Blogs and illustrated food magazines, not to mention countless books on cuisine and culinary traditions, have certain postulates. One is that regional cuisines exist in many countries, not least France. By dint of using local ingredients fashioned by area residents, local food is held to reveal age-old connections with land, heritage, and history; in a word, it expresses authenticity.
It comes as a surprise therefore to many, or at least to us, to learn that French regional cuisine, for its part, seems largely to date from the 1920s. A number of cultural and social studies have concluded to this effect, as documented and elaborated in a 2007 academic paper, “We Are Where We Eat: A History of Twentieth-Century Gastronomic Tourism in France” by April M. Xin.* Ms. Xin argues that French regional cuisines are essentially a construct of the early 20th century and derive from a complex socio-historical background.
She explains that the Third Republic, established in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War, decided to promote French regionalism to rebuild national pride. National confidence and élan had been shaken by the debâcle of 1870 and the loss especially of Alsace-Lorraine. To substitute for a lost military and diplomatic supremacy France would henceforth vaunt its provincial and local cultures, and thereby sustain national unity.
Formerly, French national values considered the countryside backward as compared to supremely metropolitan Paris, the centre of French civilization and refinement. But under the revised conception, the old rural seats were now seen as upholding traditional, eternal French virtues. Henceforth, these regions were the spokes in the national wheel of France. Paris was the hub and together they would work to restore French pride and move the nation ahead.
The new approach, which valued every citizen’s locality, was meant to reduce historic regional rivalries and uphold the common unity of citizens. In a striking image, Xin explains that France, as national polity, now functioned as “paternal” ancestor of the post-1870 citizen while the region or pays of each man was the “maternal” one. This neatly paired the modernity and prestige associated with Paris with the emotive and nurturing quality symbolized by the ancestral pays. Together they formed the French family, foundation on which the Third Republic would thrive.
The elevation of rural heritage prompted citizens to want to visit these previously overlooked regions. Such travel was now facilitated by better railway and especially motorized transport. Improved accommodations and extension of the power supply also made internal travel more feasible. Travelling meant staying at destination – and eating there. What better way to appreciate regional character than to eat distinctively local food?
But what if there wasn’t any? The traditional sustenance of the French regions, well into the 19th century, was basic and monotonous. It was based on a blackish, mixed-grain bread, le pain bis, or stodgy, flour-based galettes or crêpes. This starchy matter was enhanced by an ever-boiling soup containing local vegetables. Meat was added when available, a rare event for most of the populace.
Any available fruit, fresh or preserved, was put on table. So was any type of wine or other alcohol which might come the family’s way. Such was the basic diet of the great majority of citizens well into the 1800s, when most of them still lived in the country.
The traditional provender was not the type to entice the gastronomic tourist, those familiar with reliable Paris restaurants. Notably, the provincial diet rarely offered meat, eggs, butter, or multiple courses. At most there might be a rare cake or tart for a proper dessert. More interesting food needed to be devised to satisfy tourists’ expectations.
To achieve this standbys of the professional Paris kitchen were added to local menus or local foods were improved with butter, cream, and other good things characteristic of Isle de France restaurants.
The discovery of this regional cuisine was abetted by an increasingly sophisticated gastronomic press which even issued regional food surveys, all well underway by the 1920s. The sources of the new eating typically and not surprisingly were local restaurants and hotels. Yet, these hospitality centres mostly did not exist in the 1800s. They needed to be created, for one thing to provide running water and adequate toilet facilities.
The comfortable, well-provisioned auberge of rapt modern contemplation was an adaptation of previously rudimentary, or yet too-luxurious, facilities. The rude country shelter on the one hand, the isolated grand hotel with professional cuisine on the other, had to be supplemented as neither met the needs of new bourgeois visitors in their rattling motorcars.
The legitimacy of this revealed culinary heritage was sometimes debated but by the mid-1900s the idea that each French region had a traditional cuisine was an article of faith. Its signature dishes came in handy to contrast with the Paris-Isle de France gold standard of food excellence, of which haute cuisine was the apex.
By the mid-20th century the rural gastronomic heritage functioned as the mother, and the professional cooking of Paris, the father, of the national culinary family. So it remains today despite some changes to the old plan, with nouvelle cuisine and its successors in the mix and including now fusion and foreign cookery.
The Guide Michelin started in 1900 but from about 1920 when it started covering food assumed an important role in chronicling this double gastronomic heritage. So did the well-known, multi-volume work on French regional cooking by Curnonsky, pen name of Maurice Sailland, the great epicurean of the 1900s.
But again, many succulent dishes were of doubtful authenticity. Of those that had a clear heritage they were usually festive or special occasion food, rarely eaten that is by the average paysan.
Xin cites the example of a Normandy “classic”, chicken with cream and Calvados. It’s a dish that by now has been described in hundreds of books and accounts as a venerable, regional staple. While cream and Calvados are certainly Norman products, she suggests that the dish originated in Paris in the 1800s as part of haute cuisine and used white wine, not apple-based cider, but the latter was substituted for a similar dish in Normandy. Indeed, evidence that sole was traditionally cooked with cider in Normandy seems at best inconclusive.
Alexandre Dumas in his famed culinary dictionary (1873) described a dish of sole from Trouville, clearly Trouville-sur-Mer in Normandy. And it does use cider, see here. Yet, I don’t discount that as early as 1873 an original, Parisian sole-and-wine dish had already inspired a Norman “local” dish based on cider, especially as Trouville was a resort for the fashionable, ahead that is of the regions in general for tourism.
Still, we can allow that some regional dishes did have a certain antiquity, including this one perhaps, cider and all. Another possibility is that cider with sole was traditional in a small section of Normandy and later was adopted as a heritage dish by the full province.
Whatever the case in regard to sole with Norman cider it remains the case that the general fare of peasant and labourer in rural France was, well into the 1800s, bread or other grain-based food, galette, say, and soup. The London-based, French-born restaurateur and food writer Marcel Boulestin (d. 1943) confirms this at p. 34 of his Classic French Recipes (1971), a selection of his 1930s writing.
Boulestin’s book, according to the cover blurb, depicted French bourgeois dishes of Paris and prosperous towns but also “authentic local dishes handed down from generation to generation”. This formulation shows that Boulestin, who had a sure feel for the produce and fare of his native land, likely did not overrate the culinary larder that was regional France. Of course, too, regions that had a rich agriculture would favour a more elaborate ancestral cuisine than more deprived provinces.
The net result for us is, we find Ms. Xin’s thesis and the authorities she cites persuasive in the main. Reading the paper made me understand, for example, why I couldn’t find most contemporary French or Belgian beer cuisine “classics” in any 1800s source.
My next posting, now the third post in a series, will describe beer-and-fish preparations currently known in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, the area from Boulogne to Lille, broadly. Whatever their origin, they certainly make for good eating, after all the duty of any recipe.
But the next time you page through a handsome coffee table tome listing appetizers, main courses, and desserts from a dozen or more French regions, consider that much of the repertoire may not predate ca. 1920. The books and glossy magazines paint an alluring picture, one that captivated France, then Britain, and finally much of the world. But like a lot of things, the reality from a historically may be quite otherwise.
*Unfortunately at February 18, 2019 the document seems no longer available online. This link indicates it was a dissertation completed in 2007 at Amherst College, Mass. in fulfillment of an Honours B.A. degree. However, we did review the full text of 75 pages when online.
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