When many of us think of French cuisine we tend to automatically link it to haute cuisine. It is the foundation of French cuisine evolving from the royals and aristocrats around Versailles and Paris. The 17th century chef and author Francois Pierre La Varenne is known as the godfather of modern French cuisine whose work has been an inspiration over the centuries and very much responsible for the creation of haute cuisine as we know it today.
Before La Verenne revolutionized the eating habits of the French, meals often consisted of grandiose portions. Haute cuisine put less emphasis on the quantity of food, and instead focused on moderate and lighter portions using high-quality ingredients.
After the French Revolution, the bourgeoisie class or middle class grew rapidly. Haut cuisine was reserved for the wealthy elite. Not having the means to use the same expensive ingredients, the bourgeoisie cooked tasty and unpretentious meals for family and friends. While the bourgeoisie class often spent a lot of money on entertaining and feasting, they lacked the knowledge and expertise the chefs of the nobles and aristocrats were trained for. As the bourgeoisie cuisine evolved however, the middle class adapted, using the ingredients they could afford and making the best dishes from them. Even the art of sauce making, which till then was exclusive to the wealthy aristocrats, became more attainable for the French bourgeoisie class. Meat and fish dishes with fine sauces replaced the simple stews and meals became more elaborate.
In the early 20th century Auguste Escoffier modernized and refined the culinary concept of French cuisine, which came to be known as cuisine classique. He formalized the preparation of sauces and dishes and developed an efficient kitchen workflow. Haute cuisine was to be served on a larger scale in hotels and restaurants. Instead of serving all the dishes at once, his system allowed meals to be served in courses. Five stations were installed in the kitchen – each to tackle different cooking tasks. To this day hotels and restaurants around the world still use this system.
Although this higher cooking was now available on a grander scale it was still reserved for the affluent. Around this time new trend emerged from the basements of Parisian apartments. Tenants, who paid for both room and board, were provided with simple easy meals. Landlords were able to add to their income by opening their kitchen to the general public – the working class Bistros were established. French home-style meals like cassoulet were served and they quickly became the center of social and culinary life in Paris. These bistros and later cafés were the neighborhood hub of social activity, meeting places and a place to refuel and relax.
Today the Parisian cafés and bistros are quintessential to the Parisian way of life and have also left an undoubtedly big impact on the French culinary landscape. Producing famous dishes like Pâté en Croûte, Pot-au-feu and veal blanquette and of course the Croque Monsieur, these working class dishes are just as part of the French cuisine tier as haute cuisine, cuisine bourgeoisie or nouvelle cuisine are.
The tale of the Croque Monsieur dates back to the year 1901 and to a Paris café on the Boulevard des Capucines. Having run out of baguettes for the café’s sandwich of the day, the chef took a loaf of pain de mie (similar to American sandwich bread), sliced it, placed ham and cheese between the slices and baked it to crispiness. The name is derived from the crispy bread (from the French verb croquer = “to bite,”) and from a casual comment from the chef about the origins of the ham in the sandwich. When asked by a customer about the meat, the chef reportedly gestured toward another customer (most likely the neighborhood butcher)and replied “C’est la viande de monsieur (It’s that guy’s meat).” And voila–le croque monsieur. The sandwich was referred to by name for the first time on a Parisian cafe menu in 1910 and the earliest written reference is thought to have been by the novelist Proust in his 1918 work titled - À la recherche du temps perdu - (In search of lost time).
The traditional Croque Monsieur was simply a hot ham and cheese sandwich which was fried in butter. When a Croque Monsieur is topped with a poached or lightly fried egg, the sandwich is then called a Croque Madame. A small but such a refined addition taking the otherwise simple sandwich to a new level. It is believed the Croque Madame got the name because the egg is said to resemble a woman’s hat. Over the years a few changes were made to the basic recipe, in particular the addition of mustard and a béchamel sauce. If these changes were truly French is very arguable as according to the Petit Robert dictionary: "Croque-monsieur surmonté d'un œuf sur le plat."
Translation: Croque monsieur topped with an egg on the plate. Note that there is no mention of a sauce, Béchamel or otherwise, inside or out of the sandwich.
One of my favorite Parisian cafés is Le Saint Germaine on the corner of Rue du Bac and Boulevard Raspail, Îles-de-France. It’s an laid-back café where both Parisians and tourists meet daily for a pause, relax and enjoy a glass of Sancerre and mussels, a platter of cheese or a really grand Croque Madame. Our trip to France in 2014 along the Normandy coast and then ending in Paris was an unforgettable experience – I still owe you a decent travelogue, but I share a few images as a teaser.
France, Paris and the food – all make for a winning combination. I asked a few of my friends over on my Facebook page for their thoughts, memories, favorite dishes / recipes and restaurants in France in particular, Paris and bless them all – they have some great comments, recommendations and stories. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did!
Jonell Galloway: My most memorable meal in Paris -- well, there are so many. I love Ducasse at the Plaza Athenée, Robuchon when he was in the 16th, Laperouse where I went on my first date with my husband and we had a whole painted dining room for ourselves.
Oysters with Sancerre after an evening out, in the Grand Café Capucines at the Opéra, or at the Terminus du Nord at the Gare du Nord.
There's nothing like a good croissant and a café crême.
My friend Jonell is an expert when it comes to French food and her website The Rambling Epicure is a treasure for all French food lovers and aficionados!
Matt Clark: I had a slightly amusing experience in a French restaurant a number of years ago.
I was staying in Paris with my girlfriend and we opted to try a little 'chez' restaurant near our apartment. It was very traditional and VERY French. The menus were all hand written in beautiful, but illegible, writing. Completely unable to make out any of the dishes, and not able to speak much french we decided we'd just chance it and point at a random dish when the waitress came over.
