The Victorian Omnium-Gatherum
I must now touch upon one other charge that our good neighbours are never tired of preferring against us. They say that we cannot cook. This charge, I am aware, has been fostered and encouraged by certain writers in the English press, who, judging from the style in which they write, would seem to have gathered their knowledge of France and the French by repeated visits to "Boo-long." I here assert, emphatically, that the charge is a libel, and I will prove it.
I have heard French cooking described as "The art and science of making messes." Nothing so accurately expresses what French cooking really consists of as that phrase.
The story will be familiar to every one, of the English commercial traveller, who, having gone through thirty courses at a table d'hote, said, "Waiter, I have tasted all the samples, you can bring me my dinner now." A true French dinner is a dinner of courses, and the courses consist of nothing in particular. A French chef prides himself on being able to destroy the flavour of one thing by adding the flavour of another. Take salmon, for instance, served up with sauce Mayonnaise. What is the predominant flavour there, if it is not the acid and the oil of the sauce ? Then, did you ever try French mashed potatoes? You taste everything there but the potatoes, which are of the consistency of porridge. Spinach is dressed in a manner that causes it to resemble thick, viscid green paint; and, owing to the oil that is put in, the flavour is probably not unlike paint,—at any rate, it is not like spinach. Snails and slugs will be served to you, and you will have to be very clever indeed to detect what they are in their disguise.
Mrs. Fred Burnaby, in her recent book on "The High Alps in Winter," tells how she and a companion were dining at a French hotel, and enjoying one of the courses very much, although they had not the remotest idea what it was composed of. Suddenly the companion dropped her knife and fork, and exclaimed, " I know what this dish is: it is slugs." And it was. Now, I think I could challenge any of my countrywomen to dress a dish of slugs or snails so that they would defy detection. Yet your French chef will do this. He will take a piece of diseased horse or fusty beef, and make a ragoût that will cause you to smack your lips and cry for more. He will so dress you a putrid fish that you shall imagine you are eating the most delicious plat. He will give you stewed goat so disguised that he might safely wager his head to yours that you would not tell the dish from jugged hare. He will give you tripe, and make you believe that you are eating fish; and fish, and you shall think you are partaking of game.
It must certainly be admitted that this art of disguising shows a great amount of ingenuity; it is a branch of gastronomic science that our friends across the water have made an especial study of, and in it they excel; but in plain, honest cooking we can hold our own with him. Will any impartial person, for instance, undertake to say that English soups are not superior to the much-vaunted ones of France? Our idea of a soup is, that its basis should be the essence of meat. A Frenchman's idea is, that its basis should be hot water with some fat in it, and the potentialities of that decoction in a French chef's hands are incredible. There are some exceptions to this: for example, in bouille à-baisse, which is at once delicious and deadly in its digestion-disturbing properties, and the universal bouillon.
But what is bouillon ? It is made from the very worst parts of beef—the scrapings and the cuttings, and what we should call "scrag"; for your French chef thinks it is a deadly sin to boil good beef to make soup of. If you get bouillon in a restaurant, you may depend upon it that in its manufacture nothing has been allowed to escape the careful and frugal eye of the maître or maîtresse that would be likely to enrich the bouillon pot. So in go the pieces from the customers plates and when the butcher brings the joints of meat in the morning the skilful cook with his little knife shaves off all the dirty and pressed parts and pops them into his pot. They all help, and a little dirt is easily skimmed off. But, generally, the bouillon owes its strength to horse. The horse is a wonderful animal in the Frenchman's hands. When living, he gets every atom of work out of him it is possible to get by means of a liberal application of the whip; and when he is dead, he stews him and eats him. Most English visitors to Paris will know that there are special horse-flesh butchers; and in some parts of the town are markets for the sale of horse-flesh. Is it to be wondered at, therefore, that the poor people can buy bouillon at from ten to forty centimes the litre. Nor are there many restaurants in Paris where the bouillon is not made from horse-flesh.
But cheap as this bouillon is, it is a luxury to the French peasant, whose staple diet may be said to consist of cabbage or potato soup; a piece of coarse fish occasionally; sausages always — for, being made from horse-flesh, they are sold very cheap; now and then a piece of pork; considerable quantities of chicory-coffee; wine concocted from dried raisins and plaster of Paris; together with a tremendous proportion of coarse black bread. The consumption of bread per head — man, woman, and child—in Paris per year is 158.51 kilos. [Statistique Alimentaire, page 420.] The general unwholesomeness of a French peasant's diet, his horror of fresh air, and his habitual dirtiness, account for his stunted physique and blanched appearance; and in no way will lie compare with the English peasant. An English peasant aims at getting good food, but his French confrère cares not what he eats so long as it does not cost much; for so great is his greed for gain, that he will haggle about a centime, and starve for two days in the week to save a sou.
But, returning to the subject of cooking—Did you, my good reader, ever get green peas cooked properly in France? Are they not generally given to you clogged together in a mass, and swimming in rank butter? Then, as for a potato. I will defy a French man or woman to cook it in any other way than by frying it. I will undertake to go into Westmoreland or Yorkshire, Lancashire or Devonshire, Hampshire or Wiltshire, and the first respectable mechanic's wife I meet shall be a better cook than the same class of woman in France. Where is the Frenchwoman, whatever her station, who can make bread, good pastry, wholesome puddings? who can stuff and roast a fowl, cook a pheasant or partridge, roast a leg of mutton or joint of beef? who can stew a rabbit, make a pease-pudding, an Irish stew? who can make a jelly, stew eels, boil a cod's head? who can make jam, a hot cake, mutton broth, a haricot? who can jug a hare, pot shrimps, or pot beef? who can make a meat-pie or a mutton-hash with toast in it? who can cook a chop, grid a steak, or mash potatoes? Yet all these things, and a score more, the most ordinary Englishwoman is capable of doing, and doing well. The women of France are, as a rule, wretched cooks; and amongst the poorer classes the aim seems to be to get things as strong of garlic and as greasy as possible.
Go amongst the navvies who work on the roads, the market-women, the porters, and people of similar standing, and examine their food as they take it at their meal-times; then look at the food eaten by the same class in England, and unless you are blind and a confirmed bigot, you will confess that England has the advantage by a long way. To say that English people cannot cook is the veriest cant; and you have only to live in France long enough to know how untruthful the statement is that the French peasantry can cook better than the same class in England. The "art and science of making messes" flourishes in France, and I am prepared to give the French all due credit for the marvellous ingenuity they display; but I object to Monsieur coming to us for a few weeks, and then going back to his country, and proclaiming that the English eternally live off "ros-bif" and mutton-chops.
Extracted from John Bull's Neighbour in her True Light. Being an Answer to Some Recent French Criticisms by A "Brutal Saxon", published by Wyman & Sons, London 1884.
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CuisineNet Digest: French Cuisine