Behind the French Menu gives a tasty background to French cuisine, French dishes, how they are made and how they should be served.
Where there is a story behind a dish's creation and
that story may aid the diner's enjoyment then that will also be included. Bon appétit!
Basil, Common Basil or Sweet Basil. Basilic or Herbe Royal; Herbs and Spices in the French Kitchen II.
Basilic or the Herbe
Royal - Basil, or Sweet Basil.
Behind the French Menu by 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
How basil came to French cuisine.
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.
From looking at www.dictionary.com 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 Franceis 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
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:
de Bœuf Parfumé au Pistou et Fleur de Sel – Beef Carpaccioflavored 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 Parmesan – Scallops 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.
Escalope de Veau Panée et ses Pâtes Fraîches au Pistou – A breaded veal escallop served with fresh pasta and a pistou
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.
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!
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.
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
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!
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 –