The drama of French food makes great TV even if these extravagances do not really show how France eats today.
Last weekend I watched two programmes about French food. The first was a documentary on BBC4 called France on a Plate, the second was the 1973 Marco Ferreri film: la Grande Bouffe. They both showed a different kind of French food to the food I know and love. This wasn’t the fresh salads and fruit arranged like Elysium Fields on market stalls in the Quartier Latin nor was it the pâtés and cheeses of harvest lunches in the Loire or the casseroles that keep out the cold in the Alps. No, this is haute cuisine, glazed, reduced, minced, decorated and left quivering in aspic jelly. It is food that resembles a precocious child’s multi-coloured plastic model and has little to do with natural produce or balanced nutrition.
The presenter of the France on a Plate documentary, Andrew Hussey, a man of Falstaffian proportions, talked about how extreme cuisine has been used to demonstrate an idea of French cultural supremacy. How haute cuisine is a metaphor for ‘la gloire de la France’ and eating has been taken to the levels of an ‘extreme sport’. Or how making a galantine in the shape of a swan or cooking a leg of lamb so it looks like a pineapple somehow cements France’s place at the cultural top table.
The programme also looked at how the great chefs through out history have created food that reflected their eras. There was Chef François Vatel who tried to usurp Varenne, chef to Louis XIV, when the monarch visited Château de Chantilly. Tragically, due to storms at sea, the fish, the main course of the banquet, did not arrive and Vatel, unable to live with the shame, committed suicide by stabbing himself to death. The fish arrived shortly afterwards.
In more recent times Chef Paul Bocuse, the star of the nineteen eighties, wryly summed up his signature nouvelle cuisine as being ‘nothing on the plate, and everything was on the bill.’ Truth from the horse’s mouth.
Now the great star of today’s French gastronomy is Chef Pierre Gagnaire, who, in the spirit of the twenty-first century, creates fantastic fusion cuisine combining influences of cooking from all over the world, arguably reflecting that France is now a multi-cultural country.
My second weekend viewing, La Grande Bouffe, filmed in 1973 pre the elegance and austerity of nouvelle cuisine, or the global-centricity of contemporary chefs. It shows a style of French cooking that is about showing off French ingredients and French cooking methods, although there is a nod to Italian pasta.
It is the story of four men who retreat to a house in an unnamed suburb with the intention of eating themselves to death. They are joined for dinner by three skinny prostitutes and a local teacher, the stunningly beautiful and full bosomed Andrea.
They cook a feast that is gargantuan, unctuous and very, very complicated: several types of poultry are pierced on to skewers then presented like an enormous porcupine; this is followed by a whole piglet stuffed with chestnuts and truffles then glazed until it glistens and if that isn’t enough, the third course is a great tureen of cassoulet. The ensemble devour this feast as though their lives, or more accurately their deaths, depend on it.
They continue eating over several days until the four heroes meet their demise by being overtaken by their own particular vice with Dantésque symmetry. Michel the great chef of the piece dies gorging himself on a pâté made of duck marinated in port, chicken marinated in sherry and goose marinated in champagne, the three meats are minced and then fashioned into a great architectural carbuncle. Only Andrea lives on. Only she has the constitution to survive this marathon of eating.
La Grande Bouffe is film of such opulence, gluttony and debauchery that it makes the recent Californian paean to wine and food: Sideways, seem like a Disney cartoon. It is a voluptuous triumph of vulgarity.
But the real point of La Grande Bouffe, apart from being very, very entertaining, is to mock the Bourgeois French obsession with complicated food. The idea that la gloire is associated with gluttony, that cooking is about taking food as far as way from its roots as possible and that it is desirable to spend such a vast amount of time at the dining table.
But things have evolved since this film was made in 1973, in contemporary France food no longer holds the same pride of place making la Grande Bouffe something of a swan song. As Andrew Hussey said in France on a Plate ‘the new popular chefs in France are Ronald McDonald and Colonel Sanders.’ Life is now about eating and living faster. Or as my elegant and intellectual friend Veronique, who is as fond of a good restaurant as the next Parisian, said ‘I’m not going to spend my life reading recipe books.’
France may not have the obsession with ludicrously complicated cuisine that it once had, but it’s still a fantastic place to eat and buy food. And that food will reflect the era we live in, fast for some, but also healthier, more international, more conscious of the way it is produced. And that to my belly has to be good news although perhaps it doesn’t make quite as luscious TV.