one turns off an autoroute and drives into the countryside, one steps back a century or more. Life moves more slowly there. People are more respectful of ritual and custom.
“This applies to food as well. Country restaurants, with no worries about high rents, can cater to large parties. There are church halls big enough to accommodate banquets, often staged by the town itself. Nothing in Paris or Lyon quite approaches an aioli in Provence, where an entire village sits down to steamed fish and vegetables accompanied by aioli (garlic mayonnaise) or asardinade, where they gather at long tables in the town square to feast on fresh grilled sardines.
“AWP: In addition to being a student of French history and culture, literature and cuisine; what French cultural nuances, attitudes, ideas or habits have you adopted? In which areas have you embraced a similar aesthetic?
“JB: The French are extremely formal. Modes of address, styles of dress, and ways of behaviour are very important. It’s easy to give offence, to say or do something that is pas convenable: inappropriate. La politesse is an important concept. Most situations are dominated by the rule of comme il faut—the way things should be. I learned this through trial and error, then found I rather enjoyed the precision of it. There’s an element of the game in doing or saying the right thing, and nobody plays it better than the French. One understands how they became great diplomats and why French is the language of diplomacy.”
John Baxter with his French wife and daughter live in the same Parisian building which Sylvia Beach of Shakespeare and Company once called home. His website has some fascinating insights into Shakespeare and Company the famous Paris Leftbank bookstore that features high on so many tourist to-see lists on a visit to the French capital. One of the literary highlights of Shakespeare and Company’s existence was of course Sylvia Beach’s bold decision in February 1922, to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses. This she did after courts in the United States had judged it to be pornographic throwing the author into despair about whether his epic work — one of the most important of Modernist literature — would ever see the light of day.
Story: Ken Pottinger
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