Friday, April 5, 2013

Basilic or Herbe Royal - Basil in French Cuisine.

Behind the French Menu
Bryan Newman

Basil in a herb garden.
Photograph courtesy of RachelFujita

The leaves of fresh sweet basil have a uniquely pleasant smell and taste, and basil is found in recipes all around the Mediterranean.  Sweet basil, the most popular basil family member in Europe grows freely in the wild; however today, most French chefs, will be using the farmed variety.    Basil is always used fresh  in uncooked dishes where its flavor is essential, and when basil is used in cooked dishes it will be added just before serving as cooked basil  quickly loses its flavor.
How basil came to French cuisine.
The Italian Pesto is Pistou on French Menus.
Basil originated in India and the variety we call sweet basil reached France with the Romans two thousand years ago. Sweet basil was a very important herb in Roman cuisine and when, much later, Catherine De Medicci, of Florence, married the French Prince Henry, her royal entourage would bring new recipes for basil and many other herbs.
A wild basil flower.
Photograph courtesy of aecole2010.
Despite the many Italian influences, there are also many uniquely French recipes that use basil, and basil is often on Provençal menus under its Occitan name Fabrego. Occitan is the language that  lost out in the competition for a single language that would unite France; however Occitan is still used or, at least well understood, alongside modern French, by many millions of French citizens
The French pistou, the French take on the Italian pesto.
From listening to French chefs and looking at many recipes, it was clear to me that the only real difference in the recipes for the Italian pesto and the French pistou is in the spelling and pronunciation of the name!  The original pesto and pistou sauce recipes are exactly the same: finely crushed, fresh,  sweet basil leaves with added garlic, salt and pepper and a very good virgin olive oil.  When later, newer versions of pesto and pistou were made they added pine-nuts and Parmesan cheese, with Gruyere cheese being a French option; though most French recipes also use Parmesan.

Is this a pesto or a pistou sauce? Who can tell?
From looking at  you can see that words pistou and pesto both come from the same Latin word, pestare, meaning to grind or crush.  The crushing of fresh sweet basil leaves is, according to all   recipes the most important part in the preparation of a well-made pistou or a pesto sauce.
Despite the paragraphs above indicating pesto's Italian origins when you do visit  southern France you will see that pistou is, by the locals, still considered a Provençal and or  Niçoise creation; that, despite the fact that Nice was for hundreds of years, an Italian city.  Nice only became part of France 150 years ago, and when you visit Nice you will see how Italian cuisine still influences many Niçoise recipes including the internationally famous Salade Nicoise.
Basil on the French menu.
The most popular basil variety in France is basilic, sweet basil, whether used for pistou or other dishes: however, basilic pourpre, purple basil, will  be used for color, and also when a chef prefers its slightly sweeter aroma along with this herb's slightly stronger flavor. 

Basilic Pourpre - Purple Basil.

Photograph courtesy of  Beth Iseminger.

There are other basil family members that are popular in Italy, and others around the world;  there are many other varieties. Your French menu may offer:
Carpaccio de Bœuf Parfumé au Pistou et Fleur de Sel – Beef Carpaccio flavored with sauce pistou and fleur de sel.  Fleur de sel is a condiment made from mineral-enriched salt crystals that are hand-picked from drying sea salt. 
Beef Carpaccio served with its traditional mayonnaise based sauce, basil, and Parmesan cheese shavings.
Photograph courtesy of  Francis Storr
Coquilles Saint-Jacques Marinées à l'Huile d'Olive et au Citron, Pistou et Copeaux de ParmesanScallops marinated in olive oil, that will be French olive oil only,  lemon, pistou, and shavings of Parmesan cheese. In dishes like this one the taste of olive oil used  is tremendously important. 
Scallops with French olive oil and basil.
Photograph courtesy of tomylees.
Escalope de Veau Panée et ses Pâtes Fraîches au Pistou – A breaded veal escallop served with fresh pasta and a pistou sauce.
Jambon de Parme et Tomates Cerises à l'Huile d'Olive Aromatisée au Basilic -  Cured Parme ham, prosciutto crudo, served with cherry tomatoes and flavored with olive oil and basil.
Duck breast with basil risotto.
Photograph courtesy of ulterior epicure.
Filet d’Agneau, Émulsion de Courgettes au Basilic. – A lamb fillet served with a thick sauce made with courgettes, the USA zucchini, and basil;. N.B. The French prefer their lamb rose, pink, and unlike steaks will rarely ask a diner how they would like their lamb cooked; if your have want you lamb cooked a little more tell the waiter!

 Soupe au Pistou  - Pistou soup. A vegetable and noodle soup made with beans, onions, potatoes, tomatoes and vermicelle, angel hair pasta, to which pistou sauce will be added shortly before serving. Some versions of this soup are made with added smoked ham or lardons, salted or smoked bacon bits.

Soupe au Pistou.
Terrine de Fromage de Chèvre et Gelée de Tomates au Basilic et Thym – A pate of goat’s cheese made with a jelly of tomatoes flavored with sweet basil and thyme.
Creme de Pistou et Raviole au Chevre Frais.
A creamy pistou sauce served with ravioli stuffed with fresh goat's chees.
Photograph by courtesy of:  in the south
Sweet basil is grown in hot houses in the winter, and so it is available the year round. Basilic pourpre, purple basil is available fresh in France from March through May and market gardeners who supply restaurants also grow it in hot houses. Dried basil is available in French supermarkets, but no chef would use dried basil as it has no flavor!
Wild basil 
Photograph courtesy of Bas Kers.
The second most popular French name for sweet basil is Herbe Royal, the royal herb; the origin of that name comes with many conflicting traditions. The first tradition I heard about comes from the Greek word basileus which means lord or the people’s leader. A second tradition is connected to a variety of basil called Tulsi basil in India; this basil variety is sacred to the Hindu God Vishnu. Then the most up to date tradition I heard of connects basil to the mythical Basilisk, a serpent who could kill with a glance or a breath; shades of Harry Potter.
 In French homeopathic medicine, sweet basil is recommended as an anti-oxidant, a source of phosphorus and as an aid for indigestion. Does an aid for indigestion make the indigestion stronger or weaker, the wording worries me?
Basil, common basil or sweet basil: (German - basilikum, basilienkraut), (Italian – basilico),  (Spanish – albahaca),
Purple basil: (German - dunkelrotes basilikum), (Italian- basilico viola), (Spanish – pתrpura albahaca).

Bryan G.Newman
Behind the French Menu
Copyright 2010, 2013.
For more information on the book behind this blog:

No comments:

Post a Comment