This is a story about a French paradox. Not the one that explains how the French can consume endless quantities of butter and foie gras-without gaining excess weight or keeling over from heart disease. (The solution to that paradox, seemingly, lies in drinking lots of red wine.)
No, the paradox puzzling me has to do with how a nation that reputedly has the world’s greatest cuisine can do without what is arguably the world’s most basic, primal, and universal cooking method: grilling.
That’s right, grilling. Thumb through any of the great reference books on French cuisine-from Escoffier to Bocuse-and you’ll find few if any recipes for grilling. Dine at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris and you’d be hard pressed to find a single dish that is grilled. Sautéed? Yes. Roasted? Yes. Baked. Broiled. Fried. Even steamed. But grilling simply isn’t a part of the classic French culinary repertory.
So does this mean that the French don’t like barbecue? Not on your life. It turns out that the French are ardent grillers. Just not at their high-profile restaurants.
So where do you find French grilling? Well, first of all, in the countryside. Especially in Provence. This most Mediterranean of French provinces is the epicenter of grilling, featuring casual grill eateries and country inns where embers blaze away in fireplaces. Traditionally, live-fire cooking was done indoors over the hearth, and it remains as much an activity done in winter as in summer.
One such establishment bears the evocative name of La Grillade au Feu de Bois (The Wood Fire Grill). Located in an eighteenth-century Provençal farmhouse in the hamlet of Flassons-Sur-Issole, the restaurantncountry inn features simple lamb chops and massive rib steaks grilled over blazing vine trimmings in an ancient stone fireplace. As in most French grilling, the seasonings are simple: olive oil, salt, pepper, and a sprinkling of herbes de Provence.
Seafood restaurants are another source of live-fire cooked French fare-especially on the coast. One of the most famous dishes of the Côte d’Azur is sea bass flamed with fennel. The fish is grilled over dried fennel stalks and flambéed-theatrically at tableside-with an anise-flavored liqueur, like Pernod.
Less well known but no less delectable is raito, a dish of grilled tuna served with a red wine, olive, and caper sauce that I first tasted at an inn on a remote Mediterranean island called Porquerolles.
The French also do a lot of grilling at home. One of a Frenchman’s favorite social gatherings bears the curious name of mechouie. The term comes from North Africa, where it refers to a whole spit-roasted lamb. It’s interesting to note that the French had to borrow a term from another language to describe a backyard barbecue.
Some years ago, I attended a mechouie with friends at a farmhouse in the Champagne region. A huge fire had been built, using vine stalks. The fare ranged from grilled lamb to sanguine sirloin steaks to pork chops. The only remotely North African element in this mechouie was a spicy Algerian sausage called merguez. This lurid red sausage has become a fixture on the French culinary landscape.
But with a little persistence, you don’t even need to leave Paris to find great live-fire cooking. In fact, in most cases you don’t have to go much farther than a neighborhood charcuterie. The French do all things culinary well, but no one can beat them at spit-roasted chicken.
The French rotisserie is an awesome contraption, a tall vertical hearth with horizontal rows of mechanical turnspits that spin in front of what looks like a wall of flame. (Said wall of flame is created by rows of horizontal gas burners.) Fresh chickens are placed on the top turnspit, and as they turn, the dripping fat bastes the more cooked birds below. Sure, the quality of the poultry helps. But equally important is cooking method: the high, even heat of the wall of flames.
So, barbecue buffs, when you visit France, don’t despair of finding great grilling-you just have to know where to look for it. Which just goes to show that even a Frenchman knows a good paradox when he sees one.
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