Death of French Cuisine
Consider all the things that French culture produced in the 19th and early 20th centuries — the books, the pictures, the music, the architecture, the hats — and now think about contemporary French literature, art, buildings, music and fashion. The thing you’re seeing in your mind’s eye is tumbleweed blowing down the Champs-Elysées. And that hideous screeching, that’s Carla Bruni singing French pop music. French food didn’t die; the culture that supported it did.
Aren’t you glad we can count on A. A. Gill, The Times restaurant critic in London, to get it right? It’s extremely of the moment to say French cuisine is dead. But Gill is the only one I’ve seen nail why.
French food is not spent because it uses too much butter. Or too many rich sauces. It’s not all about these unfashionable things. It’s about optimal ingredients and rigorous technique.And sorry, but no, fancy knife work and elaborate bisques and tartes aren’t there to hide substandard ingredients. Remember Bresse chickens, Périgord fois gras, Valrhona chocolate, Normandy butter, and Niçoise olives?
Crossing mind-blowingly good ingredients with neurotic kitchen prowess, then plating portions in amounts that just almost satiate, kept French haute cuisine on top so long, and in so many places. It was the Chanel suit of the food world. But the pendulum has swung.
Now avant garde cuisine is in vogue, with chefs such as Martin Picard of Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal and Ferran Adrià of El Bulli in Spain leading the way. Picard, awarded Tidings’ Maverick Chef title in 2007, is perhaps best known for his fabulous fois gras poutine, pig’s head for two, and “duck in a can” served from a sealed tin. Meanwhile, Adrià specializes in molecular gastronomy, which involves creating deconstructive interpretations of food. Fruit and vegetable foams, gel caps full of various foodstuffs, and unusual fare such as deep fried rabbit ears are served as parts of lengthy tasting menus at El Bulli.
Having been to Au Pied de Cochon and El Bulli, I assure you that almost every dish is a plateful of precision — thinly veiled culinary prowess so cutting edge it commands international interest. If you score a reservation at either place, you’re in for a thrill to be sure. But these places are few and far between. Why?
Because, as A. A. Gill points out, only a culture that buys into infinite attention to detail at any cost can support a cuisine that follows suit. And that culture has collapsed. We want attention to detail at prices that are lowered and locked, even at the highest end. Which is why El Bulli — named top restaurant in the world for the past eight years — will close in 2012, citing massive monetary loss. Despite the fact half a million applicants vie for the 8,000 annual opportunities to eat there, it still cannot make money. Clearly Mr Adrià, who is chef and owner, is convinced he cannot charge what it costs to do what he does.
Though French cuisine, in its full regalia, is far harder to come by than it was 10 or even 5 years ago, it will never be far from my heart. And neither will French wine.
Like haute French cuisine, French wine is made with a whole lot of pomp and razzmatazz. But while other countries chortle at France’s restrictive wine laws that dictate its every grape growing and winemaking move, I for one see value in their approach. Some of the finest French wines are still the best special occasion drinks, which is why they’re still the most expensive bottles you can buy. A bottle of La Tâche from Burgundy or Petrus from Bordeaux will set you back at least $1,000 per bottle. Krug Vintage Champagne or Guigal Côte Rôtie La Turque start at about $400 (see 21 Wines You Must Taste, Tidings April 2010). And the wine world gasped momentarily when the top Bordeaux châteaux revealed their prices for the 2009 vintage earlier this year. Château Lafite Rothschild was first out the gate, charging CAD$725 per bottle — up 323 per cent from the 2008 exit price and up 53 per cent from the last great vintage, 2005. And although merchants, critics and consumers are aghast — American critic Robert Parker even tweeted the Bordelais were “stupid and arrogant” in their pricing — it all comes down to one thing: what the market will bear. Clearly, fine French wine has not gone the way of fine French cuisine.
But you don’t always have to spend the equivalent of a beach holiday to Mexico to taste a glimmer of French vinous je ne sais quoi. You just need to know where to look, and maybe what foods to pair with each wine. Although each major French wine region is glorious and timeless for its own reasons, my personal favourites remain Bordeaux and Burgundy.
what’s so great about it?
We love it for its majestic châteaux, its longevity, its power, and most of all its investment value. If you buy well, you might be able to buy two cases in a good year, drink one gleefully and sell the other later at twice the cost at auction. Then, presto, you’re drinking for free.
