Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Cocktail de Fruits de Mer - How American Seafood Cocktails Arrived on French Menus..

Behind the French Menu
Bryan G. Newman
Updated August 2017.
Cocktail de Crevettes
A shrimp cocktail
Photograph courtesy of Uli & Liz Baecker
Cocktail -  A cocktail. 

Cocktails began as the alcoholic and liquid kind. They reached France with UK and USA tourists along with the first recipes about 150 years ago. That was the time when Napoleon III made a good impression on Queen Victoria, and Prince Albert and the English began to arrive in their thousands.  Since then French alcoholic cocktails have, as elsewhere, gone in and out of fashion.  Despite the imports of cocktails in the late 1800's France always had its own macerated fruit juice and wine apéritives; they originated with the Romans and came to France as ratafias.

Golden Dawn Cocktail

Ratafia comes from the Latin rata fiat to settle or “ratify” an understanding. Even the Greeks and Romans would say "let's drink on it."  Agreements were sealed with a drink, hence ratafias. The word ratafia is now part of French cuisine.

A bottle of Ratafia.
Photograph courtesy of VinoVerve
Those first alcoholic cocktails and their origins have been lost, probably to over-drinking!  Nevertheless, there a large number of stories that surround the origins of the word cocktail but none are particularly convincing or even entertaining, and so I have left them out of this post.
Prohibition in the USA

The arrival of prohibition in the USA in 1920 brought the cocktail back into fashion in the USA, and then once again recipes crossed the pond and then the channel. During prohibition, sweet fruit juices and other additions served to make poor tasting, illegally distilled alcohol drinkable. In the UK and France, the best ingredients were nearly always used.
Cocktail bars and the cocktail hour
As the American taste for cocktails became established so did the American creation of cocktail bars. Then the cocktail bars added the cocktail hour, and that later that became the happy hour.  The bars that offered a cocktail hour were also the first to provide cocktail snacks. The variety of tasty snacks and light meals kept the customers coming back as in the beginning cocktail snacks were free.
The better cocktail bars were competing by serving ever more appealing and more appetizing cocktail snacks.  Many of these cocktail snacks have long since been incorporated into restaurants menus around the world. A French entrée, the American starter, may be a seafood cocktail.  Then, at the tourists’ request, French restaurants added cocktails as aperitifs and seafood cocktails as entrees. 

Your French dinner menu may well offer:
Cocktail de Crabe
A crab meat cocktail.
Photograph by courtesy of Pocket full of chelle.

Cocktail de fruits de mer

Cocktail de Crevettes
A shrimp cocktail

A mixed seafood and ravioli cocktail.
Photograph courtesy of frankartculinary.

French cocktail sauce.

French restaurants do not serve US cocktail sauce with their seafood cocktails. The European taste for seafood cocktails does not include horseradish. The French cocktail sauce is called Sauce Cocktail, a Sauce Rosé or Sauce Marie Rose. The basic recipe is mayonnaise, ketchup, Tabasco and occasionally cognac. The French cocktail sauce provides a tasty dressing that is, to my mind, far less overpowering than the American version.

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Bryan G. Newman

Behind the French Menu.
Copyright 2010, 2012, 2015, 2017.

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