In Search of the European Tradition

Jay Rayner said it for me: restaurants ‘cooking in the European tradition’ are overly reliant on carbohydrates for vegetarians: rice, pasta and gnocchi. Having written a rant some months ago about risotto, a few thoughts continued to play on my mind. It’s this European tradition I’m curious about. Why do restaurants always have pasta, gnocchi or risotto as the vegetarian option? Why do upmarket restaurants fall back on them? And why do French restaurants serve them?

I’m not entirely sure what counts as authentic in this country. The traditional British diet has largely been abandoned in favour of dishes borrowed from other countries. I like Rayner’s phrase ‘the European tradition’ as it seems to cover the mélange of food served here. Restaurants today, more often than not, do ‘modern British cuisine’ with a focus on fresh, quality, seasonal produce. ‘Modern’ food is heavily influenced by French and Italian food but it’s too much of mix of things to hide behind ideas of tradition and authenticity as an excuse not to provide a decent vegetarian option.

Conversations with a friend’s husband who has worked as both a chef and restaurant manager revealed some interesting insights. He talked about going to high end London restaurants, almost as a form of continuing professional development, but also talked about respect for tradition and producing simple authentic dishes. (Were I faced with a roomful of chefs, I would yell, ‘WHY CAN’T YOU ALL SODDING GO TO OTTOLENGHI FOR YOUR CPD AND SEE IF YOU CAN IMBIBE A BIT OF BLOODY IMAGINATION FROM EATING THERE!’)

I fear I have become just like my father, roaring with indignation when the food available does not meet my expected standards. I remember coming home from school as a teenager to find my mother making pizza, chips, an enormous apple crumble and a big pot of custard. (That’s right, she’s made her own pizza dough long before everyone else started doing it.) ‘Your father is going to be very grumpy when he gets home,’ she said. ‘He’s on a work away-day and will no doubt be completely dissatisfied with what they gave him for lunch. I’m making something stodgy and unhealthy to pacify him.’ Sure enough, he got home and ranted about there being nothing but tomato sandwiches when everyone else got a square hot meal. My mother distracted him by shovelling some more pizza onto his plate and the steam coming out of his ears started to taper off.

Often to be found with steam coming out of my ears, I am puzzled, in this world city, by this idea that there is something good, right, proper and pure that I am disrupting, obstructing, standing in the way of by being awkward and asking for something other than Italian carbohydrates. Can we blame the French for this? I’m aware of the might of the French culinary tradition and how it’s not terribly veggie-friendly. How much of an impact has France had on English food and restaurants? I’m interested in the similarities and differences between French and English food, the overlaps, the borrowing that have given rise to a ‘European tradition’.

British and French culture and cuisine have been in regular contact since the Middle Ages. Ingredients available were broadly similar and people of all classes across Europe are said to have eaten similar food for a long time, with similar vegetables available throughout the continent. Many of the vegetables we think of as Mediterranean – courgettes, tomatoes, aubergines and potatoes – were yet to arrive from the New World. For a long time, the poor ate pottage, made in a pot over the fire with whatever ingredients they had. The enormous feasts enjoyed by royalty and nobility on both sides of the channel were less about subtlety or skill of cooking and more about the status of a table laden with meat. The French Revolution however put a swift end to these sorts of feasts.

France has always had a strong tradition of peasant cuisine but a separate cuisine existed for the wealthy, which was afforded greater status. The chefs employed by the wealthy sought to separate what they cooked from peasant food and the poor in turn sought to emulate the food eaten by the wealthy. French haute cuisine, or grand cuisine, has its origins in the French royal courts, which were located in urban areas. By contrast, greater prestige was afforded to rural life in England (think of the landed gentry) and the dishes associated with rural life. Much of the prestige associated with French food was linked to the advent of the celebrity chef and the growth of restaurants in Paris, who vied and competed with each other. Wealthy English families employed French chefs and English food played second fiddle. The ‘coarsening’ of English cuisine was partly blamed on rapid urbanization.

The restaurant is of course French. Stalls which sold soup to go started offering seats to their customers in the late 1700s. Restaurants became ever more popular in the 1800s – cheerful neighbourhood bistros, brasseries run by refugees from Alsace and bouillons, enormous working class canteen-style cafes.

Marie Antoine Carème, one of the first celebrity chefs was a working class lad who worked his way up to cook for royalty and nobility, including Napoleon. He was known as a pastry chef, famous for his pièces montées seen in his shop window. (Think of towers of profiteroles or macarons.) He is however remembered as the founder of French gastronomy, having established a number of culinary principles and traditions in the 19th century, placing great emphasis on presentation and using fresh ingredients. This was grande cuisine or haute cuisine, built on the principles of richness, sophistication, balance and presentation. It was very rigid, codified and exact, with precise ways of doing things properly. The multi-course meal is French and we still use many of the associated French words: entrée, aperitif, amuse-bouche, à la carte and indeed dessert.

