For many years abundance and wealth were the two cornerstones of generous, hearty cuisine, the kind that nourishes the body and soothes the soul. But is generosity merely about quantity? How has this notion evolved over time? To answer these questions, we caught up with Alain Drouard, sociologist, historian and nutritional specialist. We also paid a visit to Christian Constant, Michelin-starred chef at Violon d’Ingres, for a first-hand taste of generosity.
Declared a world intangible heritage by Unesco in 2010, France’s gastronomic meal seems to be a leading light in global culinary art, right up there with Japanese and Mexican fare, which also both shine on the golden list. For beyond the style and character of these foods, their appeal lies of course in their reputation, the emotions they evoke and notably their ability to set gourmet palates alight and delight tastebuds the world over. But is generosity in cooking part and parcel of our civilisation?
In the western world, eating purely for sustenance has finally been replaced by sheer gourmandise, or simply put the love and taste of good food. Once considered a cardinal sin back in the Middle Ages, and more akin with gluttony, in France gourmandise has now become a way of life – the joy of sharing good food, seeped in global influences. Without the social side to eating, there can be no feast. It is the very quintessence of the pleasure of the table. Generosity in cooking now focuses on plenty and an explosion of the senses, but also on the quest for a certain refinement and exploring new ways to assuage our epicurean palate, the fusion of cultures too.
Isn’t generosity in cooking quite simply the true meaning of gastronomy? Alain Drouard, historian and sociologist, advocates the need to redefine gastronomy as a simple yet balanced diet, featuring fresh ingredients prepared in a way to preserve their natural texture and flavours. Plenty is not the only criteria as we see a major shift towards new trends relating to health and wellbeing.
Founded after the French Revolution, French gastronomy as we know it today reached its peak in the 19th century, when Brillat-Savarin triumphed, Carême invented “haute cuisine” and Escoffier laid down the ground rules and transformed it into a global reference, inventing the likes of Poire Belle-Hélène, peach melba and Crêpes Suzette on the way. La Physiologie du Goût1 was written in 1825, a literary work which, through a series of passionate philosophical and scientific reflections on gastronomy, celebrates French cuisine and is considered a landmark achievement.
Believing gastronomy to be a science, Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin dissects the mechanics of taste, interspersing his work with anecdotes and advice on different ways to prepare food. His contemporary, Antonin Carême, a French pastry chef, and thought to be the founding father of “haute cuisine” was jealous.
Today, generous cooking is quite simply an indication of our ability to socialise, welcome others and receive our guests. Spreading happiness, spoiling our guests, while satisfying their appetites with delicious food, is all part of being the perfect hostess.
It was Carême who then set out the parameters: refined and delicate, with herbs, fresh vegetables, luxury ingredients and the glory of truffles and noble fish such as salmon and turbot. He was also a firm believer in service à la Russe, or Russian-style service, a practice still recognised today where dishes are served in succession following a menu, rather than service à la française, French style, where all the dishes are placed on the table at the same time.
For centuries, a person’s physique or corpulence was the means of determining their social standing; the rich were fat and the poor were thin. The historical juxtaposition of fat and thin would endure until the 19th century when subsistence economy gradually disappeared. Alain Drouard describes these dietary changes through the centuries.
In addition to the sheer quantity and availability of food products, compounded by the industrialisation of production and notably intensive agriculture in the 1950s, the notions of quality and conviviality were added to the mix. Generosity in cooking reaches far beyond greed and abundance, and also incorporates social rituals and living together.
Considered an outward sign of wealth, preparing a good meal for guests has always been a way of expressing social standing or rank, and this the world over. In the olden days, dinner at court laid on for a passing host thrilled the nation through its gastronomic delights. This is still the case today, albeit on a much smaller scale, at France’s Elysée Palace.
Today, generous cooking is quite simply an indication of our ability to socialise, welcome others and receive our guests. Spreading happiness, spoiling our guests, while satisfying their appetites with delicious food, is all part of being the perfect hostess. Honouring guests with an exemplary welcome is an integral part of our passage to civilisation, as described by Norbert Elias in his work The Civilising Process. A universal concept, gastronomy engages every culture and every period in time.
More than ever before, fusion now seems to be the latest trend, where delicate flavours of Japanese cuisine are an inspiration for French chefs, in the same way as South American ceviche or all-American burgers, which take on new life under the direction of a fresh wave of gastronomic gatekeepers, driven by the ambassadors of bistronomy2. Nowadays, cooking has become a fusion of civilisations, and the meal a cultural melting pot: Michelin-starred chefs such as Thierry Marx are taking food to the masses with street food, rediscovering a myriad of flavours with finger food, tapas and mezze and reinventing the way we eat and celebrate the social ritual of enjoying a meal. And so over time, our tastes have become more refined, dishes lighter and food healthier; our diets too have become more varied as new trends emerge and cooking styles from around the world come into play. To add to abundance we have an explosion of flavours, as the intricacies of the different components of taste merge and weave.
A new way of eating is born, together with a new way of tasting and pairing food and wine. There is a general increased awareness of the relationship between food and the environment, diet and health. The vegan movement has played a part in this awareness, picking up from Slow Food which flourished in the 80s. Ecogastronomy and ethical consumerism have become the new cornerstones of generous food, with an increasingly global stance.
