In France," said Montesquieu, "one dines. Everywhere else, one eats." A Goose in Toulouse is Mort Rosenblum's delightful foray into the French culinary experience, and into the soul of France itself. Good food, good sense, saveur, and savoir faire are the reasons this nation of sixty million inhabitants still lights the way for gastronomes around the globe. France's culinary expertise has long been an integral part of the country's national identity, and the rise of French grandeur owes more to kings' and emperors' chefs than to their generals. But if the rise of French civilization can be measured by the knife and fork, so can its fall. In a globalized world of fast food and genetically engineered crops, what does the future hold for France?
Mort Rosenblum's quest to unravel the complicated politics and economics of food leads him to snail farmers and oyster rustlers, to truffle hunters, starred chefs, and legendary vintners, to those who mourn the passing of the old days and those who have successfully adapted. The result is "marvelously insightful . . . truly a French banquet" (Paul Theroux).
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|Edition description:||1ST PBK|
|Product dimensions:||7.02(w) x 9.18(h) x 0.91(d)|
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A Goose in Toulouse, and Other Culinary Adventures in France
By Mort Rosenblum
North Point Press
Copyright © 2000 Mort Rosenblum.
All rights reserved.
"The destiny of nations depends upon how they feed themselves ... The pleasure of the table reigns among other pleasures, and it is the last to console when others are lost."
"In France, one dines. Everywhere else, one eats."
Only in France could a loaf of bread come with a technical support phone number and an instruction manual thick with philosophy. Lionel Poilâne, who produces such bread, would be a mere baker in any other country. To the French, he is a national treasure, an artist whose medium is a 100-ton oven. In his black velvet string tie and gray workman's smock, tossing his Prince Valiant hair to punctuate a point, he assures a nation of a mere 60 million inhabitants that they still hold the lantern for billions of less enlightened mortals.
"Bread is the soul of civilization," Poilâne remarked one morning in the seat of his empire, a little redbrick boulangerie on the rue du Cherche-Midi. That is, a people can be defined by their daily bread and the quality of meals they create around it.
It is hardly news that the words food and French are inseparable. Back when heads were piling up in baskets in a Paris square, and revolution in France shook the world as nothing had before, a pudgy, balding savant reminded citizens to keep their priorities straight. Great human events are fine, Anthelme Brillat-Savarin observed, but let's not forget lunch.
Literature that followed stirred imaginations everywhere, but France's great writers were often happier with a fork than a pen. "The only irritating thing about eating," Alexandre Dumas père remarked, "is that when you are done, you are no longer hungry."
French society revolves around greengrocers who know each of their tomatoes personally and cheese sellers who can spend half an hour discussing the pros and cons of a particular slab of brie. On New Year's Eve, whatever the rest of the world does to celebrate, the French sit at large tables and eat themselves senseless. While others wondered where to be on December 31, 1999, Frenchmen were deciding which bottles of wine they would open.
Not long ago, northwestern France flooded, and television cameras found an old man who saw the worst of it. He told of crops under water, drowned animals, buildings swept away. But he kept his priorities straight. A lot of people pitched in to help, he concluded, "and we were seventeen at lunch."
The rise of French grandeur owes more to kings' and emperors' chefs than to their generals. Its decline is measured by lines at Pizza Hut. No economic indicator is more reliable than the aisles at Fauchon, the temple of fine food that stocks more mustards than there are days in a year. An improbably fabulous dessert of tomate confit farcie aux douze saveurs at Alain Passard's Arpège is enough to excuse any rudeness from the Paris cabbie who brought you there.
Over centuries, the dinner table has remained an anchor for families and friendships, the heart of what is finest about France. Each course requires separate effort, part of a whole. Children learn their values and their manners at mealtime. Nothing important gets signed, sealed, or delivered without the clinking of glasses and the rattling of cutlery.
And nothing is so sacred as Sunday lunch. In French, you only have to say "dimanche midi." The eating part goes without saying.
Good food, with all the art de vivre around it, was partly why I moved to Paris in 1977. For my first real taste of France, I rented a fat, fish-faced Citroën with cushy seats, and I headed south. North, east, or west would have been just as good. But I had heard a lot about Raymond Thuilier and his three-star auberge, L'Oustau de Baumanière at Les Baux-de-Provence, a medieval village atop starkly beautiful mini-mountains, Les Alpilles. By the fifth course, with desserts, coffee, and digestif yet to come, it was clear I would not leave France any time soon. And the food itself was not the half of it.
A friend and I had been shown to a sun-splashed table by the tinkling waters of the pool fountain. The maître d'hôtel, untroubled by layers of grime from our morning of castle-crawling, displayed exquisite courtesy.
We each looked at the menu. I saw duckling with lime and luscious red mullet afloat in basil-laced olive oil. My friend, an artist from Vermont, saw the chef-propriétaire's vivid paintings on the cover and his delicate calligraphy. I eyed the cheeses and pastries on trolleys in the corner. She noticed the spray of flowers on our table, lush purple irises tucked among yellow jonquils, every blossom bursting with life. Had the crisp linen not soon picked up ruby wine spots, we might have gone snow-blind.
