Mother of all cuisines

Updated: Apr 30 2006, 05:30am hrs
Considered as mother of all cuisines, French cuisine also has a definite Spa-nish and Italian connection. It owes its classicism, as it stands today, to Catherine De Medicis (a Florentine princess). Married to Henry duc dOrleans (who became King Henry II of France) in the 14th century, the princess br-ought with her an expert body of Italian chefs to France, who gave a new dimension to French cuisine.

Though over the decades, French, Spanish and Italian cuisines have developed their distinct identities, the influence can still be traced back. The Spanish influence is also equally prevalent. The basic sauce of French delicacies, Espagnole, draws its name from Espagn (French for Spain).

Well, almost all the famous French dishes are regional specialties. However, some became a part of the classic French menu after being documented and standardised and others continue to be enjoyed in the land of their origin.

French meals consist of small portions of food served in a definite sequence of courses. A classic meal usually has 13 courses in the offing, but the one popularly served in India is a traditional four-course menu. It kicks off with appetising starters (called hors doeuvres) and is followed by mouth-watering soups. Graduating beyond the usual flavours, the soups form an interesting portion with enticing varieties like fish-based soups, cream soups, consomms and the most popular French onion soup served with a rich cheese toast. Next comes a small fish course with complementary sauces and the major portion of meat or the roast with vegetables and sauces. The meal is closed with sumptuous desserts including souffls, mousses and tarts.

Besides bread and water, the most common accompaniments to a French meal are wine and cheese. Strong tasting food calls for strong wines; foods with light and subtle flavours, on the other hand, call for delicate wines. Red wine is mostly served with red meat and white wine accompanies fish and white meat. Apart from its extensive use in cooking, cheese forms a course in itself. Though used in a subtle manner, some of the commonly used spices include bay leaf, clove, nutmeg, pepper and cane pepper.

The most interesting aspect of French cuisine is the cooking style. With minimum possible spices, emphasis is laid on retaining the basic flavour of the meat. However, that is one of the main reasons why French food has not caught the fancy of Indian palates.

Sauces also form an equally important part of cooking. However, they should just compliment the dominant flavour of the food but dont overpower it. The four mother sauces, which when used in various combinations, resulting in various other flavours including Espagnole, Bchamel (a milk-based sauce), tomato sauce and cold sauce.

Well, while most sauces and doughs have alternative recipes, there is no shortcut when it comes to classic French cuisine.

Bakshish Dean is executive chef at The Park Hotel, New Delhi.

As told to Neha Sharma