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What's The Perfect Meal?

When Paris expat and best-selling author John Baxter read in an issue of the French newspaper Le Monde that the traditional French dinner—rich, savory feasts featuring liqueurs, meats, vegetables, cheeses, and desserts—was a thing of the past, he had questions. Were there really no restaurants that maintained France’s famous food culture? Could diners only expect blah, unexceptional meals? Or were there chefs who could still perform the “medieval rites,” like an ox roast, once celebrated in French cuisine? The answer, Baxter decided, would be fun to find out.

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And it was, as one can discern in his latest memoir,  (Harper Perennial, 2013). After criss-crossing the country (with plenty of memorable meals along the way), Baxter also curated the perfect French dinner menu, which he included in his book. The idea, he tells, is for anyone to enjoy the delectable flavors of traditional French cooking.

What makes it a perfect menu? And what did Baxter learn about dining in foreign lands that you can use on your next holiday? We caught up with the author to ask him about following the road less…eaten. What inspired The Perfect Meal?

John Baxter: The big French meal was declared an international treasure, like the Grand Canyon. I thought it would be interesting to see if these great, almost legendary dishes still lurked in parts of France, to see if I couldn’t affirm this tradition.

And did they?

Yes! In remote parts of the country, there are still meals being served the way they were 100 years ago. And it’s sad, because you can’t eat those sorts of dishes in restaurants. Instead, what you get is sort of a decreasing menu and once they boil it down to 20 basic dishes, they produce them industrially, which is the great threat to food.

How do you define traditional French fare?

Classic, dramatic dishes like Bouillabaisse—a rich seafood stew flavored with tomato and olive oil, colored with saffron and perfumed with garlic, pepper, and laurel. Beef bourguignon. Sautéed figs and vegetables. That’s why I created the perfect menu. I’ve adapted traditional recipes so that anyone can see and experience real French food in a home kitchen. There isn’t an ingredient people can’t find in their local market.

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Of all the cuisines to pick and write about, why French?

One has to separate the food from the way it's eaten. What I like about the food itself is the respect for ingredients; the emphasis on seasonality; on eating things when they are at their best. Rather than having avocados and strawberries all year round, the French eat them in season. Garriguette strawberries, white Napoleon cherries, Passe Crassane pears are all the better for only being available for a few weeks each year. One looks forward to them that much more.

As for the way food is eaten, the French place a greater emphasis on presentation and ceremony. A meal in France is about much more than eating. To be invited to dine in a French home is a compliment; most people eat in restaurants. Politeness, the quality of conversation, the way you dress and behave—these are as important as the food, particularly if a meal has business overtones. There are rules, for instance, about when and how you can talk business at table. Traditionally, serious discussion begins "between the pear and the cheese"—which is to say, at the end of the meal.

What should people actually eat in France or traveling in general?

It’s a good thing to get out of Paris [or the city you’re in], because on every trip you’re going to find something. For example, Lyon is a kind of gastronomic capital, and the food there is a lot of strange, rich, meaty dishes that most people could never eat. In Bordeaux, they cook with rich sauces and very fatty food, but have wonderful truffles and mushrooms. Or you can travel across to the Atlantic for oysters and seafood. That’s the real adventure of eating in France—so much is lurking over the horizon, and all you have to do is go there.

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Date: 06.12.2018, 14:24 / Views: 34234