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Continuing on from yesterday’s post about the rise in volume and value of sake exported to France, the article then looks at changes in the French gastronomic world over the last decade. Keiichiro Miyagawa, former taster at Suntory who then moved to France to manage their European office and eventually settled in Paris as a sommelier and sake importer. He points out changes in French cuisine that would not have been visible from Japan.
About 5 years ago, the price of wine started to rise steeply, especially top Bordeaux wines. Some of this was down to increased global demand, including from China, but another factor was that only about 20% of wine was moving through restaurant wine cellars. The other 80% was stockpiled.

A jump in price for Bordeaux wines, which mature over a long period, also entailed an increased burden of storage. With wine now being made in more places around the world, every country and region can produce something distinctive. Regardless of prestige, if a top class Bordeaux costs several thousand Euro a bottle it’s not something you can drink every day.

French sommeliers switched to Burgundy wines, but that just increased their prices as well. Poor harvests in 2012 pushed the prices up even further, prompting a move towards looking for other drinks to match with food and opening French tables to Japanese sake. And just as this change was happening in the wine world, there was more changing coming for French food.

The preceding decade had seen an increase in health-consciousness among French consumers, and French restaurants responded by decreasing their use of dairy products and reducing meat and fish portion sizes, replacing that volume with vegetables. The classic French ingredients of butter, fresh cream, yogurt and cheese had not disappeared, but were used in much smaller quantities. Portions of meat were half the size, and fish two-thirds the size they had been.

Foamed sauces that made a dish lighter were all the rage, and as the foaming increased the volume of the sauce by four or five it also reduced costs. The new style sauces were better at drawing out the flavour of their ingredients, but about five years ago the fashion changed to serving small portions of meat with spices and a single grain of rock salt. Continuing on in this vein, the way the ingredients were cooked started to change too, with top Paris restaurants now regularly using binchō charcoal for grilling and focusing on bringing out acidity in different foods. Slow cooking over charcoal both melts away fat and brings out acidity, creating a new – healthy – style of French cuisine.

Seen this focus on light, healthy food, it’s no surprise that Japanese ingredients such as dashi broth started to show up more and more in the new French cooking. Even the presentation and crockery became more Japanese in their design and arrangement.

As French cuisine changes pairings have had to change alongside it, but you can’t really change what wine tastes like. Is this sake‘s chance to score a place on French restaurant tables?

It’s been a while since I’ve done a long article – more from this one to come!