It was genuinely, non-metaphorically perfect. Waiters guided patrons toward a symphonic meal with subtle lifts of the eyebrow or flickers at the corner of the mouth. Silver and crystal glinted in the sun. Each sprig of thyme at the edge of a plate had passed someone's rigorous inspection.
So many elements had been put together by the bald, slightly bashful octogenarian at the heart of it all, Raymond Thuilier, that it almost seemed as if he was responsible for the overwhelming pièce de résistance that loomed high above us. And in a way, he was.
Perched on a limestone outcropping, the ruins of Les Baux castle sheltered as many ghosts and myths per square foot as any place in the Old World. This was where troubadours played the big time, and highborn ladies of surpassing beauty decreed in the Courts of Love that marriage should be no obstacle to amorous dalliance.
Medieval barons of Les Baux traced their nobility back to Balthazar, one of the gift-bearing Wise Men, and a Nativity star radiated on their armor to make the point. But a jealous King Louis XIII tore down the walls in 1632, and gave the fiefdom to Monaco. Two centuries later, someone discovered aluminum, giving the world the term bauxite, and gouging deep, ugly cuts in the dramatic landscape.
At the turn of the century, an English traveler found the village to be no more than a handful of squalid beggars, with a Hôtel de Monaco that offered no beds and nothing worth eating.
Thuilier, then an insurance salesman and son of a railway engineer, happened by in 1941. He loved to paint, and the light thrilled him. He couldn't sell enough insurance, of paintings, but he had spent a childhood watching his mother cook in the station cafe she ran. Like a lot of Frenchmen, he often fed his friends at home. So at age fifty-one, at the height of war, in the ruins of an olive oil mill, he created one of the finest restaurant-hotels that France, and therefore the world, had ever known.
By the time I got there in the seventies, the path was well-beaten to his door. The Shah of Iran had just flown in a crowd to celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of his empire. Thuilier, however, was unaffected. He showed us around with the humble pride of someone who knew the underlying master plan. Not his, but His.
"God was clever," Thuilier liked to say, tapping himself first on the throat, then the forehead. "He placed the brain so near the gullet."
This was low-tech France, when it was still hard to get a phone line, but Thuilier's kitchen had what mattered. The marble pastry counters were cooled to exact temperatures. A salamandre grilled the top of a fish to a tasty crisp. The wine cellar was all musty charm. In the auberge rooms, each furnished with antiques, guest beds were made up in sheets designed by the chef.
The old man rose at dawn to energize the Baumanière and also his other less costly restaurant down the road. Late at night, when the last pots were dry, he slept. Mornings were spent at the Hôtel de Ville, since he was also the mayor of Les Baux. As a ruler in the realm of food, he wore the ancient mantle of a barony he had restored to life.
During the next quarter century in close proximity to the French, I rocketed through the foreigner's usual love-'em, hate-'em stages, but experience confirmed what was obvious from that first taste. Good food, with all that is behind it, is the defining metaphor of France.
France is a feast, all right, but there is nothing movable about it. Its richness is a broad blend of ingredients, artfully put together and laid out with purpose. Taken individually, some aspects are about as pleasant as a mouthful of raw garlic. Together, it all works to exhilarating effect.
It is simply a matter of point of view. Even before the new American virility drug was approved in France, a chef in the Alps smuggled a supply from Switzerland to make "beef piccata in Viagra sauce with fig vinegar and fine herbs." Pfizer declared, "The objective of a medicine is not to be in a sauce." But the New Jersey drugmakers were wrong. In France, one way or another, everything is a sauce.
I saw that to appreciate the French, a foreigner had to keep in mind the same three cardinal rules for enjoying a fine French meal: Remember that France is essentially prix fixe with service, such as it is or isn't, compris. Take things on the terms offered, without asking too many questions or demanding substitutions. And, always, eat the cheese.
Encroachment by microwaves and McDonald's has not altered the proprietary notions that the French hold over anything edible. This extends from star chefs in Paris to housewives on backstreets in Béziers. Most would rather reveal to foreigners the location of missile sites than the secret of keeping an endive safe from bitterness (don't get it wet).
Something new does not threaten, it is simply digested. Fast-food burgers came to France just before I did, and I stopped with a friend at a local franchise on the Lyon autoroute. She was from Idaho, a "catsup" state. That's what she requested.
"Comment?" demanded the teenaged girl behind the counter. "C'est quoi, catsup?"
"You know, for the fries," my friend said. "Sauce tomate."
"Ah," the girl replied. Correcting my friend's French with a slight condescending sneer, she said, "Vous voulez dire: ketchup."
Ketchup soon joined the everyday vernacular along with doughnut and double cheese. When something suddenly flows smoothly after some sort of obstacle, that is l'effet ketchup.
