Cynthia Bertelson on French Food and Why I fear the Demise of the Contorno

I usually aim to make my posts light-hearted.  There’s too much gloom and doom in the world as it is so why would anyone want to read anything ‘heavy’ when it comes to a food blog.  There is a writer I very  much admire called Cynthia Bertelson; she knows so much about the history of food and I love reading her articles.  Recently she posted one entitled  “Speaking of France” in which she poses the question “Why is traditional French food so terribly unpopular at the moment?”  

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If you are interested in food in general, and how it affects our society, our cultures, our habits, I would urge you to read it.  It’s very interesting and not that long.  My comment on it I think is actually longer, tee hee!

I know that the only constant is change as the Eastern philosophies have been telling us for thousands of years but I’m not one for change for change’s sake.  If you are on my blog, right now, reading this … it must mean that you have even a passing interest in good food and eating well.  I want to encourage people to cook at home more, which is why I go to the trouble of taking so many photos, step by step, as I cook the dish.  Home cooking should not be difficult! or take too long! Or cost an arm and a leg!  Don’t let all those TV programmes and Instgram-sham hoodwink you into thinking otherwise.  Presentation is of course a beautiful thing but the content of the food is always more important.  End of Sermon.

Here is the link to Cynthia’s article and below is how I commented on it: https://gherkinstomatoes.com/2019/02/23/speaking-of-france

QUOTE: “I think that people now forget that nearly all cooking techniques we use in European countries and North America do indeed stem from France. Wealthy people and nobles from these countries did not eat the same way as their poorer fellow people and their chefs were either French or trained in French cuisine (the Russians too). In the region of Campania and the island of Sicily, which were under Spanish inspired aristocratic rule for a while, one of the kings married Marie Antoinette’s sister Caroline. This inspired a sortie of French chefs to this part of Italy, and their name was prefaced by the title “Monsieur”. The Italian pronounciation in the kitchen had a bit of trouble getting it just right and in the end it turned into “Monzù”. And the more learned Italians know of and still speak of the “Cucina dei Monzu”. Ironically, historically previous to all this, it was the Italian Caterina de Medici who brought Italian cooking skills to France. But the modern cooking techniques that are vital for good results in the kitchen were definitely developed in France. Personally, I have seen Italian cuisine morph into something that I have no trouble admitting is culinarily of a higher quality … but at the same time worries me. It’s turning into what I call French-style cuisine using Italian ingredients – could be dangerous in the long run because the whole point of traditional Italian cuisine is that it be simple, easy to prepare on the whole, and with few ingredients – which is why it has been handed down from generation to generation no problem. Now that the standards in terms of ‘technique’ keep rising, with restaurants presenting food more and more in what I call the instagram-obsessive-compulsive-disorder way, and TV food programmes aiding and abetting the trend, it may be that people in Italy will cook less, meaning find cooking more time consuming. And this might well lead to less home cooking, sigh. One of the saddest thing I notice in Italian restaurants now is the demise of the vegetable side plate, the “contorno”, which had to be ordered separately, giving the customer the choice of what he or she preferred. The vegetables are now increasingly presented on the same plate as the main course, the way I’ve always seen it done in the UK and in North America. The word for jazzing up a traditional dish in Italian is “rivisitato”, translated literally this means “revisited”, meaning ‘updated’. The reason for ‘updating’ many traditional Italian dishes is that they relied on a heavier fat content, I presume, or overcooked the ingredients – so the idea of improving on the original is not a bad thing per se. It’s all the other frills that bother me, the lengthier gilding-the-lily procedures and the disappearance of an actual name for the dish. Nowadays, the dish has to be described, listing all the ingredients. Who the hell is going to remember it ten months from now, let along ten years from now? “Rivisitato” is the Italian answer to yesteryear’s Nouvelle Cuisine.

We all know of the dangers of fast food … we should now start awakening our senses to the danger of haute cuisine techniques muscling its way into the kitchens in our homes.

7 thoughts on “Cynthia Bertelson on French Food and Why I fear the Demise of the Contorno

  1. Very interesting, Jo. And what a shame about the contorno! I agree that the TV chefs can make people feel they have to turn out restaurant food at home, which is a shame, as that’s not what I want! Taste is the thing, not how it looks.

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    1. And of course we can’t blame the TV chefs for doing their jobs properly – they have trained for years and have much experience and naturally their standards are what they are. It’s the stealthy idea of ‘perfection’ that insinuates itself into our unconscious. It might make a lot of people not even want to try to cook such ‘complicated’ dishes at home, instead of being inspired. As you say, taste is definitely “the thing”.

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  2. I found what both of you wrote to be very interesting. I can see changes in restaurants both here and in Europe. There are some traditions that I hope will be kept and contorno is one of them. We used to go to a wonderful little Italian restaurant in Boston that displayed the contorno they were serving that day in their front window.

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  3. We’re living at an interesting moment culinarily speaking. Here in the US, the interest in and access to good food has never been higher. And yet the number of people actually cooking at home keeps going down.

    You may be on to something when you talk about presentation. It’s supposed to attract the viewer—and it does—but it should hopefully also inspire people to try the recipe out. But there is a risk that it does just the opposite: people think cooking the beautiful thing there are seeing is just too far out of reach, that cooking is best left to “professionals”. That’s a real shame, because nothing compares with a real, home cooked meal. Even when it’s perhaps not perfect, it still tastes like “you”.

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