Carème was of course following in the footsteps of a chef named François de la Varenne who wrote a famous book called Le Cuisiner François in 1651. (He did not name the book after himself; many French words which are now spelt with an ‘ai’ were spelt with an ‘oi’, pre-1800. Now it would be written as Le Cuisiner Français.) La Varenne’s food moved away from medieval Italian-influenced recipes which involved expensive sugar and spices. (More of the Italians later.) He used lots of butter instead of lard and regional, seasonal ingredients. He introduced stocks, jus (reductions) and gave greater prominence to vegetables. His book was aimed at professional cooks but became hugely popular, especially in England where it was marketed at a very broad audience.

Auguste Escoffier, who was heavily influenced by la Varenne’s book, ran the kitchens at London’s Savoy hotel in the late 1800s, subsequently taking up a post at the Carlton Ritz. It was he who streamlined the kitchen and created distinct roles, the names of which we still use today – chef, chef de commis, chef de partie. Today, much culinary vocabulary still has French names – roux, sauté, julien, flambé, mayonnaise, vinaigrette etc. The Michelin star system is of course French.

While French food was seen as the pinnacle of food and cooking for over two hundred years, Wendell Steavenson talks about early twentieth century Paris, describing it in the 1920s as a ‘romanticised version of the itself’ as it had been during the Belle Epoque (1880 – 1914), when it was considered the capital of the world. ‘For a long time after the second world war, no one noticed the decline of the French restaurant, partly because there was little competition. The British were boiling their vegetables to grey, and battering and frying everything else; the Americans were gelatinising salads and defrosting dinner.’

(One wonders if the English took to French food as it satisfied their fondness for meat and veg with sauce, albeit in a far more sophisticated manner, with more refined vegetables and jus seen as a posh gravy. I have come to believe that the English are calibrated to see a roast dinner as both the template for all good, proper food and the very pinnacle of food, a sort of holy grail. I however am very much calibrated at deep fried Sunday feast.)

Nouvelle cuisine developed in France in the 1960s and 70s, much to the horror of the traditionalists. Influenced by Japanese styles of presentation, it moved away from heavier food and very rich, thick sauces to use fresher, lighter ingredients. Carefully plated dishes were brought to the table, replacing tableside theatrics like flambéing. Nouvelle cuisine arrived in Britain in the 1980s, where it was mocked and diners were irritated by the small portions but the presentation style still very much remains a feature of restaurant food.

In 1997, Adam Gopnik, restaurant critic for the New Yorker, wrote that he thought the rest of the world might have caught up with France in culinary terms. (His name strikes me as a peculiar hybrid of Gopal and Sputnik and he refers to himself in the third person ‘ ‘Gopnik ate à la carte’. Incidentally Johnny ‘Mad Dog’ Adair’s son, Johnny ‘Mad Pup/Daft Dog’ Adair is also said to refer to himself in the third person.) Gopnik suggested the culinary muse had migrated to the West coast of America, citing the ‘freewheeling, eclectic cosmopolitan cuisine’ influenced by Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, who herself drew on nouvelle cuisine. It seemed the muse then moved to Spain where El Bulli (at one point winning the accolade of best restaurant in the world) came to define modern cuisine with its molecular gastronomy and keenness to bend or flout culinary rules.

Where does this leave us today, in this multicultural capital city? Why am I still eating pasta/gnocchi/risotto? With regards to the ‘European tradition’, it seems French and Italian food are more intertwined than I thought. Although disputed, many claim that the arrival of Catherine de Medici to France in 1533 did much for French food, introducing a style of elegant, sophisticated cuisine from the Renaissance Florentine courts. Truffles, artichokes, custards and refined pastry are all said to have been brought from Italy by her chefs.

Fast forwarding to the 1980s, a burgeoning enthusiasm for Italian food was to be seen amongst French chefs. While many objected to this Italian influence, others pointed to the relationship between southern France and northern Italy, their geographical proximity, similar climate and Nice once having been ruled by Italy. (There also seems to be a on-going debate goes on about whether ravioli and gnocchi are French or Italian.) An article in the New York Times also featured a Tuscan restaurateur named Sirio Maccioni who runs a French restaurant in New York. He describes taking notable French chefs on food tours of Italy, leading to a growing appreciation of Italian simplicity. French restaurants began to use more olive oil, less butter, more flat leaf parsley, basil and tomato, less chervil and served more truffles, risotto and pasta. Alain Ducasse claimed that he could not think of a French restaurant with three Michelin stars that did not serve a pasta dish and a dish made with olive oil.

