Tuesday, August 4, 2009

La Patrimoine Gastronomique Au Villaret

Upon my return to Paris this past week from the countryside my father and I scheduled a tour of restaurants. Our first stop was Le Villaret, an interesting bistro with a rustic farm-like atmosphere in the 11th arrondissement. My father and I both started with a Provençal tomato tart topped with garlicky frog’s legs. The tart was overly greasy, practically drenched in olive oil but the frogs were wonderful and I always relish the opportunity to eat them. Paris is a great place to eat because there is such a diverse range of cuisines and foods to choose from, whether French, Italian, Chinese, or Middle Eastern. There is also a wealth of regional restaurants in Paris testament to a wider trend in French gastronomy. Terroir and la patrimoine gastronomique or culinary patrimony have become embedded in French culture since the early 1980s with the arrival and subsequent widespread acceptance of fast food chains like McDonalds. Much like in the United States, European city centers like Paris and Rome have seen the birth of alternate food movements that have rapidly grown in popularity. The organics, sustainability, locavore, and slow food movements have incarnations in France largely driven by people opposed to globalization and industrial food. These twin antagonists have given rise to a revival of two cornerstones of French culinary identity: regional cuisine and local foods.

Regional cuisines, local food goods, and anything related to terroir are in demand right now and restaurateurs, chefs, and politicos are responding to the trend. As a result Paris is rife with Basque, Provençal, Breton, and Niçois restaurants serving the regional foods of that gourmet cultural microcosm. This increased focus on regionalism and local knowledge lies at the heart of the social movement French food anthropologists call la patrimoine gastronomique, which situates itself in opposition to widespread homogeneity due to globalization. Le Villaret has its own characteristic cuisine that I would call neo-bistro fueled by la nouvelle cuisine, another major element of French culinary identity. The second courses all looked amazing and my father decided on the warm lobster salad with spring vegetables and herb vinaigrette. It was a simple dish composed of a perfectly steamed lobster half on a bed of sautéed carrots, peas, asparagus, and baby potatoes drizzled with a peppery vinaigrette reminiscent of pesto. I was jealous that I did not order it because it was both tasty and summery. The chef used fresh seasonal ingredients in inventive ways to produce rather light and intriguing dishes that were beautifully plated, directly inspired by the nouvelle cuisine movement in French cooking. La nouvelle cuisine is a response to the orthodoxy of la cuisine classique characterized by lighter, more delicate dishes and an increased emphasis on presentation. It is marked by a move from excessively fattening and rich dishes featuring large amounts of animal protein like butter, cream, and eggs in favor of more imaginatively prepared food and inventive usage of a diverse array of ingredients. Some of the main tenets of la nouvelle cuisine include that cooking times should be reduced to preserve natural flavors; that cuisine should feature and highlight the freshest possible ingredients; and that chefs should always strive to experiment.

Another aspect that I find particularly interesting is that the founding chefs of the movement, Bocuse, Troisgros, and Chapel, used regional dishes for inspiration instead of dishes. I believe the celebration of regional cooking in cuisine classiquela nouvelle cuisine is a product of French culinary identity rooted in the preservation of uniquely French regional foods and at odds with the perceived homogeneity brought by industrial food conglomerates like McDonald’s. My main course at Le Villaret was rabbit medallions with buttered cabbage and caramelized shallots, a gamey dish that was exceptionally well presented. The dish looked too artistic to eat and it was a shame that I did because it looked better than it actually ended up tasting. The rabbit was a little tough due to overcooking though the shallots were sweet and almost candy-like. Le Villaret is deeply emblematic of French nouvelle cuisine with hints of Provençal cooking, inventive pairing of flavors, and a detailed attention to presentation. La nouvelle cuisine is one of many social movements advocating locality, terroir, and the preservation of la patrimoine gastronomique, critical aspects of French culinary identity. As always, I encourage you to enjoy and share delicious food and home cooked meals with yourself and others!

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