Why Is French Food So Brown?

Undercover

It was an early April morning, light cloud sitting over the Seine masked the attempt of the sun to break through. A winter’s chill still lingered in the depths of the side streets as we headed towards the light of the river. We were in need of caffeine. One of those typical Parisian pavement cafes beckoned, its windows steamed up by glassed-in-warmth. We chose a table facing the outside world and sat in wicker bistro chairs, surrounded by blackboard menus and dark red paint. A weary looking Madame approached, and I stuttered out an order in bad French. Her expression indicated that I had only succeeded in murdering her native language. Fiona stepped in and ordered coffee and croissants for us both. Her twelve years living like a local in France has paid off.

The brown milky coffee arrived, swiftly followed by croissants of a darker shade that failed to break up into the expected flakes of buttery heaven I’ve come to associate with French pastries (I’ve bought better from M&S). “That’s the problem,” I said.
“What is?” Fiona asked, as she rejected her croissant after tasting one bite.
“The food is all brown,” I replied.
“Brown?”
“Yes, brown. Unless it’s a salad leaf or two, every meal I’ve eaten this weekend has been brown. Saturday’s lunch, was a plate of mixed ‘charcuterie’ – all dark reds with only a gherkin providing green relief. Supper at a neighbourhood bistro was ‘gigot d’agneau’ in a dark brown ‘jus’, served with flageolet beans – very tasty but all very brown. Sunday lunch was fried turbot served on a bed of beige puree. I couldn’t even recognise what vegetable it was supposed to be. And this morning, here we are again, coffee and un-buttery croissants. It’s all brown!”
“I suppose it is,” Fiona said. “I hadn’t really thought of it before – maybe I’ve gone native? I mean, we do eat salads here in France. They’re green!”

Brown lamb and brown beans
Brown lamb and brown beans

We agreed there was definitely a difference between a meal served in a London restaurant and one served in Paris. The British serve meat, be it of the dark or white variety, beef, lamb, chicken or pork – surrounded by vegetables, even if it’s only peas. Whilst in France you are lucky to be served with anything more than ‘pommes boulangère’! Very nice potatoes, but still potatoes and still brown.

I returned to London later that day, and restored my digestive system with a bowl of lightly steamed tender stem broccoli squirted with oil, lemon juice and a sprinkle of chilli flakes. Then the next day, my son took me out for a late Mother’s Day lunch at an Italian restaurant in Clerkenwell, Palatino where I was served a pile of velvety spinach with my saltimbocca (more about that another time).

Brown meat and Green spinach
Brown meat and Green spinach

A couple of days later we had a French guest to stay. For supper I served grilled goat cutlets on a bed of spring greens before asking the big question – “Why don’t French restaurants serve vegetables with their entrées?”
“Ah, you mean ‘warm greens’?” Roman replied. “Well we eat them at home. My wife, she likes broccoli.” Then he did that Gallic shrug thing and the topic was changed.

I was really confused. I know the French markets are full of locally-grown vegetables, with the emphasis on local. Even in Paris they don’t seem to sell as many varieties of ‘international’ vegetables as they do here in London, but promote their own regional produce. So why don’t Parisian restaurants serve ‘warm greens’ to accompany the main course? Why does it all have to be so brown?

The question had clearly puzzled Fiona as well. We Skyped the next day. “I’ve been doing some research,” she said. “I’ve looked at menus for some top Paris restaurants and what they all seem to do is decide what vegetable you eat with your meat or fish, so no choice of vegetables to add to the plate, and it’s almost by way of decorative accompaniment. I remember when I was in London, just about every restaurant had a whole range of side dishes on offer.” She mentioned having business lunches at Langan’s Brasserie. “And there were loads of different vegetables to chose from.”

Being a doubting Thomas by nature, I checked Langan’s current menu later on the web site. Fiona was right – there were 13 different vegetables listed on the restaurant’s menu.

We spoke again a few days later. “There’s obviously a big difference between eating out at a restaurant where you expect to have several courses – which gives you a chance to have salad or vegetarian starter – and eating at home.” Fiona said.
“Well that’s the same in London,” I replied.  “We normally only eat two courses at home, even if we have guests round. Starters and/or puddings, but I always include one or two vegetables with whatever I am cooking for a main.”
“My first experience of eating food with a French family was when I was staying in Paris,” Fiona said. “I was amazed by the types of meals that were put on the table. We’d quite often sit down to a simple green salad of lettuce with a dressing, then have a steak ‘bien saignant’.”
“Oh yes, steak served good and bloody and not cremated to death á la Anglaise.”
“Yes – and we’d mop up the juices with a baguette. But what completely flummoxed me was then being served a plate of ‘soufflée de pommes de terre’ all on it’s own. Admittedly, it’s nothing like British mashed potato. It’s really fine and fluid – we’d melt lots of butter into it and eat it with a sprinkling of salt and pepper. And then there would be cheese and fruit – very rarely any pudding.”