It had never occurred to me that there might be prestige attached to serving Italian food in a French restaurant, that it might have filtered down from high end restaurants or that it was a relatively recent development, in the grand scheme of things. I assumed it was laziness and a lack of imagination so extreme that it by-passed ratatouille and tarte provençale and was so rigid as to refuse to tweak a pithivier or tarte tatin into a savoury version. However, whether or not something is copied from high end French restaurants, food cannot be removed from its context in daily life and pasta occupies a rather unfortunate context. We as a nation have done terrible, terrible things to Italian food. Pasta is the food of students, of those who cannot cook, who cannot be bothered. (As Julia Child said, “Anybody can make a plate of pasta,”.) Pasta is eaten by fussy children and is the staple of the ready meal aisle. ‘Fresh’ pasta can be bought in every supermarket fridge and vacuum packed gnocchi can be throw in a pan of boiling water for only a few minutes. At weddings and events, in restaurants and at dinner parties in the 00s, vegetarians were perpetually haunted by roasted Mediterranean vegetable penne (or a goats’ cheese filo tartlets).  

I recently had a goats’ cheese filo tartlet at a somewhat expensive French restaurant in the City. I went because they were doing a deal and they have a nice roof garden with a lovely view. I scratched my head: filo pastry is not French. This was lacking both tradition and imagination. What followed as a main was another sort of cheese tart, thankfully made with shortcrust pastry. I would not serve my guests two lots of cheese and pastry. One really expected more if we were supposedly standing on the shoulders of giants. (My mother has never approved of using the same ingredients so obviously across two dishes, remarking disapprovingly if there was cauliflower in both the subji and the samosas at the temple on a Sunday.)

To continue bashing London’s French restaurants, one is not impressed by a glance at their menus. One even has risotto made with chicken fat, when risotto should be made with butter! I see a mix of vegetarian cheeses and onion soup made with vegetable stock, followed by very few vegetarian mains. Or vice versa, non-vegetarian cheeses and soup made with beef stock followed by a reasonable choice of vegetarian mains. A slightly odd tangle of inconsistency, I am left feeling there is no rhyme nor reason to it.

So where are we with this European tradition? It is based on French cuisine, which drew on Italian cuisine. French cuisine ruled the world but came to be replaced by nouvelle cuisine, a new form of French food, which was inspired by aspects of Japanese cooking. The French repertoire then expanded to include Italian elements, or according to its champions, embraced the Mediterranean aspects of French food. This was added to by El Bulli’s innovations with molecular gastronomy; while you’re not going to find spherified melon on your average menu, it certainly shook things up and stimulated innovation, which I’m afraid endless Italian carbs are not.  

It would be remiss however not to mention how the image of pasta is changing. People are obsessed with it, but in a privileged, middle class way, rather than a useless teenage way. They just can’t get enough fresh pasta; they queue around the block for Padella by London Bridge and the Pasta Grannies have 415, 000 followers on Instagram and have released a book. (The Pasta Grannies are a group of elderly Italian ladies who keep alive the dying art of making fresh pasta at home) I’m not objecting to the trend for fresh pasta – I’m all for fresh food and I bloody love being able to make something impressive that involves skill. However, I do not want to be given Italian carbs in every single restaurant I go to, especially when it’s not an Italian restaurant or a fresh pasta joint. To go back to what Jay Rayner said, they should know better.

References

Encyclopaedia.com (2020) French and British Cooking – article available at: https://www.encyclopedia.com/food/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/french-and-british-cooking

Gopnik, A. (1997) Is there a crisis in French cooking? New Yorker article available at: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1997/04/28/is-there-a-crisis-in-french-cooking

O’Neill, M. (1994) Quel Shock! The Italianization of French Cuisine. New York Times article available at: https://www.nytimes.com/1994/10/05/arts/quel-shock-the-italianization-of-french-cuisine.html

Rayner, J. (2020) Land, Birmingham: ‘Vegan cookery to file under thrilling’ – restaurant review. Guardian article available at: https://www.theguardian.com/food/2020/oct/25/jay-rayner-restaurant-review-land-in-birmingham-serves-thrilling-vegan-food

Russell, P. (2014) The History Cook: Le Cuisinier François, by La Varenne. Financial Times article available at: https://www.ft.com/content/a2a61b4c-3f84-11e4-a5f5-00144feabdc0

Steavenson, W. (2019) The Rise and Fall of French Cuisine. Guardian article available at: https://www.theguardian.com/food/2019/jul/16/the-rise-and-fall-of-french-cuisine

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