In a gilded salon of the Hotel de Ville, Mayor Anne Hidalgo stood out from the sea of white-clad chefs arranged behind her, a sort of modern-day Marianne, leading the charge for liberty, equality and fraternity.
Despite the grand celebration of food and gastronomy of Paris to honor 84 Michelin-starred chefs, there was a somber note to the affair. Two months earlier, terrorist attacks in Paris had left 130 people dead and more than 360 injured. It was an attack on France itself and the way of life it represents.
When the mayor, with her slight frame and dark suit, took the podium after an introduction by renowned chef Alain Ducasse, I knew Paris and France would stand strong for its way of life. A huge part of that life, the soul of it, is food and the pleasure of the table.
“Gastronomy is at the heart of our art de vivre,” Hidalgo declared early in her speech and went on to say that Paris – free, festive and loving life and its pleasures, open to others and to the world – that was the Paris that was attacked.
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I was privileged to be among about 80 foreign journalists invited to attend the Jan. 14 ceremony. A stage was set at the far end of the salon, and gradually it had filled with icons of the Paris food world including Joel Robuchon, Pierre Gagnaire and Yannick Alleno, chefs representing the most acclaimed restaurants in Paris. It was like being at a French version of the Academy Awards for food, as the mayor presented each chef with médaille Grand Vermeil de Paris, the highest honor the city can bestow.
I thrilled to her words as she spoke about the joys of the table, the importance of the connection between the land and the table. While gastronomy is certainly an art of creation, she said, it is also, and essentially, an art of transmission to the next generation of chefs and children.
She spoke of the link between the simple and the sophisticated, and the links among those who produce the food, those who transform it and those who consume it. I find it an immensely inclusive notion that binds a populace together around food.
The producers might have dairies, fishing boats, farms or orchards. The transformers include cheese makers, vintners and processors of all kinds, professional cooks and chefs, but most importantly, they are people like you and me, who cook.
After the ceremony, we were invited to a reception in an even grander, even more gilded hall where nine of the chefs had prepared buffet tables of tastes of their food. There were cups of diced sea scallops topped with sea foam and caviar, cups of fruit gelée topped with citrus cream, and, in the center of the room, a square of tables set with an array of champagne-filled ice buckets and champagne glasses. Everyone was indeed enjoying the food, transformed for us, and the pleasure of the table.
It wasn’t surprising to me when, in 2010, UNESCO inscribed The Gastronomic Meal of France onto its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, noting that the meal was a celebratory one centered on the appreciation of the food and the companions of the table. That is how I first experienced French life – around a table – which made an indelible impression and influenced me forever.
I was 20 years old, a student in Aix-en-Provence, living in a flat with a roommate in the center of the city. Our home, as we called it, was a cold-water walk-up with a two-burner stove set atop a disused coal-burning range dating from the 19th century, and a living room cum bedroom with a large, round table.
We pooled our money and bought what we considered a very soignée tablecloth – red plastic. Between classes we scoured the market for new and different foods to cook. We sautéed fresh mushrooms, peeled and grated celery root for salad (I’d never tasted it before), and experimented with pasta sauces.
We got fresh bread every day from one of the many bakeries. A few doors down from our apartment building was a wine shop, where we could fill an empty liter bottle with red wine for a few francs. I had, like others before me and since, discovered the joie de vivre of the French table.
Later, I was to return to France, to Haute Provence, with my husband and young daughter to raise goats and make cheese, to raise pigs, and to be part of a rural life that had not changed much over the centuries. I learned the rituals surrounding the annual pig slaughter and sausage making, how to choose a ripe melon and how to stake beans and peas with prunings from the vineyard.
We returned to California a few years later, shortly after our son was born, but France and its sensible and celebratory relationship to the land, to food and to the table remained with me.
Georgeanne Brennan is an award-winning cookbook author who frequently visits and writes about France. She lives in Winters and is founder of La Vie Rustic – Sustainable Living in the French Style, an online store at lavierustic.com Her forthcoming book, “Food and Fetes of Provence: A Culinary Journey” is scheduled to be published by Yellow Pear Press in September.