French Seafood Dishes Scattered by Neptune’s Sceptre

In France over the summer, at Boulogne-sur-Mer, we enjoyed a caudière (pictured), made with two types of ocean fish, onions, potatoes, beer, and cream. It is one form of a classic French coastal dish. Variants include all-crustacean or a mix with ocean fish, wine or poultry stock as the base, various herbal additions, garlic or scallion, and on it goes.

But the basic form combines potatoes, fish or seafood, and onion in a soup-stew format. I realized when ordering the dish that some of our chowders are likely connected. Chowder is said to derive from the French dish chaudrée, in turn from chaudière, a vessel to heat or boil, and chaudron for cauldron.

The word chaud, or hot, seems a link in these terms. So a heated mixture of ingredients that took its name from the container, just as tourtière in Quebec, the minced meat pie, took its name from the dish it was made in (in France the dish is generally called tourte, while tourtière is reserved for the cookware).

But the etymology might be otherwise, as this learned account in Wikipedia attests. Not surprisingly too, there is some disagreement if caudière derives from the above terms, but I think it must, and is a regional alternate form.

The dish must be very old as we have versions on the North American East Coast, which suggests French seafarers brought the dish here centuries ago. This one from Prince Edward Island is seafood-based, and cream and onion duly appear. It from a PEI tourist website that offers local recipes both in English and French, and the English one terms it “seafood chowder”.

Here is a variant using ham instead of fish with the beer, from the Recettes d’ici site, but many fish or seafood chaudrées can be found, even some with beer, very similar to the one I ate in France. In La Cuisine à la Bière, published in 1981 in Saint-Georges in the Beauce, Quebec by Productions Amérique Francaise (no author credited), there appears a Chaudrée des Maritimes virtually identical to the Boulogne dish, except evaporated milk substitutes for the cream.

It’s an understandable change, from times when remote regions did not always have access to dairy ingredients or if available, were for many unaffordable luxuries. Into the 1970s English food writers such as Jane Grigson reflected sensitivity to the cost of cream when proposing recipes requiring their use.

I plan to make the version known to Beaucerons that likely came from the Maritimes down the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and may stretch across the Atlantic finally to old France, even the beer part as beer was – is – ancestral on the further northern coast. But likely some versions use cider, this would make sense for dishes originating in Brittany and Normandy, or white wine, for versions hailing from further south.

Sometimes culinary heritage trumps local factors, though. In Boulogne, I saw moules marinières countless times on menus, but only once made with beer. Even in a proud beer region, the dish was almost always made with white wine. I asked a restaurateur if he would make it with beer, which featured in other dishes on his menu. His brow furrowed, and he said oui, but didn’t seem fully accepting of the notion.

Our soup forms of chowder, notably Manhattan and New England clam chowders, are yet another class of the chowder clan. I didn’t see those types in France. I am sure they are found there but considered in such case as foreign recipes. Perhaps these forms are of North American origin. After all too clams, the hundreds of species found in North and Central America and parts of Asia, are not native to France although cultivated there now.

2 thoughts on “French Seafood Dishes Scattered by Neptune’s Sceptre

  1. Moby Dick has a chapter on chowder taking place before Ishmael and Queequeg set sail. That chowder is very different from any French version — it is boiling water thickened with smashed ship biscuits, salt pork, butter, and either clams or cod.

    I would guess it reflects what people ate in the 1600s on ships en route and then facing the scarcity of fresh food during the winter in North America. Butter might keep on a ship in colder weather. Milk and cream definitely would not. Ship biscuits keep forever, as does salt pork, and I would guess what was eaten on ships was almost always made with salt cod, which also lasts indefinitely, unless something fresh was caught.

    Clams were an important winter staple on the coast because they can be dug at low tide most of the time, and they supply vitamin C which is hard to get during the winter. But I would guess salt cod was still a regular ingredient onshore, especially inland where it was hard to transport live clams.

    • Thanks Tom, and am aware certainly of Melville’s encomium to chowder and the Trypots. I think still the lineage is clear. Biscuit is a starch, as potato. Butter enriches, as cream. Some places on the French coast probably threw in too a few lardons or grillons…

      There are citations from mid-1700s in English sources to chowder. Might it have migrated across the Channel first, from there?

      If so the American usage would be part of that tradition, before any French influence I mean.

      But I think the English got it from the French, so one way or another North Americans did too. There seem chowder-like dishes in too many places on the French Atlantic to think it came from the UK.

      But clearly some ingredients changed on the way. By the way I just realised that the coating of lightly sweet brown breadcrumbs you get on scrod in New England is probably an echo of that old use of ships’ biscuit.

      Gary

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