An Irishman’s Diary on the culinary glories of France
“I was particularly impressed by one of the starters – frog legs with a pea sauce. This cost €56.” Photograph: Chris Hondros/Getty Image
Passing through Paris recently, heading south, I found myself forced again to climb the Eiffel Tower. But while the enforcers – my children – held a place in the long queue for the stairs, I was at least allowed to pass some time reading the menu posted nearby for the Jules Verne restaurant.
This was highly entertaining. The Jules Verne trades largely on its location – the tower’s second level – and customers are therefore paying for the view as well as a private, queue-free lift. Consequently the prices are somewhat more astronomical than a single Michelin star would imply.
Main courses were up to €88 each. But I was particularly impressed by one of the starters – frog legs with a pea sauce. This cost €56. That a humble frog should fetch such a price almost rivalled the tower itself as a feat of engineering. I wondered if even the great science fiction writer for whom the restaurant was named could have imagined a jumped-up future amphibian reaching such heights.
A few days and a long train journey later, by chance, we were at a cafe in the French Basque Country, where frog legs were also on the menu. The prices there were nearer swamp level. And the classic dish being a thing I had somehow never eaten before, this seemed a good time to try.
But it was a bit of a disappointment, to be honest, especially after the star billing in Paris. If you could ignore the unmistakable shape, which suggests the food might leap off your plate at any moment, it tasted like chicken wings. Or like nothing, probably, except the sauces, which justified its billing as a Gascon dish.
In fact, insofar as frogs legs are traditional to anywhere in France, it’s Burgundy rather than Gascony. But then again, according to a fascinating book of a few years back – The Discovery of France by Graham Robb – the whole notion of regional food specialities is a fairly recent one.
A bit like the country’s administration system, as Robb tells it, many so-called regional dishes were imposed from the top down, ie Paris. Hence such embarrassments as one recorded by the 20th-century peasant writer Emile Guillaumin, a kind-of French Patrick Kavanagh.
In a novel set in the 1880s, Gullaumin describes a Bourbonnais family’s horror at hosting their sophisticated relatives from Paris and seeing them scouring local ponds for frogs. A nephew brings the alleged food items back for dinner. But since nobody else knows how to, he is “forced to cook them himself”.
It wasn’t just the more exotic dishes that were unknown in the provinces, Robb suggests. In the early years of tourism, for those who travelled beyond Paris, the classic taste of France was “stale bread”. Only the degree of staleness varied – the deciding factor being fuel availability.
In 1820s Toulouse, municipal ovens had to be big enough to bake a week’s supply at a time. But in the Alps, a single batch of bread might have to last two or three years. In the meantime, it was smoked or sun-dried. Then, when required, it was softened with buttermilk or whey or, if you could afford it, white wine.
“This was bread that had lived through the year with the people who baked it, as hard as stone, immune to the weather and able to travel great distances. The tougher varieties came out of storage as fossilised crisps that had to be smashed with a hammer [and] boiled five times [...] In the south-west, where maize gradually replaced millet, the dough was sliced and fried in fat or cooked under the ashes of a fire. With salted sardine or nettle soup, it was considered delicious, but only by people who ate it every day of their lives.”
French bread has come a long way since. Even in the southwest last week, you could safely assume it was only hours out of the oven. And it goes well beyond France. The baguette brand – its ingredients, shape, even the guarantee of daily-baked freshness – is now exported around the world.
Frog legs, meanwhile, have undergone a contrasting journey. Although still synonymous with France, the dish is at least as popular in many other parts of the planet, especially southeast Asia. Indeed, increased consumption of frogs and shrinking habitats have gradually combined to threaten the survival of the species.
For decades now, as a consequence, France has banned commercial production. You can still catch wild frogs for your own use. Some commercial poaching continues too. But most frogs now eaten by the people to whom they gave a nickname are imported. The ones we had were probably from Indonesia.