“Well, I can remember having to push boiled potatoes through a sieve for my mother’s dinner parties, a sieve. Thank goodness we have blenders these days. Then she would add butter, cream, season and sprinkle over a touch of nutmeg. Very French.”- Judi

We agreed that at our age (a bit over the sixty mark), we can no longer cope with eating three/four course meals. “So if you just order the ‘gigot d’agneau’,” Fiona pointed out, “that’s all you’re going to get. I rather like it. It makes you concentrate on the flavour. It made me realise potatoes had quite a wonderful taste! I’d never really thought about them before, just always covered them with gravy.”
“I’m not a potato fan, as you know,” I replied. “I can’t see the point – apart from Jersey Royals, and that is a very short season. But it’s also a colour thing. I was taught, at some point in my cooking career, to have a variety of colours and textures on the plate, to make it look more appetising.”

“Well if you want to understand more about the French attitude to vegetables I can lend you the book I found last week – “La Cuisine des Provinces de France”, written by M.F.K Fisher in 1970 for Time-Life.”
“I’m not sure my French is up to reading a whole cook book.”
“Well, in her day, Fisher was quite a culinary legend in the USA. And she worked on the book with another American legend – Julia Child – but apparently it was a stormy collaboration. From what I’ve read, she sounds really fascinating. Anyway, because she was writing to explain to American readers how the French eat  – which you certainly wouldn’t find in a French book written for the French – she goes into some detail to explain that, if for instance, the meal starts with an hors d’oeuvre of asparagus or artichoke, then the French wouldn’t dream of adding more vegetables to the main course of the meal, apart from perhaps some potatoes. They’d then serve up a salad – very plain, just lettuce – before offering cheese and then fruit.”

“I forgot to mention that quite a few restaurants in Toulouse start the meal with a simple plate of lettuce sprinkled with walnuts and a salad dressing – then you get your choice of meat or fish with ‘frites’ – then cheese (and a ‘dessert’ if you’re still hungry). There’s no choice of starter and no additional vegetables.” Fiona

I felt slightly wiser but then another question crossed my mind. “How do the French remain so thin, eating all those courses?” Still, that’s for another discussion… At least we agreed that both nations seem to celebrate Easter by eating the first lamb of the season.

In London I order my lamb from a local butcher Turner & George, because I know that it’s locally sourced from a herd of Suffolk Cross sheep at Wick Farm, Essex. But as this year, we’ve been invited for Sunday lunch by my youngest daughter, we are therefore marking ‘Good Friday’ by eating a ‘Lamb Henry’ – the butcher’s euphemism for a thick steak taken from the middle of a leg. Served of course with a pile of steamed asparagus and boiled and minted Jersey Royal potatoes. Lashings of Guernsey butter on both!

ROASTED LEG OF LAMB – PREPARATION TIME 1.5 HRS APPROX. SERVES A HUNGRY 4 – WITH LEFTOVERS.

One leg of spring lamb – about 1.5 kilos
A good handful of rosemary, leaves stripped from stalk
2-3 cloves of garlic cut into thin slivers

Preheat the oven to 190C and move the shelf to the middle.

METHOD

I’ll state right away, I am quarter French and not into cremated meat, so this is cooked to medium. If your preference is for grey coloured meat with the juices dried out, you are on your own.

Ensure you take the joint out of the fridge a good hour before cooking, so that it has time to reach room temperature.

Heat up a frying pan to smoking hot. Sear the lamb on all sides until coloured – two to three minutes approx. Remove from pan. When the meat is cool to touch, make tiny slits all over the joint and stud them with a rosemary leaf and a sliver of garlic. It’s especially important to get these slivers in between the fat and bone layers so the fat melts and transfers the flavours into the meat.

Place on an oven tray, or even on a wire rack in an oven tray if you want the drippings to fall down onto roasting potatoes.

Cook for about 1 hour and 20 minutes. If you have a meat thermometer the temperature you are aiming for a medium is 135F/57C – 140F/60C. The ratio for cooking is about 25 minutes to the pound/0.450grammes.

Then the most important bit – let it rest uncovered on a warm plate (not hot) for at least 20 mins before serving. During this time you can cook whatever vegetables you are serving with it.

” If you are like me and you are cooking lamb for two, then prepare the Lamb Henry’s the same way, brown in a skillet either side, add herbs and garlic and transfer to the oven for ten minutes only. Also remember to leave the meat to rest for 10 minutes before serving. Enjoy your Easter” – Judi

Lamb Henrys in waiting

 

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