Food and the passion for food is a renowned feature of France; steer any conversation, wherever you are, to food, and the French will go into raptures about what they plan for the evening's meal, what they ate yesterday, what they will consider for tomorrow.
In recent times, there are those who claim that French restaurant food is in decline, and while that may be true of mid-range restaurants, it certainly isn't true of the cuisine of the home, the food that mother (and grandmother) makes.
It certainly came as a surprise to many to learn that a survey carried out by French catering union Synhorcat suggested that 31% of restaurants (not including cafeterias, bars and fast food outlets) used industrially prepared foods. Shock horror! Others suggest that the proportion is higher, closer to three-quarters of restaurants. This has fuelled the debate that France is in danger of losing its food culture and traditions, not to mention its gastronomic supremacy. As a result, the French government passed a new law that required every restaurant in France to make clear whether it cooks its food from scratch, rather than serving food prepared industrially off-site. The term being used is 'Fait maison' – home-made, in effect.
Well, be that as it may, home-made French food is what this website is all about; not that I will ever stop eating out in France – indeed, whenever I return to France I never feel that I've 'arrived' until I sit down for an al fresco lunch, be in it a town centre or at some rural auberge. It's as if that simple, unfussy, unpretentious food is a trigger that switches me into France mode, not least because I know that the food has been lovingly and honestly prepared; I know that because more often than not, I can see it being prepared.
Over the years, I've eaten in many fine restaurants in France, but what I consider to be the best food I've had was the family cuisine prepared by my then girlfriend's mother – Boy, could she cook.
The thing is that fine dining is as much about the 'experience' as it is about the food; when you sit at a family table – and you can do this wonderfully well by staying at Chambres d'Hôte/Table d'Hôte establishments, where you have your dinner with the family, just as if you were a neighbour or a friend who has dropped by – it is quite a different experience...lots of chat, lots of helping yourself, lots of appreciative chomping on bread, steak, cheese...
Some years ago I ventured on a short three-day cycling trip in the Loire valley, working on a feature for a magazine. On the final day, I arrived in a small backwater village at – as I put it – stomach o'clock. I parked my bike, sat at an outdoor table and considered the 'Plat du Jour'...it was all of 10 euros. At first I thought the simple wall-mounted blackboard with four dishes on it was a menu of choice, but, no, you got the lot. In my defence the bit of my brain that speaks French was trying to remember what 'jarret' was, and it was only when I ordered it, thinking for some reason it was a fish rather than the pork knuckle that it turned out to be, that the penny dropped.
I ordered a small pichet of local rosé, firm in the belief that 25cl of inoffensive rosé would do nothing to propel me into a roadside ditch, drunk in charge of a bike. Within minutes 'Madam' appeared with a bowl of crudités, and then returned with an untouched bowl of rillettes – Help yourself, take as much as you want. The jarret came with lentils and a green salad, and lunch was rounded off with one of the largest cheese selections I've ever seen – again, Help yourself, take as much as you want. With the wine, and a coffee, it came to 15 euros, and I was so replete that I stayed there for a while listening to a voluble domestic argument from a nearby house...good food and entertainment!
But the simplicity of that meal spoke volumes, brought back memories of my not quite mother-in-law's cooking (her daughter didn't inherit any of her culinary skills), and made me realise just how intrinsically uncomplicated French cuisine could be.
And now, many years on, not exactly a chef, just a middle-of-the-road domestic cook with no ambitions to be otherwise, I regularly turn my hands to something French, although I could no more manage without a recipe than I could play a Beethoven sonata without the music in front of me. Of course, that doesn't matter; the beauty of a recipe is that at first you follow it faithfully, find what works for you, tweak it, put in this, take out that, and create your own dish full of the flavours of France. There's nothing wrong in that; every cook in France probably has their own take for even the most Classic dishes.
So, while using these recipes as a foundation, make the adjustments that suit your taste. The whole point about cuisine is that it is always evolving, and after all it's a fundamental principle of evolution that only the best survives.