Do you remember your first epicurean epiphany? The memorable moment when a taste was so surprising, so savory, it altered the way you experienced eating?
Mine came at 18, in southwest France heading to surf the storied seaboard of the Pays Basque. The season was autumn, the wind was offshore, and the item was a tarte de poires. Raised in the South Pacific on canned pears, I never even imagined baking them, let alone open-faced in a crisp, flaky pastry.
My tastebuds would never be the same.
Over the next decade, my wanderlust drew me across six continental coastlines, chasing the elusive endless summer. Wave envy, travel lust and gourmet gluttony were proud sins of my slothful youth. Surfing and eating through each region, I began to see a pattern: Wherever the food seemed extraordinary, it was influenced by the complicated history of French colonialism.
Searching for surf around the globe, I was following the swells. But as I began to realize, when it came to eating, I was following the path where French colonizers left a heavy mark.
Even in the most far-flung provinces, French style impacted local menus. The former French colonies of Maghreb – Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco – are the culinary stars of Africa. French Polynesia offers decidedly better fare than the rest of the South Pacific. Nothing in the Caribbean compares to the French West Indies concoctions in Guadeloupe, Martinique and Saint Barts.
In India’s southeastern territory of Pondicherry, where the French retained a settlement for almost three centuries, the use of eggs, cream and broad beans (still called French beans there) resulted in serendipitous innovations. Along the Kerala coast you might be startled to find items like chai tea crème brulée, goose liver samosas or Parisian Mumbai salad.
New Orleans is an obvious example, but you don’t have to look further than hometown USA to see French influence over American cuisine: Hollandaise on your Benedict? Balsamic vinaigrette on your salad or cognac-peppercorn sauce on your filet mignon? All French. Ever since Lafayette ruined Cornwallis’ last supper in Yorktown, Yanks have heartily embraced the culinary contributions of our Gallic allies. Chicken Cordon Bleu with a side of french fries and a glass of cabernet sauvignon are as Californian as they are French.
It’s well known that Thomas Jefferson was a passionate Francophile and gastronome. In order to form a more perfect union, Jefferson paired Parisian recipes with the first American vineyards grafted from fine Bordeaux grapes at Monticello. Love Oysters Rockefeller or Boston crème pie? Thank French chefs. They mixed the ingredients and invented those recipes in America. From the day Benjamin Franklin first visited Versailles, we have held these truths to be self evident: Wherever the French arrive, the cooking is forever changed.
Take Mexico: Culinary historians consider modern Mexican cooking to be a fusion of three cuisines: Native American, Spanish and, surprising to many who don’t know the details of Mexican history, French. Napoleon III, seeing a chance to tap more treasure in the New World, installed his brother Maximilian, archduke of Austria, as emperor of Mexico. Maximilian’s wife Carlota introduced the Mexican aristocracy to French chefs, which, like the rest of the world, they embraced with mucho gusto.
Native ingredients and French culinary methods made a fruitful marriage. New World foods like avocados, squash blossoms, tomatoes and chocolate produced scrumptious pairings.
Mexico’s fortuitous upshot? Delicious sauces and cooking techniques that helped create one of the world’s five great cuisines. South-of-the-border food lovers wouldn’t have flan, pescado Vera Cruz or chiles en nogado without the French.
Maximilian’s reign was a short one. Admiration for French fare did not divert Benito Juárez from waging a successful guerrilla war; in less than five years the archduke was overthrown.
Max lost his head, but Mexico gained a gastronomic gold card. Both President Juárez and successor Porfirio Díaz made la comida afrancescada(“Frenchified” cooking) ubiquitous; its prominence was a measure of the aristocracy’s taste and status. A Cordon Bleu chef in a Mexican manor was de rigueur; menus referred to dishes in French terms for the next half-century. And Mexico was hardly alone. In the grand colonial period, tableware, menus, etiquette and equipment were dominated by the langue françoise from Madagascar to Moscow.
Catherine the Great, determined to drag her oligarchs kicking and toasting into the modern world, introduced French cooking to the Russian palate. The Muscovite nobility became so enamored with French food they sent their chefs to Lyon to study their kitchen methodology. The tasty little secret is that many of Russia’s most famous dishes were French from the get-go.
Beef Stroganoff may be the eminent case in point: Long considered a classic of Russian cuisine, it was actually concocted by French chef Charles Briere in 1891. He won a St. Petersburg cooking contest with a dish he named in honor of the Stroganoffs, the Russian family who had been his benefactor.
