There are many kinds of French cuisine. It is not limited to the haute cuisine accessible only to the rich.
What many of us think of as “French cuisine” is actually haute cuisine, the cuisine that evolved from the aristocratic cuisine of the royalty. This cuisine was centered mainly in Paris and Versailles. Regional cuisine as we know it today did not even exist at the time, since regions didn’t exist until after the Revolution. Until the Revolution, there were provinces and feudal “kingdoms,” abolished afterward. Cuisine bourgeoise, the cooking of the upper middle classes and later middle classes, developed after the Revolution, and gradually filtered down to the broader population.
Regions didn’t formally exist by name until 1890, so there was little meaning attached to the word “region”. One cooked and ate what was available, what one grew and raised and that varied widely. Even the gruel was made with different grains in different regions. Regions only formed an identity after this. Knowledge of regional cuisines increased as travel became easier and accessible to all, especially after the generalization of cars.
French cuisine has always consisted of two tiers: haute cuisine and regional cuisine. Elements of haute cuisine — the cuisine that we inherited from the courts and later the affluent bourgeoisie, the cuisine that elevated sauce-making to an art form — have over the centuries infiltrated the cuisine of the regions, and regional cuisine is the lifeline and wherein lies the future.
Today the lines between regional cuisine or cuisine de terroir, cuisine bourgeoise, Nouvelle Cuisine, and haute cuisine are blurred, although haute cuisine remains somewhat in a category on its own mainly because it is unaffordable to most of the population, as it has always been. The Trente Glorieuses, the prosperous years between 1945 and 1975, brought about more social equality in terms of buying power and education, helping make most of the other cuisines accessible to a larger segment of the population. This in turn meant that these cuisines were brought into the home and no longer reserved solely for restaurants, bringing about a revival of the regional home cuisine of the past, and modernizing French eating habits. The French eat lighter now than they once did. When one looks at cooking magazines today, recipes often mirror what we would have called Nouvelle Cuisine in the 1970s and 80s. Practically everyone cooks and eats cuisine bourgeoise, dishes like braised duck with turnips, which has become simply plain home cooking, eaten all over the country now, thanks to its prominent place in the food media and from more people having experienced it in their neighborhood bistro.
Jonell Galloway grew up on Wendell Berry and food straight from a backyard Kentucky garden. She is a freelance writer. She attended Le Cordon Bleu and La Varenne cooking schools in Paris and the Académie du Vin, worked for the GaultMillau restaurant guide and CityGuides in France and Paris and for Gannett Company in the U.S., and collaborated on Le tour du monde en 80 pains / Around the World with 80 Breads with Jean-Philippe de Tonnac in France; André Raboud, Sculptures 2002-2009 in Switzerland; Ma Cuisine Méditerranéenne with Christophe Certain in France, At the Table: Food and Family around the World with Ken Albala, and a biography of French chef Pierre Gagnaire. She ran a cooking school in France, and owned a farm-to-table restaurant, The Three Sisters’ Café, with her two sisters in the U.S. She organizes the Taste Unlocked bespoke food and wine tasting awareness workshops with James Flewellen, is an active member of Slow Food, and runs the food writing website The Rambling Epicure. Her work has been published in numerous international publications and she has been interviewed on international public radio in France, Switzerland, and the U.S. She has just signed on at In Search of Taste, a British print publication, and is now working on two books, The French and What They Eat and What to Eat in Venice.