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Wine & dine

Trio of taste


La Reynière argued that a host who did not know how to carve meat was as shameful as the owner of a library who did not know how to read.

Three other writers, building on the foundations laid by La Varenne, changed the way the French thought about food: as one of the key elements of the distinctive i. e. superior quality of French cuisine and, by extension, of the French 'way of life' and of French culture as a whole including, in the first place, of French literature. They are Grimod de la Reynière (1758-1838 ), Antoine Carème (1784-1833 ) and Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826 ).

The origins of gastronomic journalism can be traced to La Reynière. Before the 1789 Revolution he gained a certain notoriety for his hyped-up articles on the ostentatious banquets given by the aristocracy. But after the Revolution he harnessed the experience he had gained during the Ancien Regime to instruct the emerging elites about what constituted style and taste in matters gastronomic. Such instruction, he reckoned, was direly needed since the culinary landscape in France, like everything else, witnessed upheavals on an unprecedented scale - and often for the worse.

La Reynière passed rigorous judgements on just about every aspect of food: restaurants and caterers, products and services. Even more important, in his book Almanach des Gourmands, which was soon hailed as a classic, he offered a veritable cannon for the preparation, presentation and consumption of fine food. He argued, for instance, that a host who did not know how to carve meat was as shameful as the owner of a magnificent library who did not know how to read.

It is La Reynière who campaigned for setting up gastronomic societies, culinary institutions and 'tasting juries' who would evaluate the quality of food and drink and classify them according to a rigid pecking order. Thanks to this campaign, the French began to regard food, now better known as gastronomy, as both a science and an art. He produced a so-called 'catechism' aimed primarily at consumers of fine food. It is now generally accepted that his writings revealed the shift that had taken place in France from dining as a closed, intimate affair of the aristocracy to a more democratic exercise in social conviviality.

The shift indeed marked a change of emphasis from the feudal class to the bourgeoisie, from a group to an individual, from the privilege of birth to a self-made person. It is well to recall at this point that the birth of the restaurant as we know it today began in the aftermath of the Revolution. The flight of the aristocrats left their chefs jobless overnight. Many therefore established eating places that, unlike taverns meant to feed travellers, would offer haute cuisine to the new ruling classes. In his writings La Reynière upheld the finest features of the cuisine of the Ancien Regime - an endeavour also pursued in monasteries - that enabled him to ensure a continuity of gastronomic traditions which the restaurants promoted, especially in Paris that in due course came to be known as the world's gastronomic capital.

Grimod de la Reynière died in what can only be described as an apposite circumstance: during a mid-night feast on a Christmas eve. Here is an example of a recipe for an 'unparalleled roast' he left behind. His literary skills are evident from the sly references he makes to leading actresses of his time.

"Stuff an olive with capers and anchovies and put it in a garden warbler. Put the garden warbler in an ortalan, the ortalan in a lark, the lark in a trush, the trush in a quail, the quail in a larded lapwing, the lapwing in a plover, the plover in a red-legged partridge, the partridge in a woodcock - as tender as Mlle Volnais - the woodcock in a teal, the teal in a guinea-fowl, the guinea-fowl in a duck, the duck in a flattened pullet - as white as Mlle Belmont, as fleshy as Mlle Vienne, as fat as Mlle Contat - the pullet in a pheasant, the pheasant in a turkey - white and fat like Mlle Arsène - and finally the turkey in a bustard. " This sublime paragraph recalls a line from Cocteau: "L'exagêration est la splendeur de la vêritê. " (Exaggeration is the splendour of truth. )

If La Reynière's vocation was to cultivate the palate of the consumer, the vocation of Carème was to finesse the skills of professional practitioners. He is now regarded as the true founder of modern French cuisine in that he systematically examined its bases - first of pastry, including sweets and savouries, and later of soups and sauces, bouillons, roasts, fish and game. Unlike la Reynière, Carème had no love lost for the old cuisine. He, too, considered gastronomy to be both a science and an art but he took care to simplify meals with an eye on expenditure. The earlier eight-course meal was brought down to four courses - a practice still in vogue today - the number of dishes served at banquets was pared down and certain dishes disdained by the rich - such as the pot-au-feu, a humble and nutritious beef stew - were given an honourable cachet.

Yet even Carème didn't quite make a clean break with the past. He took great pride in the culinary services he had rendered to such illustrious individuals as Talleyrand, Tsar Alexander I of Russia, the Prince Regent of Great Britain and Baron Rothschild. He also wrote a great deal after meticulously researching his subject in the Royal Library. The book that earned him lasting fame was "L'art de la cuisine franèaise au dix-neuvième siècle" aimed at a readership of professional chefs. He introduced the holding of competitions to decide the best chef, the best dish, the best restaurant and so forth. This helped set high standards for fine food and fine service and indeed to institutionalise them. The rules he propounded and the techniques he elaborated gave the elegance and sophistication of French cooking a stamp of authority. His work on pastry - notably vol-au-vent and meringues - bears this trait as do the recipes he provides for sauces and soups in "L'art de la cuisine" : 186 French ones and 103 foreign ones. Small wonder then that Carème has been hailed as the "Lamartine of the kitchen range. "

(This is the third of a six-part series on French food)

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