By BRUCE DENNILL
In 1912, when the world as most people experienced it was a much smaller place, Auguste Escoffier, French cuisine’s roi des cuisiniers et cuisinier des rois (“king of chefs and chef of kings”), initiated the Dın̂ers d’Êpicure or Epicurean (adj: “Devoted to the pursuit of sensual pleasure, especially to the enjoyment of good food and comfort.”) Dinners, which involved serving the same meal, on the same day, in several cities around the world, with the aim being to get as many people as possible involved.
There have been a few changes. For one thing, the chefs involved in the different countries are encouraged to come up with their own ideas. But the Goût de France/Good France initiative, now organised by French chef Alain Ducasse, and the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development in partnership with Atout France is still trying to do essentially the same thing: reveal – or remind – that French gastronomy is an important part of the nation culture and of its pull as a desirable tourist attraction.
One of the locations hosting South African diners was the sumptuous French Residence in the Pretoria suburb of Arcadia. The building is packed with magnificent Art Deco furniture – it was hard to know where to put down your glass of Mumm champagne lest it leave a ring on the wood – and incredible art, but Ambassador Elisabeth Barbier is not the sort to make her guests feel awkward about messing up her home. A petite, personable host, she wondered around introducing herself and listening to everyone’s stories of their journeys to Pretoria in the apocalyptic rain and hail storm that had announce the end of the day.
The guestlist was an interesting mix – heads of industry, academics, travel industry stalwarts, food and wine experts and a smattering of media – which guaranteed interesting discussions at each of the round tables positioned in the three adjoining rooms in which Madame Barbier’s staff served a six-course banquet to her guests.
Cleverly, given that the layout of the house prevented everyone from being in eye contact, the organisers had connected television screens and a sound system in each room, meaning that everyone could not only hear the jazz duo in the central chamber, but also watch Madame Barbier as she delivered a brief, charming welcome speech and be privy to the preparation and plating of each course in the Residence kitchen.
The second course involved lobster and ratatouille in a carved-out courgette. Not being a seafood fan, I was presented with four of what the menu called “Ratatouille Boats”. It thus became imperative to know what the French for “fleet” or even “armada” (is that purely a Spanish thing?) was. Nobody knew, and Google rather ripped the drama out of it – “fleet” is simply “flotte” and “Armada” is, um, “Armada”…
Between courses, the design of the tablecloth, which featured an elegant embroidered leaf motif, caused mild consternation. Perhaps it was the champagne – “I love my Mumm”, as one guest quipped – but one of the gold leaves was realistic enough to repeatedly inspire a couple of guests to try and wipe it off the table. It was a strange Pavlovian thing: trying to flick it out of the window after starters, realising that it’s part of the design; trying to move it four courses later, knowing that it’s part of the design. Why didn’t we learn? Perhaps the same cameras streaming footage for the TV screens were capturing content for the waiters and chefs to giggle at later…
Expectations were further overturned by the first of two dessert courses: Camambert Tiramisu. It’s necessary to expect there to be camembert in there, by the way, otherwise the saltiness will blow the circuits between your taste buds and your brain. The first bite is downright odd, but by the last it’s an idea that convinces.
By this time, the irrepressible Madame Barbier had removed her formal jacket and is working the room in a little black number, making small talk and exchanging punchlines with everyone and posing for selfies with Metro FM DJs – as, you know, ambassadors do.
It remained only to polish off a chocolate creation that looks like modern art on a plate (in contrast to the paintings, many of which look like Gauguin; none of which are – they’ve allowed the press in, after all…) and down a small cognac before everyone gathered around the gorgeous Playel piano – also Deco – to thank the Residence staff, who are almost all Francophone, for their friendliness and polished service.
The net result of this Good France event? Success in communicating that French cuisine is delicious and, when prepared well, beautiful to look at and – perhaps even more importantly – that the values of sharing such food and enjoying it together are worth investing in. If this is a – excuse the pun – taster for what France offers, you’d be foolish to ignore the invitation.