What do the French do when their economy and identity are under assault? Throw a dinner party, of course – a global one.
From Madagascar to Washington, D.C., more than 1,000 French chefs on five continents hosted multi-course gastronomic dinners last Thursday in celebration – and defense – of France's culinary prowess.
At one dinner, at the Chateau of Versailles west of Paris, around 600 guests (including NPR), dined in the lamp-lit Battles' Gallery, flanked by oil paintings of French military victories through the ages.
Some 350 years ago, Louis XIV, the "Sun King," wielded haute cuisine as a tool of the state. At Versailles, France was flexing those soft power muscles again.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told the guests at the Versailles dinner that France's heritage is its cuisine and wine. "It is a heritage that should not simply be contemplated, glorified and savored," said Fabius, "but built upon and showcased."
Still, the country's reputation as the world's premiere gastronomy has taken a hit in recent years. A 2010 book entitled Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine and the End of France declared that France's culinary "Golden Age" was long over. And last year, the prestigious British compilation of the World's 50 Best Restaurants failed to name a single French establishment to the top 10.
How to explain the decline? France has become one of the world's top consumers of fast food. And pre-prepared, industrially produced meals are now the dirty little secret of even some top French restaurants. Meanwhile, some of the most innovative cuisine has been coming from Denmark, Spain, the U.K. and the U.S.
The dinners at Versailles and across the world — events dubbed Gout de France (Good France) — were just the latest efforts by the French government to assert that the food is just as innovative, elegant and delicious as ever.
At Versailles, diners were regaled with a seven-course meal prepared by top chefs Alain Ducasse and Joel Robuchon. Courses including suckling lamb from the Pyrenees and salmon tartar topped with caviar were paired with first-growth wines from the French regions of Burgundy, Chablis and Bordeaux. The meal was both traditional — with a classic Roquefort, Camembert cheese plate — and original. Ducasse's creation of toasted quinoa stew with shaved truffles showed that French food is not stuck in the past.
Preserving the country's gastronomic heritage is also an economic imperative for the government. Tourism accounts for more than 7 percent of French GDP (France is the world's top tourist destination), and many visitors come to France to taste iconic dishes like magret de canard and boeuf bourguignon — and to imbibe.
Food is also fundamentally a matter of national identity, says Sorbonne scholar Jean-Robert Pitte, who led the 2010 campaign to include the multi-course French meal on UNESCO's list of the "world's intangible heritage."
"Gastronomy is definitely a cultural activity," says Pitte, who was in Washington, D.C., to attend the feast hosted by the French embassy there. (The wines, we can attest, were a revelation with their nuanced layering of flavors.)
What's more, says Pitte, food is "the action, the ritual of buying, preparing, sharing a good" meal. Food serves not just as a way to strengthen social ties, he says, but as a way to transmit the values at the core of French society.
Even as globalization spreads fast food across the globe, the French continue to take the act of eating very seriously. They consider an understanding of food – where it comes from, and how crops and animals are raised – to be fundamental. Freshness and local production are prized – in Paris alone, there are more than 250 outdoor food markets every week. And the idea of the table as a place for conviviality and sharing is still sacrosanct.
These ideals are passed on to future generations from the youngest age. Even pre-school children sit down to home-cooked, multi-course meals at day care, and they're encouraged to taste different foods and share in conversation at meal time.
The threats against French food traditions have mobilized the country to protect them. "Taste education" – in which students are taught how to savor foods, and about concepts like terroir – is now a formal part of the curriculum. Last fall, the government even unveiled a national food policy that aims to make "high-quality food and nutrition a foundational aspect of French citizenship."
Quite simply, says Pitte, the table unites the country. "The French are often divided along left, right, ethnic, religious and political lines," he says. "But around the table they agree. They come together."
With reporting by Maria Godoy in Washington and Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.