Scattered by Neptune’s Sceptre

 

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

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

The term chaud, or hot, seems a link in these terms. So, a heated mixture of ingredients took its name from the container, just as tourtière in Quebec, the minced meat pie, took its name from the container. In France still the same dish is called tourte, with tourtière is reserved for the cookware.

The etymology may be otherwise, suggests this learned account in Wikipedia. Not surprising, there is disagreement too whether caudière derives from the any of the above terms, but I think it must.

 

 

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

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 is used for cream.

An understandable change, from when remote regions did not always have access to fresh dairy, or if available, were for many unaffordable. Into the 1970s English food writers such as Jane Grigson still showed sensitivity to the cost aspect when proposing recipes using cream.

 

 

Sometimes culinary authenticity trumps locality, though. In Boulogne, I saw moules marinières many times on menus, but only once made with beer. Even in a proud beer region, the dish was almost always with white wine. I asked a restaurateur if he would make it with beer, an ingredient in other dishes he offered.

His brow furrowed, and he said oui, but he didn’t seem fully accepting of the notion.

The soup forms of chowder, especially the Manhattan and New England clam chowders, are yet another subset of the chowder clan. I didn’t see that in France, but the clam I think (palourde) still has something of the foreign attached to it.

It is native to many areas of the world but the Hexagone, if I understand it correctly, only counts the clovisse as native, in the Mediterranean basin. This is the grooved carpet shell clam. Numerous clam varieties, including North American and Asian, are farmed in France but this came later, relatively speaking.

 

2 thoughts on “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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