The stars of Bordeaux haven’t changed much since 1855, when the official “classification” ranked the châteaux of the Médoc and Sauternes, using a five-tier system. And amazingly, the ranking holds fairly true to this day with so-called “first growths” always fetching highest prices. Also quite remarkably, the flavour profiles of each site or “commune” remain consistent decade after decade.
what to taste
The thunderclap wines of Pauillac are tight-fisted when young and unfold slowly over the years, revealing layers of flavour starting with cassis and earth, spice and cedar. Margaux wines are the goddesses of the wine world. They’re feminine, polished, and exquisitely elegant, exuding aromas of flowers, white truffle, coffee, toast and red berries. Wines from St Julien brim with blackcurrant and cocoa powder; the elixirs from St-Estèphe taste like velvety opulent dark fruit with a mineral core; and the sweeties of Sauternes and Barsac are all about honey and marmalade, gleaming golden in the glass.
Skipping across the Dordogne river to the right bank, Pomerol and St Émilion churn out Merlot-based wine that tastes like the best Black Forest cake you’ve ever eaten — all dark chocolate, ripe cherries and cream. Pomerol wines are more commanding than those of St Émilion, but both share an incredibly rich, soft texture.
Red Bordeaux are quintessential food wines because of their reasonable levels of alcohol, often hovering in the range of 12 to 13 per cent. Besides, what’s better than a bit of crushed velvet Cabernet or lush Merlot seasoned with spicy oak for that perfectly cooked roast of beef or steak? And I cannot imagine better garden fare than a small glass of chilled Sauternes with fresh chin-drip peaches.
Other wine regions, inspired by Bordeaux’s success, create gorgeous wines at a fraction of the price. Italy’s Super Tuscan movement was inspired by planting, and of course vinifying, French Cabernet Sauvignon vines. Napa’s Bordeaux blends competed against — and beat — many Bordeaux top growths in the famous blind tasting of 1976, the Judgement of Paris. And reputable producers in British Columbia are making some fabulous Meritage, another name for a red Bordeaux blend. And that’s the tip of the iceberg.
Some great Bordeaux look-a-likes to taste include: Rolling Stones Satisfaction 2005 from California ($50); Oculus 2006 by Mission Hill from British Columbia ($70); and Clos Apalta 2006 by Casa Lapostolle from Chile ($100).
what’s so great about it?
Burgundy makes the best Chardonnay and the best Pinot Noir in the world. No doubt about it. But the region is a minefield of overpriced, mediocre bottles, so the trick is to buy from a reliable producer. Trouble is, there are literally hundreds of Burgundian producers. So look to the stars.
Some of the most reliable names in Burgundy that offer a great value at variety of price points are negociants — merchants who buy wine and/or fruit from growers and use these raw materials to make wines under their own labels. Names to trust are Maison Joseph Drouhin, Maison Louis Jadot, La Chablisienne and Bouchard Père et Fils.
what to taste
If you ask me what to taste, I’ll always say Chablis. I swoon over its scent of wet stones, the piercing steeliness and the taut acidity held together by restrained fruit. I can sip it for hours, with or without food. But the butterscotch-scented Meursaults and the elegant Puligny-Montrachets are divine too. Even some village wines such as Volnay or Pommard, and regional wines merely labelled Bourgogne, can be terrific value at times.
And the reds can also be stunningly delicious, from the bright cherry freshness of Beaujolias in the south to the more serious Côte de Nuits up north that brim with violet, earth and raspberry. Again, reliable negociants rule.
While Chablis is the quintessential wine for seafood, it’s hard to beat a buttery Chassagne-Montrachet or pure Montrachet with broiled lobster. And a good quality Pinot Noir, which includes all reds but Beaujolais in Burgundy, is stellar with pork, salmon and duck. Meanwhile, Beaujolais may well be the world’s most gulpable wine, and is great for casual fare such as roast chicken — the ripe Gamay fruit seasoning the poultry much the same way as cranberry sauce would turkey.
Lately, Pinot Noir has become the holy grail of red wine. It’s unfortunate, because much of it is terrible. Frankly, it’s a fussy grape to grow and to vinify. That said, when it’s good, it’s very good; and places such as Oregon, Sonoma, Niagara and many parts of New Zealand are turning out jewels. Two delicious ones include La Crema Pinot Noir 2007 from California ($33) and Tawse Pinot Noir Lauritzen Vineyard 2008 from Niagara ($44).
When it comes to white Burgundy, one would think look-a-likes are easy to come by, given it’s the world’s most planted white wine grape and Burgundy is almost every winemaker’s benchmark. Yet it’s surprisingly difficult. Two that hit the mark are Estancia Estates Pinnacles Ranches Chardonnay 2008 from California ($22) and Mission Hill Perpetua Chardonnay 2008 from British Columbia ($35).
All this to say, berets off to the French. While their haute cuisine may be dead, their wines are as haute as ever.