Our columnist creates a lunch honouring the French meal’s Unesco status.
The French meal’s Unesco status inspires Carol Drinkwater to create a lunch to savour
In 2010, the ‘Gastronomic Meal of the French’ was awarded Unesco World Heritage status. One usually thinks of monuments or locations bearing this distinguished appellation. However, Unesco has a fascinating list described as ‘intangible cultural heritage for humanity’.
Its experts defined the importance of French gastronomy as a ‘social custom aimed at celebrating the most important moments in the lives of individuals and groups.’ Eating in France, they claim, emphasises togetherness; it unites friends, families; it strengthens social ties.
What a remarkable feat the French have achieved. Those long lunches that have become the tradition for Sundays in the country. Sultry afternoons beneath the shade of a spreading fig tree, quaffing wine, slowly devouring generously filled plates around groaning wooden tables. Dozens of guests, ranging from babes perched on their mothers’ laps to the nonagenarians; laughing, sharing stories, building memories to cherish.
From this perfect and leisured activity, the French have also created great works of art such as Édouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. Remember the memorable film, Babette’s Feast, where the French refugee prepares a gourmet meal for her hosts?
Unesco’s listing follows a fixed structure commencing with an aperitif, followed by four successive courses: starter, meat or fish with vegetables, cheese, then dessert washed down with liqueurs. It includes the marrying of wines with the food.
Such a repast set me thinking of organising a huge alfresco lunch for loved ones, offering them quintessentially French dishes.
Let’s begin with escargots. The escargot is an edible land snail, although not all land varieties can be eaten and some are too small to bother with. Served with garlic, parsley and butter as an entrée, they are a delicacy. For very special occasions, I propose snail caviar.
Do you know that if you buy live snails, you cannot transport them on a high-speed train in France? Actually you can, but the snails must have their own ticket. Seriously. If you have not bought a ticket for your molluscs, you can be fined.
On to the main course for that family gathering. Suprême de pigeon, which is half the breast and a wing. Delicious when served with chestnuts or cèpes. The pigeons are farm-raised. You would not be serving a bird trained to carry messages or a wild one nabbed from the village square. There are excellent pigeon farms in the Loire Valley. Other choices might be sizzling roast chicken from the Bresse region or duck from the south-west.
Cheese. France produces between around 450 types of cheeses and these are grouped into eight categories. The nation’s annual output is close to one billion tons. You can eat cheese every day of the year and never choose the same one. Charles de Gaulle famously declared that it was impossible to run a country that had so many different types of cheese.
Tarte Tatin. This internationally renowned dessert was reputedly created by accident in the late 19th century by one of two sisters, Stéphanie and Caroline Tatin, at their hotel in Lamotte-beuvron in Loir-et-cher. One story goes that Stéphanie, while preparing a pie, overcooked the Reine des Reinettes apples, which caramelised. To disguise her error, she placed the pastry over the top and placed the tarte in the oven. When it was cooked, she flipped it over, and Caroline served it to diners, who acclaimed it.
Sometime later, the owner of Maxim’s, who was hunting in the region, stopped for lunch, discovered this marvel, ‘stole’ the recipe and added it to his Paris carte. The rest is history. The Hôtel Tatin, a restaurant gastronomique, is still in business if you prefer to take your loved ones out for that memorable slap-up feast.
Carol Drinkwater is the best-selling author of The Olive Farm series. Her latest work is The Lost Girl, a novel set in post-war Provence and modern-day Paris. Contact Carol at caroldrinkwater.com