We recently cooked the richly extravagant Lobster Thermidor for a French dinner (and ate peasantly meals for the rest of the week). Our grocery budget liquefied into succulent mouthfuls of lobster, butter, cream and cognac.
After all, the cuisine of France wears many hats, and two of them are decadence and a kind of nourishing, rustic frugality.
Lobster Thermidor tasted divine, but it is not something I’ll be making again in a hurry. It’s a dish that has a retro feel these days: full of expensive ingredients, a rigid methodology, and heavy on the butter and cream.
I can embrace calorific overindulgence every so often, but it’s the elitism of French haute cuisine (high cuisine) I find off-putting, no matter how good the food is.
Dishes like Lobster Thermidor were the pinnacle of fine dining through much of the 20th Century. It was invented at Marie’s restaurant in Paris in 1894 and named in honour of a play about the French Revolution, which had opened at a theatre near the restaurant. The play was so controversial that it was pulled after just three nights – 100 years after the revolution the subject was still that divisive. ‘Thermidor’ is the name of a month in the short-lived Revolutionary Calendar, which was designed to replace the calendar of the old regime. Lobster Thermidor, very much not a dish of the people, lived on.
The late 19th/early 20th Century was the era of Georges Auguste Escoffier, the chef who redefined French cuisine to see it become the last word on luxury. He took many French peasant or cuisine bourgeois (middle class family cooking) dishes and turned these into luxurious haute cuisine. For example, he’d take a Provencal dish of potatoes and artichokes, remove the olive oil and garlic and substitute in butter and truffles.
Just how much Escoffier and French nationals before him contributed to the history of gastronomy is extraordinary. Our kitchen language is laden with French terminology because of all the techniques invented and codified in France. The French stopped using sugar throughout the meal, placed it at the end, and called that le dessert, and redirected the sugar to refining patisserie… In culinary terms, France is the motherland.
And yet, part of this legacy leaves me cold: the ruthless obsession with Michelin stars, a patriarchal kitchen culture and starchy waiters all seem rather joyless.
In the 2009 book ‘Au Revoir to All That: Food Wine and the End of France,’ journalist Michael Steinberger argues this culture has dated badly:
“Those [Michelin] stars now seemed more like emblems of a bygone era of fine dining than symbols of France’s gastronomic élan.”
He argues that for the first time in modern history France has lost its place at the pinnacle of cuisine, that Paris is lagging behind other world cities as gastronomic capitals and that France’s chauvinistic chef culture is an anachronism.
The France of cheerful neighbourhood bistros, serving decent steak frites or slow-cooked stews, with music and local wine, or of simple picnics with excellent bread, cheese and chacuterie, just seems much more alluring to a lot of us.
Despite following my Julia Child recipe, through some sloppy technique, lots of wine and intense Edith Piaf, I think I managed to turn my Lobster Thermidor from haute cuisine to something much more cuisine bourgeois. Nonetheless, lobster, butter, cream, cognac – it’s definitely worth trying once in your life.