Last week, UNESCO declared that French gastronomy (or rather what was termed as "the gastronomic meal of the French" or "le repas gastronomique des Français" in French) would be added to the organization's list of humanity's intangible cultural heritage. Along with 45 other newly added traditions such as Chinese acupuncutre, Colombian marimba music and traditional skills of carpet weaving in different parts of Iran, this means that the French gastronomic meal has been officially recognized as "a social custom aimed at celebrating the most important moments in the lives of individuals and groups," in UNESCO language. As you can imagine, most French people and Francophiles were thrilled with this news last week, as evidenced by the media reaction.
What exactly is meant by "the gastronomical meal of the French"? According to UNESCO:
The gastronomic meal of the French is a customary social practice for celebrating important moments in the lives of individuals and groups, such as births, weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, achievements and reunions. It is a festive meal bringing people together for an occasion to enjoy the art of good eating and drinking. The gastronomic meal emphasizes togetherness, the pleasure of taste, and the balance between human beings and the products of nature. Important elements include the careful selection of dishes from a constantly growing repertoire of recipes; the purchase of good, preferably local products whose flavours go well together; the pairing of food with wine; the setting of a beautiful table; and specific actions during consumption, such as smelling and tasting items at the table.
The gastronomic meal should respect a fixed structure, commencing with an apéritif (drinks before the meal) and ending with liqueurs, containing in between at least four successive courses, namely a starter, fish and/or meat with vegetables, cheese and dessert. Individuals called gastronomes who possess deep knowledge of the tradition and preserve its memory watch over the living practice of the rites, thus contributing to their oral and/or written transmission, in particular to younger generations. The gastronomic meal draws circles of family and friends closer together and, more generally, strengthens social ties.
By this definition, I think that French gastronomy deserves to be recognized by all means. However even though this may sounds like sacrilege to some, I'm...gasp...actually not a huge fan of French cuisine! In spite of the incredible products available here and several French specialties which I adore (quiches and tarts, goat cheese salad and of course a good number of the pastries and desserts), most French cooking at cafes and bistros in Paris is generally...well....not very impressive.
Now of course I am slightly biased in that I'm a vegetarian in a country where the idea of not eating meat or fish is still a strange concept and the idea of vegetarian food is generally a plate of raw or steamed vegetables (ahhhh, légumes à la vapeur, how I love thee...not!). But my disappointment is confirmed by carnivorous friends of mine too, who bemoan the blandness, lack of creativity and conservative character of most French restaurants. Among gastronomes, Paris is seen as a has-been city, bypassed long ago by New York, London, Madrid, Tokyo, Sydney and other culinary hotspots. If you really want innovative, excellent food in France these days, be prepared to go to a high-end restaurant and dish out lots of cash. This demise has been chronicled by many food writers, including Michael Steinberger in Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France, which I am currently reading.
Regardless, French gastronomy as it is defined by UNESCO in the sense of the French way of eating definitely merits accolades, in my opinion. The insistence (at least in some circles) on fresh, local products, the sequencing of courses, pairing of specific foods with specific wines, the way of setting the table and the joy and pleasure taken in eating as a ritual to be cherished everyday rather than gobbled down at your desk or via a drive-through...this is the joy of eating in France! And it's something that I know I will miss if we go back to the United States, where in spite of much evolution recently, taking time to enjoy meals is still the exception rather than the rule.
As an ode to this, the UNESCO distinction and my country of residence in general, I decided to make a French dinner on the day that the big news was announced. Vegetable-based flans, which I oddly discovered in the not-so-nice UNESCO cafeteria, are an obsession of mine. I've never made one but decided to make an attempt with the beautiful hunk of pumpkin that we picked up in the market recently. Not just your standard French vegetable flans of course, but spicy pumpkin ones ones perked up with ginger, chili and a "secret" ingredient...curry paste!
SPICY PUMPKIN FLANS
Makes 4 flans
1 1/4 pounds (600 grams) fresh pumpkin, deseeded
1 teaspoon olive oil
2 tablespoons ginger paste
1-2 green chillies chopped (depending on how spicy you want your flans to be), optional
1 tablespoon curry paste (I used Patak's mild curry paste)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon agave syrup or honey
3/4 cup (20 cl) cream (crème fraîche liquide)
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Preheat oven to 400F/200C.
2. Peel, deseed (if your pumpkin still has seeds) and chop the pumpkin into large chunks. Pre-cook in a microwave for 5-6 minutes to soften.
3. Heat olive oil in large casserole over medium heat. Add the ginger paste and green chillies if using. Saute for a couple of minutes and then add the curry paste. Saute a minute more. Add the pumpkin chunks and cook until very soft.
4. Add cinnamon, nutmeg and agave syrup/honey. Stir well to ensure that the pumpkin is evenly seasoned. Remove from heat and allow to cool.
5. In a food processor, mix the eggs, cream, salt and pepper. Once a smooth, frothy mixture is obtained, add the cooked pumpkin. Mix in the processor until liquidified.
6. Spray 4 ramekins with cooking/baking spray. Evenly divide the pumpkin mixture among the 4 ramekins.
6. Place the flans in a large baking dish filled with water (a bain-marie, as it is called in French). Place the dish carefully into the oven and bake the flans for 40 minutes to an hour (depending on the strength of your oven, ours is pretty weak!). You will know that your flans are done when you can insert a toothpick in the middle and no watery mixture seeps out.
Makes 4 chaussons
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/2 large yellow onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/4 cup (300 grams) mixed mushrooms (I used a blend of oyster mushrooms, button mushrooms, shitakes, porcinis and chanterelles)
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup (60 ml) cream (crème fraîche liquide)
1 teaspoon good Dijon mustard (I used an excellent mustard with chanterelles, shallots and chevril from the one and only Maille)
1 packet puff pastry (pâte feuilletée)
1. Preheat oven to 350F/175C.
2. Heat olive oil over a medium skillet and add onion and garlic.
3. Once the onions have become translucent, add the mixed mushrooms. Cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add thyme, salt and pepper to taste. Lower heat and simmer for 2-3 minutes.
4. Remove from heat and stir in cream and mustard. Stir well and cool slightly. You should have a creamy mushroom filling at this point.
5. Remove the puff pastry from wrapper and unroll. Using a large cookie cutter mold, cut into four large circles.
6. Working one circle at a time, place the mushroom filling on one half of each circle. Fold the other half over so that you have half-moon (chausson) shapes. Seal edges with a fork.
7. Place on a baking sheet coated with cooking/baking spray. Bake in the oven for about 15 minutes or until golden and puffy.