Today in the western world, where we are now sure to have enough to eat, generosity has a tendency to fall by the wayside. Frugality is a more preferable notion. Brainwashing on the topic of body image seems a new phenomenon of our time. Will we see “free from” triumph? Alcohol-free, sugar-free, salt-free, gluten-free and even sulphite-free… Maybe soon even
flavour-free? Were the great luminaries of literature right when they predicted pills would replace meals, ingested in a matter of seconds to meet all our nutritional needs? Will the sad killjoys win the battle of the diet?
“He who invites friends and pays no attention to the repast prepared for them is not fit to have friends.”
Vegetarians, vegans and intolerants are pushing the boundaries at every turn. Quite possibly in the long run for improved health. In the US, as in other developed countries, when friends come over for supper, they come Tupperware in hand, filled with the most balanced of contents, safe in the knowledge of what’s inside for their own personal consumption. Brillat-Savarin was a firm advocate of everything in good measure, but always with flavour and the “pleasures of the table” at the fore. “Those who suffer from indigestion, or get drunk are utterly ignorant of the true principals of eating or drinking” were his wise words. And he added: He who invites friends and pays no attention to the repast prepared for them is not fit to have friends”. Friendship, the glue that binds a good table together, the backbone of a good meal – isn’t this the true joy of generous cuisine, because it’s shared?
Founded after the French Revolution, French gastronomy as we know it today reached its peak in the 19th century, when Brillat-Savarin triumphed, Carême invented “haute cuisine” and Escoffier laid down the ground rules and transformed it into a global reference, inventing the likes of Poire Belle-Hélène, peach melba and Crêpes Suzette on the way. La Physiologie du Goût1 was written in 1825, a literary work which, through a series of passionate philosophical and scientific reflections on gastronomy, celebrates French cuisine and is considered a landmark achievement. Believing gastronomy to be a science, Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin dissects the mechanics of taste, interspersing his work with anecdotes and advice on different ways to prepare food. His contemporary, Antonin Carême, a French pastry chef, and thought to be the founding father of “haute cuisine” was jealous.
Christian Constant is the Michelin-starred chef at Violon d’Ingres, with a string of restaurants to his name: Café Constant and Cocottes in Paris, Bibent in Toulouse and Bistrot Constant in Montech. Alain Drouard is Honorary Director of Research at CNRS, The French National Centre for Scientific Research, historian and sociologist.
Is generosity in cooking a trend that is beginning to lose its appeal?
Alain Drouard: If you mean quantity and wealth of ingredients, we only have to look at all the recipe books up to the First World War to realise that proportions were not what they are today. They used to make custard with a litre of milk and as many as a dozen egg yolks!
Christian Constant: Generosity is more about quality than quantity. Not just exclusive high-end ingredients, but instead healthy, flavour-packed produce, traditionally home-cooked and shared. Generosity is a culture of sharing and mutual respect.
Isn’t there a risk that changes in eating habits may signal the end for some of the old classics?
AD: It’s true that traditional home-cooked foods are increasingly thin on the ground, and it’s hard to find a good blanquette de veau stew in a French restaurant. The French are the world’s biggest consumers of pizza, on a par with Americans, and are also Europe’s biggest consumer of burgers. And yet it only takes half an hour to make a good meal. Also, people are taking a real interest in cooking, through books and TV programmes. Cooking today has become entwined with politics: we are free to choose what we eat.
CC: People generally appreciate good home-cooked food. Every day, I make sure traditional dishes are kept alive in every one of my restaurants. I stay true to my roots in South-West France and to the cooking style I learned from my mother. It’s the hallmark
of my cooking. We still serve œufs Mimosa (devilled eggs), beef daube, Estouffade of beef and roast guineafowl.
Will allergies and the current “free from” fad propel us into a new era of minimalism and individualism?
CC: People are more careful about what they eat, and look for reduced salt and fat. But that doesn’t stop me cooking cassoulet! And I am not about to abandon the parsley butter for roast guineafowl either. Understandably I have to move with the times, so I serve a lighter alternative too, such as mixed vegetables.
AD: The current movement is complicated. Trends such as the local restaurant and cooking from the market are coming back with a focus on fresh produce, while raw is all the rage, influenced by Asia and Latin America. Diversity and curiosity are still important. As products change, methods of production are changing too: without farmers, who will protect the land?
People generally appreciate good home-cooked food. Every day, I make sure traditional dishes are kept alive in every one of my restaurants. I stay true to my roots in South-West France and to the cooking style I learned from my mother
Isn’t gastronomy a victim of its own success, considered expensive and out of reach?
AD: Cooking on a budget is not impossible. It’s all about choosing more affordable ingredients such as mackerel or sardines. Mushrooms too, either pan-fried with parsley, or served raw in a salad; it’s really easy and quick to do. We won’t go back to elaborate haute cuisine or Bourgeois cooking, there’s no point being sentimental.
CC: It’s true everyone is careful with money. In fact, I adapt my menus using seasonal produce to be able to deliver more affordable dishes.
Are generosity and conviviality still the two universal building blocks?
AD: Losing social ties is the only threat to cooking and enjoying sharing a good meal. Good quality meat will always need good wine; time spent cooking, getting friends together and enjoying food is not set to go away. Being there for each other and a warm welcome are what really count.
CC : We endeavour through family recipes to keep this tradition alive. We have to adapt to safeguard our values and pass them on. At the end of the day, for the next generation who have not been exposed to the ways of family cooking, we have to take on the role of “mother”, or conduit. Later in life, they will remember the rice pudding or homemade crème caramel that we made them.