A culinary expedition through France hunting for the root of the slow decline of the country’s acclaimed food and wine traditions.
Slate wine columnist Steinberger introduces his subject by asking, “Did [the French] no longer care to be the world’s gastronomic beacon?” In 2007, the author traveled to Paris for answers, kicking off his research by interviewing the eminent chef Guy Savoy, then briefly retracing the history of the country’s cuisine, beginning in the 16th century. He elucidates how the years under François Mitterand and Jacques Chirac, rife with economic stagnation, hurt restaurants, while newly rich patrons in Britain and the United States “bankrolled gastronomic revolutions” abroad. Steinberger also conferred with other famous chefs—including Alain Ducasse—and local makers of wine and cheese, asking for their thoughts on the state of culinary affairs. He illustrates how the dawn of the “Michelin [Guide] era” affected the global restaurant world, and met with the company’s current head, Frenchman Jean-Luc Naret, who confided that, contrary to some chefs’ suspicions that factors like nice bathrooms boost scores, “What matters is what’s on the plate.” Though modern French cooking has been the subject of many books, Steinberger’s meticulous research and personal hunger for objective truths bring surprising discoveries to light. A chapter about endangered cheeses, for instance, explains that increased standards of hygiene have meant fewer bacteria in milk, a change that has completely altered the production of Camembert. The author also wonders about the impact of France’s growing ethnic population on traditional restaurants, a question connected to the larger issue of who or what defines modern France and, by extension, its food.
An offering of fresh and engaging insights for foodies and Francophiles alike.