“Authentic” French Food: A Real Parvenu

Spend a weekend reading Graham Robb’s The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography (2007) and you’ll end up with quite a full plate, filled with crazy peddlers, ruthless kings, slain surveyors, and insular peasants.

And you might even gain a whole new outlook on France and her hidden history, Rick Stein’s TV show, French Odyssey, to the contrary.

Named a Slate Best Book of the Year and winner of the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize, The Discovery of France takes common nostalgia about the French café and the quaint landscape smelling of lavender and turns it all upside down.  Just how engineered is today’s French identity seems to escape many conservatives basking in the shadows of Marine Le Pen and the National Front.

To read Robb’s book is be struck by how new France really is. His work follows Eugen Weber’s excellent Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914 (1976).

The whole question of French identity relies on knowing what it is to be French. But what exactly is French?

As Robb says so emphatically,

the name ‘France’ was often reserved for the small mushroom-shaped province centered on Paris.

Abbé Henri Grégoire

A Church and political functionary, Abbé Henri Grégoire , determined that one of the best ways to unify France would be to exterminate the various patois spoken throughout what is now considered to be France. Because the authorities in Paris sent out the news and government decrees  in French, they couldn’t be sure that the  peasants out in the boonies were “getting it.” And thus by 1794, the Abbé went to battle and basically tried to kill off whole dialects in the name of La Belle France. Nevertheless, by 1880, only one-fifth of the total population used French easily.

If language took that turn, what about food? Cooking?

By the early nineteenth century, Marie-Antoine Carême cooked for the Duc de Talleyrand. Carême revolutionized haute cuisine. It became synonymous with “French” cuisine in the minds of the increasing numbers of tourists visiting the country, including the future American president, Thomas Jefferson. What appeared on a peasant’s’ table — if he or she even had one — told an entirely different story.

According to Robb,

A story was told of four young men from Saint-Brieuc in Brittany who discussing what they would eat if imagination was the only limit. One suggested an unusually long sausage, another imagined ‘beans the size of toes’, boiled with bacon, the third chose a sea of fat with a giant ladle to cream it off and the fourth complained that the others had ‘already picked all the good things’.

Anyone who’s eaten in a bistro or brasserie will not identify this food as  French.

Bread Oven in Aveyron (Photo credit: B. Carlson)

Take a look at the daily peasant fare of Anjou, recorded in 1844: bread, soup (cabbage, potato, or onion), a vegetable and a hard-boiled egg. The happy few might find a few nuts, a sliver of cheese, and salted lard to beef up Sunday’s bread. Bread — usually baked hard like hardtack — sometimes lasted for up to three years and required a long dip in liquid like whey or buttermilk or water or wine in order to be eaten. The type of bread baked in any given place depended on the availability of fuel.

Girl with Levain

This all stands in stark contrast to the delicious food described in French cookbooks from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Yet, in Description des artes et métiers faites ou approuvés par messieurs de l’Acadamie Royale des Sciences …, Paul Jacques Malouin included bread recipes, one  specifically for soup, pain à soupe:  flat, round, all crust with no soft crumb. Malouin stated that this bread served well for households where servants received rations of bread.

You see, most of the food from the provinces ended up in Paris, creating a “fantasy image on the provinces” and their so-called abundance. That market, or markets, created the produits du terroir so highly identified with regional cooking, cassis being one example among many.

The bottom line:  There is “no such thing as a ‘pure’ Frenchman,” according to Robb. By extension, dare we say there is really no French cuisine either?

Photo credit: Sacher Dos

Garlic Soup (a Provençal recipe from Clifford Wright)
Makes 6 servings
Preparation Time: 1 hour and 5 minutes

[Note: This recipe is a very typical recipe across the Mediterranean. Although Mr. Wright doesn’t comment on the nutritional value of the soup, the relatively large amount of olive oil added calories and the bread also contributed energy, which is the major requirement of the body, regardless of the time in history.]

2 quarts water
15 large garlic cloves (about 1 head), crushed
Bouquet garni, tied in cheesecloth, consisting of 8 sprigs fresh parsley, 8 sprigs fresh thyme, 8 sprigs fresh marjoram, and 1 sprig fresh sage
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 teaspoons salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
6 to 12 slices French bread, toasted golden or not
Finely chopped fresh parsley for garnish

1. Bring the water with the garlic cloves, bouquet garni, olive oil, salt, and black pepper to boil in a 4-quart casserole and boil for 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 1 hour, uncovered.

2. Place one to two slices of bread in each bowl and ladle the broth over. Sprinkle with parsley and serve.

© 2011 C. Bertelsen

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