When I first got to Paris, the only place to find tacos was in my kitchen. Now they are everywhere, sort of. A French taco, known as un tacos, is usually lettuce, some cheese, meaty bolognese sauce, and a sweet tomato salsa piled onto a flat tortilla. How else could you eat it with a fork, as any Frenchman can tell you is the proper way to do it?
The French have plenty that is all their own. Producing superlative edibles for centuries has made up the framework of socioeconomic structures. Roquefort, for instance, is not merely cheese. It is a complex network of shepherds, dairymen, fromagers, geologists, hewers and haulers, and business executives. New space-age industries may have nothing to do with food, but, when dinnertime rolls around, watch how the salaries are spent.
Frenchmen also love ideas. A standard encyclopedia of homegrown intellectuals runs to 1,200 pages. And none of them meet to muse without at least a Proustian madeleine.
And politics. France remains a world power. Yet for all the effort François Mitterrand put into defining his place in history, what many Frenchmen remember most is a last supper described in a biography by Georges-Marc Benamou. Nearly gone with prostate cancer, Mitterrand called in close friends for a final forbidden feast.
The president began with oysters, flat belons, not too salty, the way he liked them. He had called from a state visit to Egypt to be sure they arrived. Alone in a corner, he ate a dozen, then another, and then, pausing briefly to let pass a spasm of pain, yet another.
More food came before it was time for the ortolans, a finch-like bunting from southwest France treasured for tender flesh but a fiercely protected endangered species. His old pal Henri Emmanuelli had brought a dozen, and they were served by a gendarme.
The small band dined as the court did at Versailles, with large napkins masking their faces to hide the grisly gnawing and spitting of tiny bones. Some guests declined diplomatically; diners outnumbered birds. The rest attacked with frenzied relish, each occasionally peeking from behind his cloth to see if anyone got an extra ortolan.
"François Mitterrand emerged first from behind his steaming napkin," Benamou wrote. "Overcome with happiness, his eye sparkling, his glance full of gratitude toward Emmanuelli." One bird remained in the hot oil, and the gendarme-waiter circled the table. When he reached Mitterrand, the bird was still there. The president speared it.
All told, Mitterrand ate thirty oysters, foie gras, a slice of capon, and two ortolans. Not long after, he passed into history.
Brillat-Savarin would have loved that last supper, as much for its meaning as its menu. For him, few pursuits measured up to savoring culinary pleasure. "The invention of a new dish," he wrote in The Physiology of Taste, "brings more to the good of mankind than the discovery of a new star."
Roland Barthes noted: "The discourse on food is like a grillwork window frame, in front of which strolls by each of the sciences that we call social of human." And Pierre Gaxette took the idea to its logical extension. "La cuisine," he wrote, "is not a bad observatory for studying la Grande Histoire."
But if the rise of French civilization could be measured by the knife and fork, so could its fall. And, as the millennium waned and a new sort of world took shape, warning signs were clear.
I had heard reports of France's culinary demise since first moving to Paris. Increasingly, casual conversations revealed distressing testimony. Monsieur Turpin, my friend the Île Saint-Louis fruit-and-fowl man, retired in disgust. When I last saw him, he was glumly singeing pinfeathers off a pheasant, his walrus moustache bristling with indignation. "Ces gens-là," he muttered, jerking an elbow toward a cluster of young French people shambling past, "they are eating while they walk."
During the 1970's, one had to work hard to find a bad meal in France. By the 1990's, it took no trouble at all. Now it seemed that everywhere I looked, someone was fretting over the future. France would dissolve into a mere bouquet of flavors in a stockpot known as the European Union. Worse, the juggernaut of "globalization" would trample historic borders, obliterate ancient customs, dilute a unique society, and leave only ubiquitous golden arches where great restaurants had been.
The glories of France were rooted in the kitchens of Versailles, so prodigious that when Louis XIV died the royal coroner found a stomach twice the size of your average eighteenth-century glutton's. Now vendors sell hot dogs at the gates of Versailles, and French tourists track melted ice-cream goo across its polished courtyard stones.
Was the Sun King's radiance finally in eclipse? Did this, I wondered, mean France was finished?
Excerpted from A Goose in Toulouse, and Other Culinary Adventures in France by Mort Rosenblum. Copyright © 2000 by Mort Rosenblum. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
What People are Saying About This
Mort Rosenblum's quest to unravel the complicated politics and economics of food leads hime to snail farmers and oyster rustlers, to ruffle hunters, starred chefs, and legendary vintners, to those who mourn the passing of the old days and those who have successfuly adapted. The result is marvelously insightful...truly a French banquet.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Thoroughly enjoyable book for foodies and Francophiles, even with the more serious parts probing the issues of multiculturalism and French identity. Does much better than "Au Revoir to All That" at really capturing the flavors of the food and the people who persist at making it despite the rise of "McDo" fast food and the increasing bureaucracy of food regulations (thanks to the EU).