One of the best things about owning a lot of books is that I tend to forget what I have. That makes it seem like Christmas nearly every day, if you know what I mean.
This morning I wandered through my house, poking at different books lounging in rather haphazard order on my rather odd collection of bookshelves. Searching for pictures of traditional kitchens, I stooped down in front of one of the Pier 1 bamboo bookshelves and pulled out Christopher Petkanas’s At Home in France: Eating and Entertaining with the French (1990). Like a magpie, I’d been drawn to its fluorescent-blue spine sparkling in the sunlight.
At Home in France resembles those oversize, romantic coffee table books that no one ever reads, unless a bored guest leafs through the pages while waiting for the hostess to get on with it and serve dinner.
But, as the old adage goes, looks can be deceiving. Very much so.
Unfortunately, I found little beyond the typical, idealized pictures of “country French” or “chateau-style” kitchens – you know, the pretty plates, quaint flowered wallpaper, and the ubiquitous worn wooden table (likely filled with splinters), stretching lengthwise in front of a gas-burning iron stove.**
But the most exciting thing about At Home in France showed up there at the end, in the last few of the eighteen sections devoted to the regions of France ranging from Provence to Périgord: hints of the pervasive influence of immigrants – particularly those from North Africa – on modern French culture and cuisine.
In chapter 18, “A Harvest Fête in the Bordelais,” a winemaker talked about serving briouats (fried pastries with various fillings) to his grape pickers – almost all Arabs from North Africa. His French mother, born in North Africa, incorporated many North African touches into the food that she prepared for her family, including a spice mixture ripe with the flavors of the bled (Moroccan countryside) and of the French campagne, too: cayenne, cardamom, lavender, rosemary, cinnamon, cloves, white pepper, nutmeg, cumin, ginger, summer savory, and coriander.
Chapter 16 revolved around the Riviera villa, La Prouveresse (The Provider), where I learned that
A new design gave the house a buzzing upstairs-downstairs life for which it never was destined.* Directed by Jean’s half-American mother, a former curator of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs at the Louvre who still works occasionally for the museum, a great number of bonnes and serveuses properly dressed in black dresses and starched white aprons moved silently through the pantries, polished the silver serving platters, and made sure the right Bordeaux – no Provençal plonk – was on the table.
The only sign of anything other than “pure” French emerged on page 198, with a picture of a Moroccan housekeeper named Zohra, who’d worked for the Amic family on the Riviera for over twenty years, as well as a short discussion of the Amics’ cook Josette (Jo-Jo), whose Italian parents crossed over the border to pick flowers for the owners, international perfume magnates. Josette and her husband Henri grew much of the food on the tables of the villa at the time (1980s).
As I flipped through the slick pages filled with delicious pictures of both food and scenery, I realized that this book might well be considered a visual history of French daily life, stopped cold in a time-warp, recording as it does meals and means of food production. Although the book seems new [the publisher reissued it in 2000], it is not, not at all. It’s over twenty years old and much has changed in twenty years, even in France, where the bucolic family dinner still dominates, if not in fact, then in memory, the UNESCO Gastronomic Meal of the French notwithstanding.
*The house originally housed sheep and other animals in what eventually became the dining room after renovations. The present owner’s father bought the place in 1930 for the price of two bicycle tires.
** This might be the stuff of another post, but I’m including here because it is rather fascinating: When I turned to chapter 17, I recognized signs that as late as 1990 in the Dordogne, it was the custom to store bread and perishables in the drawers of that big wooden kitchen table.
The corncobs in the fire provided another, “Ah-ha” moment.
As an American, I find the European attitude toward corn very interesting. In the past, wealthier people rarely ate eat corn, considering it a food fit only for animals. Peasants found corn to be a cheaper alternative to wheat and bread and ate it in the form of polenta or porridge. In the Dordogne, peasant cooks prepare something called mique (pronounced “meek”), sometimes made with bread crumbs or cornmeal, and eggs and other ingredients on hand. Similar to the method of cooking chicken with dumplings here in the U.S., the mique cooks in the broth of whatever stew or soup the housewife finds fit to serve.
Mélange d’Aromates Marocains
(Moroccan Spice Mix)
From page 235 of At Home in France: Eating and Entertaining with the French - be sure to grind all the spices, although the original recipe didn’t make that 100% clear!
Use this mixture on poultry or pork. It’s based on the concept of Ras-al-Hanout.
1 T. each of cayenne pepper, cardamom, lavender, rosemary and cinnamon
2 T. each of cloves, white pepper, nutmeg, cumin, ginger and summer savory
3 T. coriander (ground)
Mix all ingredients together and store in an air-tight container in a dry, dark, cool place.
© 2012 C. Bertelsen