France is considered the breadbasket of Europe, which may help explain why the French take cooking so seriously.
With its fine, delicate, and sometimes unusual ingredients, eating in France is a celebration of not only food, but of the culture. And there’s no better way to enjoy this gastronomic wonderland, than by following its fabled waterways with acclaimed river cruise specialists, Scenic.
To get a better understanding of the popular onboard cooking school and what it takes to harness French culinary traditions, we sit down with one of Scenic’s top-chefs, Aghiles Idrici, to get his take on French food, and why guests can’t get enough of Scenic Culinaire.
Tell us about yourself – How long have you been a chef with Scenic?
My name is Aghiles Idrici and I’ve been a chef now for 10-years, including my three years of school in Souillac Perigord. In early 2018 I joined Scenic when I moved back to France after five years cooking in various London restaurants, where I wanted to learn different techniques and cuisines.
My first role as a Scenic Culinaire chef was on the beautiful Scenic Diamond where we sailed the spectacular Bordeaux region in the south of France. I’m now the Scenic Culinaire chef on Scenic Sapphire along the Rhone and Saone rivers.
How would you describe French food?
[Laughing] French food is really easy to describe, just take any dish, add plenty of butter, and voila! But more seriously, it all depends on which part of France are you in.
For example, the south of France is representative of dry herbs, known as Provencale herbs, and many recipes contain them throughout Lyon, Marseille and Avignon.
In the western cultural region of Britanny, they use more olive oil and salted butter.
In the north, their signature is found in the rich sauces and use of cream.
Can there be different versions of the same dish throughout France?
Oh yes. Take the well-known seafood soup of Bouillabaisse for example. It is a popular dish throughout all of France, but as an example, Marseille and the Bordeaux region use different vegetables and seafood and is a creamy Chaudree (chowder) style.
If you could only cook with three ingredients, which would they be and why?
If I could use only 3 ingredients, they will probably be onion, tomato and olive oil. These three were the base ingredients of where I grew up and is popular in other regions too. It also pairs with a wide range of dishes.
If I could only enjoy one classic French dish, what do you recommend I try?
If you could try only one classic French dish, I probably would recommend French Cassoulet, for the simple reason that I grew up in the south of France in Toulouse where it’s the signature dish and a home favourite. (Named after the cassole cooking pot, this French dish is a rich, slow-cooked casserole containing meat – usually sausage, duck or goose – with pork skin and white beans.)
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Aside Escargot (snails), what are some of the more unusual or different delicacies to be enjoyed in France?
In France, we also eat frogs in persillade, which is a parsley, garlic and olive oil mixture. You can find duck confit cooked in its own fat, or civet of duck which is braised in red wine. Rabbit is also popular here and prepared in various ways, and horse steak is still common in some parts of France, usually among the older generation and served with a homemade butter and shallot sauce.
As mentioned previously, French cuisine depends on where in France you are, but that’s what makes French cooking so diverse, interesting and delicious.
As a Scenic Culinaire chef, how do guests respond to the onboard cooking school?
Guests love the cooking class because they always learn something new and different to take home with them. I give them as many tips as I can from my 10-years’ experience as a chef in many restaurants, including some with Michelin stars.
The knowledge and tips I give are ones that my chefs shared with me when training and that I’m grateful for. Some are the basics you will use throughout your life, so it’s a pleasure for me to share.
I like teaching what I know, and our guests enjoy learning the simple cooking tips that make a dish better, or a sauce tastier. I answer all questions about our recipes and enjoy talking about France and even my personal life.
Is there a favourite dish guests love to learn about?
The guests love to see our knife skills and the way we make a long recipe in just an hour or so. Their favourite is usually Bouillabaisse soup (we teach the Bordeaux Chaudree vendeenne version) which require fast cutting and French “savoir faire” (know how).
Crepe Suzette is also a best seller onboard, and a French classic, which is a combination of butter, sugar, orange liquor and juice….who wouldn’t love that combination!?
The designated spaces on Scenic Diamond and Scenic Sapphire feature a cooking station, fresh produce fridge and a resident cooking instructor who has intimate knowledge of local recipes. For detailed views from above, you can watch the chef’s demonstrations live on a big screen.
The real joy, of course, comes after the food is prepared when you sit down to enjoy the sumptuous meal you’ve just prepared. And of course, you’ll get the perfect wine to pair with the meal because with Scenic, it’s always on the house!