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robert brown

Europe's regional cuisines in world capitals.

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Victor de la Serna, restaurant reviewer and culinary writer for Madrid's "El Mundo" newspaper contributed the following to the discussion on the Spain and Portugal forum in the thread "Regional Food. Where to find good examples". Several moderators thought that his post would make a good and suitable Symposium topic for, among other reasons, its relevance well beyond Spain. Victor graciously agreed to make his post available.

What's the real state of health of regional cuisines from major European culinary nations outside the strict borders of the regions themselves? By this I mean in public restaurants operating in a national capital like Paris, Rome or Madrid or in an international hub like New York or London?

My (concerned) opinion is: Not good at all! And getting worse!

I don't include modern cuisine with some regional overtones (the controversial Hélène Darroze in Paris would be a good example), which is easier to find, but truly dyed-in-the-wool regional places, 'conservatories' where old recipes that are slowly (or quickly!) disappearing from family tables are still reproduced, lovingly and with the right, original ingredients. (The latter is a big, and increasing obstacle. So many sausages that are no longer made, so many little birds which are now banned from human consumption because of hunting restrictions, so much local produce that is no longer economical to reap - like saffron and capers in southeastern Spain, so many kinds of fish now depleted or protected from overfishing.) Changing tastes (the search for lightness, the search for exoticism) play a role too, I guess. In the end, the fact remains that even in the capital of the leading culinary nation, i.e. Paris, regional cuisines are patchily represented, and in addition the sheer availability of good regional restaurants is dwindling.

Taking a look at my most recent notes, it appears to me that only the broad southwest of France and Alsace are still rather widely represented: confit, magret and foie gras are stuff the French don't get tired of. (Neither do I, even if my waistline says I should.) So there's Au Trou Gascon, the 80 year-old À Sousceyrac and a few others. And, noteworthy from other regions, Martin Cantegrit's Récamier (Burgundian; nice wines!) and the irreplaceable Ambassade d'Auvergne (I wonder: is there any other Auvergnat restaurant left in the world with this level of authenticity even in Clermont-Ferrand?) The rest is mainly in the 'bistrot' range: Moissonnier (Lyon/Beaujolais), Graindorge (northern French with Flemish overtones; good beers), Les Olivades (Provençal), and Jean-Guy Loustau's stupendous Au Bascou (French Basque) among some others.

But where is a good Normand restaurant? A good Franche-Comté restaurant? A good Catalan restaurant? A good Lorraine restaurant? A good Breton restaurant?

Another important proviso: With two restaurant groups (Frères Blanc and Groupe Flo) taking over 90% of Paris' traditional brasseries, these have become more 'themed' than truly regional, with such places as Chez Jenny keeping only a smattering of choucroute dishes but seeing their Alsatian style diluted in the group-oriented current offerings. (That said, both Flo and the Blancs are maintaining a very commendable culinary level in their restaurants, so I won't even dream of knocking them! It is just that a degree of homogeneity is unavoidable when a group takes over. But at least with the groups, the restaurants remain open and bustling.)

Don't think the situation is much better in Rome, save for a few Tuscan places: go beyond the irreplaceable (here I am using that dreaded word again!) Colline Emiliane, and there isn't much in terms of serious Bologna-style cooking, including the real Bolognese sauce...

In London, New York or Singapore, it is (IMHO) even less varied, of course.

So my own conclusion is: get to the real regional places and enjoy them while you can. They may not be around forever.

Possibly others will see it differently. But that's been my experience.

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I wonder if there's any argument that regional cuisine isn't getting less regional. I've had the impression that regional restaurants in Paris have always been the result of some provincial chef moving to Paris and opening a restaurant. Hélène Darroze could be a classic example, except that the times have changed. The provinces have changed and Paris had changed. Local traditions and cuisine are disappearing and the interest now from both chefs and diners is for the new, the creative and the imported. It's often hard to guess if the chefs or the diners are driving the direction of the food. Worse than anything else may be a trend towards caring less about the part food plays in the average Parisian, or Frenchman's life. Eating out is a diversion of the sort that doesn't support the old foods.

It's not just that the regional food is disappearing, but French food is decidedly less French than it used to be. A regional restaurant might not so much be representative of a place as much as it would be of a time and place. The consolidation of the great old brasseries into a couple of chains is, as Victor notes, another sign of the times and of homogenization. While we may lament the loss of the old brasseries as individual expressions, I suspect their fate would have been worse had they not become part of a collection. They are reliable and a far sight better than the Leon de Bruxelles, Bistro Romains and the like, or so I expect. I have not felt duty bound to try these "regional restaurants."

I've been mentioning that I find Spain exciting now because I can find regional rustic food of excellent quality as well as creative new cooking, but I wonder how long that will last.

"Mario Ribal, 55, is the fourth-generation owner of La Grava, which used to be a restaurant and bar for factory workers, in the nondescript, blue-collar town of El Morell. When Ribal traveled to El Bulli for a meal several years back, he experienced a revelation.

"We used to have traditional cooking here, cooking of the grandmother," Ribal says. Now his 26-year-old son, Gerson, a culinary school graduate, is making sirloin tacos with macadamia nuts and asparagus," -- Bruce Schoenfeld, Wine Spectator - Web Features - The New Mediterranean

I will content myself with good honest cooking be it traditional, creative or a healthy combination.

Robert Buxbaum


Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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I haven't done the analysis, but would bet that real regional food will become more expensive than "international" haute cuisine -- if it hasn't already. Once you reckon in the costs of search, selection and travel, the little bistrot that produces a superb pieds et paquets, the Italian village restaurant that does magic things with local mushrooms when they are in season, all start to look more expensive than the upmarket place that serves a slice of globally-sourced fish with a forgettable sauce.

Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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