Turned out the dish I pointed at was "Cerveaux beurre noir"
The waitress realised we had probably been unable to read the menu and kindly said; "Sir, do you realise what you're ordering is the brain of a cow?", to which I laughed and said definitely not what I meant! Opted for a safer Steak au poivre in the end.
Now, being much more adventurous, I do wish I'd tried my original choice!
Heidi Afifi: Le Coq Rico in Montmartre & Camille in Le Marais! Chicken livers on white asparagus and Chicken breast with asparagus. My only meal there & it was a very very fine one. The chicken breast was incredibly tender & flavorful! Camille was the neighborhood bistro (my friend & I were staying in Le Marais). It was frequented by folks in the fashion industry, always busy & we were there every single day! Delicious & hearty French dishes (very generous in size too). The waiters were wonderful - in fact one recommended Le Coq Rico to us
Karin Stienemeier: I immediately thought of the French Market Cookbook - you could actually take it to the market to help you discover and think what to do if you were a visitor unused to French food selections ;))
Zou Zeta: "CAFE CONSTANT" is a delicious discovery au 7e arr, "Clamato" (canadien french fusion) in 11e arr in rue Charonne. At the side of Clamato a typical french cuisine for the same chef "Septime". there is also the fresh market and the open market in la bastille that offers yummy ingredients specially fish and fresh fruits and vegetables.
Erin Jimcosky: I haven't spent much time in Paris in far too long, so I'm a bit rusty. But, I remember really enjoying tartiflette when I came across it at an outdoor market. This was the same trip where I learned the simple joys of butter and jam on a baguette. In a city not known for its hospitality, I experienced an unexpected warmth that will always stick with me. I can't remember the restaurant name, but on the night we arrived everything was closed and we were starving after a hellish day of travel. It was late at night and we were obviously looking hungry and tired to a member of the staff in a restaurant in the Latin Quarter. He came out and asked us if we'd like to join the staff meal. That was our welcome to what we'd heard all our lives was an unfriendly city. We ate a lovely stew on a very cold night.
Betsey Chamberlin: Macarons please
Kelly Peacock Wright: When we were in Paris -- and Germany for that matter, because we traveled to both that spring -- there was white asparagus on every menu. It was prepared every which way, and sometimes featured in a meal which included it in each course. It was delicious and delicate and when We returned home I decided to prepare it myself. The white asparagus soup is now a favorite.
Cream of White Asparagus Soup
Marica Bochicchio: Famous and very old is Closerie des Lilas, were famous writers use to go in the past and were is made in front of you the best french tartare I ever ate . Now the recipe is in my blog. http://www.closeriedeslilas.fr/
Trandy with the best view of the Eiffel Tower is Cafe de l' Homme in Trocadero area, I went few times with my husband and I remember a great Cocktail in the terrazza wit veg bignè and romantic moment. http://www.cafedelhomme.com/en
Jackie Donnelly: My favorite place in Paris was Les Ombres with a magnificent view of the Eiffel Tower from our table. Not just a stunning view, but the best meal I had there. http://www.lesombres-restaurant.com Also, I know ALL the chocolate shops, if you need a resource for chocolate.
Marta Potoczek: So many cool links! It's been sometime- all I did while in Paris was follow old chic French ladies and dined wherever they chose. It was always a success
Jane Evans Bonacci: I love that everywhere you turn there is incredible food ... from the vendors on the street to the corner grocery store and neighborhood bistros - drop in any restaurant or cafe and you will have the best meal of your life! Tip: Ham & Cheese The French Way
It’s not just a sammie folks it is a Croque Madame – maybe not haute cuisine – but a dish that soothes and satisfies. Attached to fond Paris memories this sandwich always hits the right spots. My Croque Madame goes back to the basic recipe – no sauce – just keeping in line with the idea of haute cuisine by using the best quality ingredients and putting in some good bourgeoisie accents of keeping it simple. I use some good cheese, succulent ham and great bread – this is where I sidestep from the typical recipe and use crusty German sourdough bread. Quality ingredients play a key role in this recipe, which although straightforward and uncomplicated to execute, becomes fabulous when quality ham, exceptional cheese, and superb bread is used. After all a classic recipe is one that has stood the test of time - and this recipe certainly has!
Recipe: Croque MadameMeeta K. Wolff
- 2 slices crusty bread, I like to use a good German sourdough
- 2 slighter thicker slices of good quality ham
- 100g grated cheese, like Comté or Gruyère
- 1 large free-range egg
- 2 teaspoons butter
- 2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- Preheat the grill to high and lightly toast the bread on both sides until golden.
- Spread the mustard on both slices, sprinkle with half the grated cheese and arrange slices of ham on the bread - sandwich them. Top remaining grated cheese then place under the grill to brown and melt the cheese.
Perfect for breakfast, lunch or even a light dinner - turn on those French chansons on the radio, take the tables and chairs on on the terrace or pavement and enjoy a typical Parisian café favorite. If you prefer the version with the béchamel sauce then whip it up - I prefer to leave the extra calories out. A fruity cidre or sancerre rosé work well with this. I enjoy my Croque Madame with a nice big salad on the side, some gherkins and lots of whole-grain mustard. I call this the grand mistress of all sandwiches and she deserves a good place on the table!
You might like these sandwich ideas from What’s for, lunch, honey?:
|Spicy Bacon Italian Heirloom Tomato and Buffalo Mozzarella Tartine||Spiced Lamb Burgers with Caramelized Onions and Halloumi Cheese||Caponata Sandwiches|
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