How does one define Frenchness? A survey long ago listed these as the top three factors: to speak French; to believe in ‘Liberty, Equality & Fraternity’; and, finally, to know how to appreciate good food and wine.
That last one is what intrigued me when I was in college. I had often been told that, to communicate in French, it is enough to do a few levels at the Alliance Franchise, but to truly speak French, to understand how their mind works, the two most effective ways prescribed to me were (A) get a French girlfriend/boyfriend; and (B) understand food and wine. I will honestly admit that (B) was much easier.
So that is how I found myself at the L’Université du Vin in a small village with a long name, Suze-La-Rousse. It was here that the foundations for me becoming a sommelier were laid. When I started, I didn’t quite understand the fascination the French held for marinated salmon, or raw beef, for that matter. I didn’t quite get what made them gush endlessly over just the names of winemaking regions. I couldn’t picture what they were in their mind every time someone mentioned ‘foie gras’ or ‘Sauternes’—not for the next few months anyway.
But then, and I don’t know when, something for me changed. I saw myself choosing one bakery over another, being picky over the mustard I used and spending an inordinate amount of time staring at the wine wall every time I was deputed to pick the dinner wine. Also, as part of my training (I did apprenticeships in regions as diverse as Bordeaux and Alsace), I started realising how each was unique and special in its own way. I stopped comparing and started appreciating.
The final blow was almost two years later when I was back in India and working with wines for a few months when a famed French chef came calling. I was fortunate enough to be accorded a seat at the table and one bite into his food and I felt transported back to France. I could not just see it all, but even imagined that I could smell it too: the lavender by the roadside, the fruit and flower stands at the Sunday markets, the charcuterie, the local winery, it all came flooding back with just one bite. I realised that somewhere I had never left France.
Today, it’s almost two decades to the day that I first stepped on French soil and yet not one visit to my second motherland goes without extreme moments of nostalgia and reminiscing. I’d encourage you all to visit it and not just once if only to understand that the passion the French feel for their food and wine is part of not just their history, but their very DNA. And one trip will not even begin to unravel this for you. Sure, do the Eiffel Tower, but once you have ticked it off, head out, let the gardens and castles of Loire lure you, enjoy the contrast that are the wines of Burgundy and Bordeaux, sip Champagne like the royals, get some beach time with Provence rosé and, finally, round it all off with a sip of Sauternes or Cognac, or both! And at each stop, make sure to eat with the local chefs who know how to glorify these wines even further with the right food accompaniments.
Many don’t know that when Hitler conquered France, among the many things he looted the country for—paintings, scriptures, priceless art—wine, too, featured high on his list. Not to drink, but for its value, and for how it would demoralise the French to be distanced from it. Which probably explains Churchill’s famous remark: “Remember, it’s not just France we’re fighting for, it’s Champagne!”
Today, in India, I find myself often fighting for French wines. Or wine in general. The high taxes, the lethargic logistics, the morbid pricing, no wonder we think of good food and wine as a luxury rather than a socio-cultural indulgence. So, if you really wish to be kissed by the magic of gastronomy, then do it like I learnt French—pursue their food and wine. And in case you choose to get a partner, aim for a chef or a winemaker!
The writer is a sommelier