Charlotte Russe, a truly regal dessert created for Czar Alexander I, came from the incomparable Marie-Antoine Careme, one of French gastronomy’s founding fathers. Veal Orlov is not Russian either, though the Soviets enthusiastically embraced the dish as their own. Popularized by Chef Urbain Dubois at the Russian Embassy in Paris, it quickly went viral throughout Russia. Chef Dubois appears to have been an astute diplomat himself: He named the dish after his boss, Prince Nicolas Olav, the Russian ambassador to France.
By the late 1800s, French dining fashion was widely imitated in Russia. Then Lenin’s 1917 guillotine dropped on the aristocracy like a cleaver on a sturgeon full of caviar. Although God and nobles were summarily banished, French food was mercifully not. The new Soviet elite continued to wolf haute cuisine with the same élan as their vodka-swilling Czarist predecessors. And still do. Liberté, égalité, gastronomie!
Although Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1806 invasion of Italy is often given credit for introducing French cooking to the booted peninsula, he was certainly not the first. The French Savoy family who ruled the Northern Italian regions for almost 500 years can claim that honor. Not surprisingly, use of ingredients like butter instead of olive oil, and truffles instead of Porcini mushrooms, are French influences. The border region of Lombardy adopted blue-veined cheese over mozzarella, and substituted rice for the ubiquitous Italian pasta. Piedmont’s beef and Val d’Aosta’s cream follow the traditions of France while eschewing the traditional tomatoes and pizza-based dishes of the Latin south.
But the most exquisite francophone contributions to Italian cuisine are the delicate, intricate pastries from Parma. Much to the city’s delight, its most beloved patron – Maria Louisa, the Duchess of Parma – brought French pâtisserie chefs to the city while she was married to Napoleon Bonaparte. That was, of course, before she took a lover – Parma’s dashing, decorated hero General Adam Albert von Neipperg – and astutely ditched the Little Corsican faster than the Imperial Guard at Waterloo. The revered duchess and her prince ruled Parma for the next 30 years, cementing the city’s everlasting fame for its adaptive mastery of French pastry.
Six thousand miles and a century later, another infamous national character is connected to the French food influence on his country: Ho Chi Minh. And what was his first career before becoming the communist leader of his divided country? He trained as a pastry chef in a French kitchen, before getting a job on a Gaulois tramp steamer bound for Marseille from Saigon in 1911. Although it’s a stretch to picture him using a rolling pin to make dough instead of a club to whack gendarmes, records confirm he spent three years in Paris and then went on to work under a French chef in London’s famed Carlton Hotel restaurant. (Perhaps he also learned an army marches on its stomach?)
Two hundred years of colonial culture soaked Vietnam like a heavy monsoon. France introduced the coffee bean, and the Robusta variety grown in the south is famous for its distinctive, chocolaty flavor. Vietnam is now the world’s second-largest coffee producer. Not surprisingly, café culture is a big part of Vietnam’s social life – the aroma of fresh baguettes is as ever-present in Saigon as along the Seine. The Vietnamese version, however, is made from rice flour mixed with the wheat, making them lighter and crispier than their continental counterparts. And a popular lunch item? Bahn mi, a sandwich commonly made with pate, mayonnaise, pickles and thin slices of pork on a fresh baguette.
Three oceans east, French West Indies planters combined their own rotisserie techniques with plein-air grilling methods of the Indigenous Peoples to develop one of the Caribbean’s most celebrated culinary contributions: the barbecue. The French phrase “de barbe à queue” literally translates to “from beard to tail.” Which pretty much describes a wild hog on a spit.
The French may even have invented “fusion” 300 years before it became an American cliché. On East Africa’s Reunion Island, the French sugar barons combined their world-famous Alsatian sausages with Indian curries, Chinese rice, tomatoes from Mexico, chiles from the Caribbean and a little local sugar cane to concoct rougaille, an original culinary composition.
Even the proud Greeks have been influenced by the French: Béchamel (a French “mother sauce”) is the star feature in moussaka and pastitso. Versions of these celebrated Hellenic dishes existed before béchamel entered the picture, yet it’s the sauce that gives these entrées the luscious, creamy textures that make them so popular.
Not every enhancement in food, of course, has come from la République Française. In the 21st century, the global baton has frequently been passed to America. Yet from Montreal to Mozambique and our own Orange County (bonjour Chef Pascal Olhats and Chef Florent Marneau!), France’s culinary impact remains. Whether the era is Auguste Escoffier’s, Jacques Pepin’s or Joël Robuchon’s, whenever the French intertwine with a culture, the food becomes deliciously complex. So if you are what you eat, and want to eat well – in any part of the globe – my recommendation is still to follow the French.