French Gastronomy: The History and Geography of a Passion

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This we can be sure of: when a restaurant in the western world is famous for its cooking, it is the tricolor flag that hangs above the stove, opined one French magazine, and this is by no means an isolated example of such crowing. Indeed, both linguistically and conceptually, the restaurant itself is a French creation. Why are the French recognized by themselves and others the world over as the most enlightened of eaters, as the great gourmets? Why did the passion for food—gastronomy—originate in France? In French Gastronomy, geographer and food lover Jean-Robert Pitte uncovers a novel answer. The key, it turns out, is France herself. In her climate, diversity of soils, abundant resources, and varied topography lie the roots of France's food fame.

Pitte masterfully reveals the ways in which cultural phenomena surrounding food and eating in France relate to space and place. He points out that France has some six hundred regions, or microclimates, that allow different agricultures, to flourish, and fully navigable river systems leading from peripheral farmlands directly to markets in the great gastronomic centers of Paris and Lyon. With an eye to this landscape, Pitte wonders: Would the great French burgundies enjoy such prestige if the coast they came from were not situated close to the ancient capital for the dukes and a major travel route for medieval Europe?

Yet for all the shaping influence of earth and climate, Pitte demonstrates that haute cuisine, like so much that is great about France, can be traced back to the court of Louis XIV. It was the Sun King's regal gourmandise—he enacted a nightly theater of eating, dining alone but in full view of the court—that made food and fine dining a central affair of state. The Catholic Church figures prominently as well: gluttony was regarded as a "benign sin" in France, and eating well was associated with praising God, fraternal conviviality, and a respect for the body. These cultural ingredients, in combination with the bounties of the land, contributed to the full flowering of French foodways.

This is a time of paradox for French gourmandism. Never has there been so much literature published on the subject of culinary creativity, never has there been so much talk about good food, and never has so little cooking been done at home. Each day new fast-food places open. Will French cuisine lose its charm and its soul? Will discourse become a substitute for reality? French Gastronomy is a delightful celebration of what makes France unique, and a call to everyone who loves French food to rediscover its full flavor.

Columbia University Press

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Editorial Reviews

Jacques Pepin
To study the gastronomy of France, or any country's gastronomy, through the geographer's palate and eyes, makes perfect sense. Topography and climatic conditions, more than any other factors, define the lifestyle of people as well as their mood and eating habits. Furthermore, it's these differences in soils and climate which give us the Basque piperade, the potée of Savoy, the quenelles of Lyon, the filet of sole Normande, and the beckenoffe of Alsace. Vive la différence!
France Today
Will satisfy your hunger for knowledge while whetting your appetite for French food.
Pitte's remarkable ruminations... offer new insights into the French psyche.
Jacques Pépin
To study the gastronomy of France, or any country's gastronomy, through the geographer's palate and eyes, makes perfect sense. Topography and climatic conditions, more than any other factors, define the lifestyle of people as well as their mood and eating habits. Furthermore, it's these differences in soils and climate which give us the Basque piperade, the potée of Savoy, the quenelles of Lyon, the filet of sole Normande, and the beckenoffe of Alsace. Vive la différence!
Bloomsbury Review
Lively... leavened with humor and graceful translation.
Rain Taxi
Interesting, witty, and erudite.
Publishers Weekly
Pitte raises a glass to celebrate France's dynastic cuisine and culture, exploring everything from its earliest recipe books to the 10 commandments of nouvelle cuisine to prove the undeniable influence the country has on world cooking. His charming, concise history reveals the development of the national taste, including Christianity contending with the slippery sin of gluttony, commissioning roads to Paris for shipping cheese, the demands of the export market and the invention of table etiquette including the handy additions of plates and silverware. Importantly, Pitte traces the indelible Parisian reign of haute cuisine from the Sun King through Napoleon, but traces past the ugly years of the Paris Commune like a skipped hors d'oeuvre, before moving onward to a food culture currently at an impasse due to the rise of faster foods and the fall of national taste severe enough to make it worthy of an inquest by the Institut de France. The introduction brashly toots the French horn hubristically declaring victory over the other tables of the world although Pitte balances his hearty dishes with historical realities in this entertaining and probing addition to Columbia's Arts and Traditions of the Table series. Illus. and photos. (Apr.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Published in French in 1991; Gladding's translation makes this enjoyable volume available to English readers. Pitte (geography, Sorbonne) explores various current and historical trends in French gastronomy, relating the importance to a cuisine's success of its non-edible aspects, including geographic setting, seasonal traditions, and regional associations. In the process, we learn of French food laws and traditions, the critical contribution of Louis XIV, the development of French restaurants, and the methods of famous chefs. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Kirkus Reviews
Perhaps the ultimate refutation to anyone claiming there is a single, simple answer to the question of why France invented and continues to set the world standard for haute cuisine. While acknowledging that his native soil does constitute a veritable "garden," Pitte (Geography/Sorbonne) asserts that this is neither unique in Europe nor primarily accountable for French gastronomic predominance. The cultural case he builds, going back to the Roman occupation, touches base with everything from a sensually indulgent brand of medieval Catholicism to a tableau of the definitive gourmand, Louis XIV, dining at Versailles quite alone (except for a daily gallery of gawking citizenry) and an astonishing variety of robust regional cuisines that coalesce over the ages under the cruelly Darwinian dynamics of the Parisian marketplace. While some offhand references to obscure personages or innate ethnic characteristics may be lost on American readers, Pitte easily succeeds in demonstrating that the universal subtleties of the debate, rather than any formal proof, are the point here. Entertaining examples come straight from the historic pulpit in the form of tongue-in-cheek sermons on gluttony, or from the literary mainstream, as when the writer Balzac insists to his guest (perhaps with a wink) that the great wine he has poured must be "lovingly regarded," sniffed, and discussed at length before any drinking takes place. The author's geographical perspective enables him to be both seriously analytic and illuminating: one of several map plots, for example, shows how the taste, properties, and even the typical size of every major cheese variety in France were long ago determined by regional agronomicscombined with distance (during original development) from the principal market. Finally, there's a sobering caution about how modern agribusiness practices could compromise quality standards, homogenizing regional input enough to threaten the essential roots of French gastronomy as public indifference within the country continues to deepen. Surprisingly thought-provoking and original table talk from the academy.
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Product Details

Meet the Author

Jean-Robert Pitte is professor of geography at the Sorbonne and has lectured at a variety of universities in the United States and the United Kingdom. He lives in France.

Columbia University Press

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Table of Contents

Preface: The "Kugelhopf" MoldList of MapsIntroduction: On France's Gastronomic Passion1. France: The Land of Milk and Honey or the Old Country of Gourmands? 2. Is Gourmandism a Sin in France? 3. Governing at the Table: Birth of a Model4. The Gastronomic Restaurant, or "Haute Cuisine" on the StreetsEpilogue: Foods That Have a Soul: A Map of the Future for France

Columbia University Press

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