Of all the traditional cuisines not too liked by the average diner, French cuisine rates very high. It is written off for being bland, and rather expensive. And yet, to me, French food remains one of the finest kinds of foods out there. While people say it lacks edge, I find it nuanced and refute the inherent preconceptions that food must be spiced and pungent.
As for the expensive part, it really boils down to finding the right spots to hit. If I had to objectively hold a peeve against French cuisine, it would be simply this: they could do with more vegetarian options which aren’t just salads or sides with the meat bits removed.
But outside of that, it is a decadent indulgence. Much like tea ceremony in the East, a fine French meal is not just about the comestible but the rigmarole around it, from the way it is plated and presented to the person who places it in front of you. In that sense, it is a play on all your senses and one needs to be in the right setting to truly enjoy it. A brasserie, convivial as it might be, will provide a different experience than a fine-dining space. And my two recent meals in France were testimony to the grandeur that a three-hour-long table d’hôte (TdH aka fixed menu) meal can present.
The first one was at a lovely little boutique property called Hostellerie la Briqueterie, a charming old-fashioned dwelling nestled in the heart of vineyards just outside the Champagne capital, Epernay. On my recent sojourn in the region, we checked in here not just because it was convenient to access the different houses but also because of the high repute it boasted of for its lodgings and board. Needless to say, the wine list abounded in options from the region.
We had bubbly aplenty and it was such a delight to drink champagne not just as an aperitif but as a full-on food-centric wine. The chef had his job carved out, making sure that each plate was filling, flavourful and outstanding even as it acquiesced to a pairing possibility as duly conducted by the head sommelier and his team. A curios find was the Ratafia, which is a champagne-based aperitif, not too high in alcohol but a lovely stet-savoury sip to start a meal experience.
Another colossal culinary affair that engaged us was the one at the Saint James property in Paris. This place is an urban retreat, a small cosy piece of the countryside parked right next to Place de l'Étoile, one of the world’s busiest intersections. It was my first time at this historic property and it had French charm written all over it. Here again, we opted for a fixed menu, which, I believe, is the best way to understand a chef’s approach to food.
An a la carte menu, by comparison, might be good for the rushed diner but only a TdH has the bandwidth to play out like an entire spectacle rather than a mere trailer of the entire grand production. Here again the wine options abounded and we did quite a Tour de France here, always sticking to the lesser-known producers yet formidable finds in terms of quality while the chef kept the plates coming. (We, for our part, kept sending them back absolutely empty, wiped clean with bread!)
Now to say that such an experience should cost the same as say a grab-and-go meal in a fast-food joint would be plain silly. Just the man hours involved in meals of such magnitude will require more compensation and to which one needs to add the cost of quality ingredients. And how does one even begin putting a value to the chef’s experience and the sommelier’s skill in finding the right harmonies and hitting the right notes with every course? In other words, just like a good play is the sum of all its parts, from the actors up front to the production team behind the scenes, a good meal is similarly a collaborative effort. And nowhere does it seem more highlighted than in a fine-dining experience.
The writer is a sommelier. firstname.lastname@example.org