French dining: elegance without effort

By Max Shadbolt

I genuinely believe that elegance can be achieved without too much effort. Be it in fashion, the way one composes oneself, or the way one eats, I believe in elegance without effort. There is no country, in my mind, that epitomises this more than France, a terrace in the South of which I am currently sitting on as I write. I am at an hotel that my family have been coming to for three generations, and according to them (granted this is after a long lunch) the food has never changed. Why is this? Because the French believe in ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. I’m not sure what the direct translation of that would be but I’m sure someone will pass it along at some point.

There is a lot one can say about the French. Being an Historian there is an awful lot one can say about the French, but what I will focus on is ‘elegance without effort’. Take the menu from today, for example: beautiful, fresh seafood (I’m by the sea so can virtually see my main course when I’m having my early-morning dip) fresh veg, beautiful herbs and, for pud, fruit that is virtually still growing on the plate. There is nothing on the menu that makes my year ten French vocabulary strain at the lead – one just simply knows that it will be fresh, beautiful and will make your taste buds party like the Irish on Paddy’s Day.

My lunch for today: mussels – a long way from the scarily-named meals of cordon bleu and haute cuisine – simply served in a gorgeous meunière sauce avec creme (it had an actual name but it’s been a particularly long lunch), and a plate of chips (‘frites’ for those of you not associated with the language of Napoleon and that footballer who keeps head-butting people). Now don’t get me wrong, I adore the odd fine dining experience as much as the next French bloke, but can you honestly beat beautifully-prepared mussels in a hot, creamy broth with a few pieces of warm crusty bread for dipping? I don’t think so… And if you can then you either don’t like mussels or you don’t like cream; either way, this dish isn’t for you. But it’s the simplicity of the thing. From a country that do beaches that would make Constable turn in his East Anglian grave, and hill sides that would make Michelangelo blush, the French just do simplicity so well and with so much elegance. I have forgiven them for Napoleon, I will eventually forgive them for the way they serve Tea, but something I will never forgive them for is the way that they take fantastically simple cooking and make it sublime. The Brits have spent a millennia trying to make the Yorkshire Pud look sublime, and yet, nothing! We can learn a lot from the French; maybe not how to conduct warfare or how to look after one’s monarchy, but we can certainly take away ‘elegance without effort’ as the basis for our culinary expansion.

Vive la France – I never thought I’d say that…


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