The Famous Regional Cuisines of France Started In About 1920

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This post is a continuation of my previous one, Part II of what is now a three-part series.

Blogs and richly-illustrated food magazines, as well as countless books in food publishing, 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 foods reveal age-old connections with land, heritage and history; in a word they express authenticity.

It comes as shock to many, not least Beer Et Seq, to learn that well-documented studies have concluded French regional cuisine, for its part, largely dates from the 1920s. Cultural and social historians have studied the subject carefully, and there can be no doubt of the justice of their main points.

The authorities are masterfully discussed and elaborated in a 2007 academic paper entitled “We Are Where We Eat: A History of Twentieth-Century Gastronomic Tourism in France” by April M. Xin. I urge all interested in regional food to read the study, which is clearly written and cogently argued. Ms. Xin concludes that French regional cuisines are essentially a construct of the early 20th century and derive from a complex social-historical background.

Essentially, the Third Republic, established in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War, decided to foster an appreciation of the French regions as a way to rebuild national pride. National confidence and élan had been shaken by the debâcle of 1870 including the loss of Alsace-Lorraine. In lieu of military and diplomatic supremacy, France would henceforth vaunt the provinces as a unifying principle. Formerly, the back country was considered retrograde in comparison to Paris, centre of French civilization and refinement. Under the new conception, the virtues and values of the old rural seats would be the spokes of the national wheel so to speak. Paris was the hub, but would work in tandem with the provinces to move France forward.

The valuing of everyone’s locality was intended to reduce regional rivalry and stress the common unity of French citizens. In a striking image discussed by Xin, France became the “paternal” ancestor of the post-1870 citizen, while the citizen’s region or pays was the “maternal” one. This neatly paired the modernity and prestige represented by Paris with the emotive and nurturing quality of the ancestral pays. Together, they formed the French family, a foundation on which the Third Republic would thrive.

The invitation to elevate rural heritage prompted citizens to want to travel to the regions. This was now facilitated by better rail and especially motorized transport. Improved accommodations and power supply made such travel yet more attractive. Travelling meant staying there – and eating there. What better way to appreciate the regional than to eat distinctively local food?

But in truth, the traditional sustenance of the French regions before the Revolution and well into the 19th century was basic and monotonous. It was based on a blackish, mixed-grain bread, pain bis, or stodgy, flour-based galettes or crêpes. This starchy stuff was enhanced by an ever-boiling soup containing local vegetables, and meat when available – a rare event for most of the populace. Any available fruit, fresh or preserved, was put on the table. So was any bit of wine or other drink which might come the household’s way. Such was the basic diet of the great majority of French citizens well into the 1800s, most of whom still lived in the country.

This was not the type of food to attract gastronomic tourists familiar with Paris restaurants. Notably, it rarely offered meat, butter, or multiple courses, and nothing other than a rare cake as a civilized dessert.

More interesting food needed to be devised to form the regional larder the tourists expected. To do this, standbys of the professional Paris kitchen were simplified and added to local menus, or the reverse occurred: meat, butter and sugar were added to bare-bones regional preparations to make them appeal to the new gastro-tourists.

Via this process (goes the argument) culinary reviews and food books of the post-WW I period “discovered” regional cuisine. It was found usually, and not surprisingly, in local restaurants and hotels. These hospitality centres mostly did not exist in the 1800s and needed to be created, to provide running water and adequate toilet facilities, for example. The comfortable, well-provisioned auberge of rapt contemplation today was a romanticized improvement of rudimentary or yet too-luxurious facilities – the grand hotel with professional cuisine. Both had failed to meet the needs of a newly-prosperous class rattling across town and dale in sturdy new motorcars.

The legitimacy of this newly-discovered culinary heritage was sometimes debated. Still, by the mid-1900s, the idea that each region of France had a distinctive, traditional cuisine based on local ingredients became an article of faith, one useful to contrast with the talismanic, Parisian-Isle de France haute cuisine.

And so this newly-appreciated rural food became the mother, and the haughty professional cooking of Paris, the father, of the modern French culinary family. So it remains today despite some changes to the old plan, notably from nouvelle cuisine as well as fusion and other influences encouraged by globality.

The Guide Michelin was started in 1900, but only covered restaurants from c. 1920. The Guide assumed an increasingly important role in fostering the new gastronomic tourism. So did the well-known, multi-volume work on French regional cooking by Curnonsky, pen name of Maurice Sailland, one of the great gastronomic figures of the 1900s. Yet, many of the succulent dishes he mentioned were of doubtful antiquity. Of those which had a clear heritage, these were often festive or special-occasion food –  rarely eaten by the average person in the pays.

Xin gives the example of the Normandy “classic” chicken with cream and Calvados. It’s a dish that by now has been described in hundreds of books and other accounts as a French regional staple. While cream and Calvados are certainly Normandy products, it appears the dish originated in Paris in the 1800s under the influence of haute cuisine. Xin explains that sole à la Normande was an 1800s Parisian dish of some complexity, using white wine not apple-based cider. Gastronomes touring Normandy in the 1920s assumed the Paris dish was based on something originally simpler using the rustic cider. Yet evidence that sole was traditionally cooked with cider in Normandy seems thin on the ground.*

Reading Xin has made me understand why I couldn’t find most French or Belgian beer cuisine “classics” in 1800s literature.

While her deductions and arguments are undoubtedly correct, I think the situation was probably more nuanced. For example, as I will show, a dish of carp and beer was indeed known in France in the mid-1800s. From there, it is not too much to assume that sometimes people substituted another fat fish available in freshwater, and finally sea fish of a “coarse” nature, as well. So, contemporary recipes using these other fishes to make the dish can be viewed as a development, of a piece with the original conception. This is not the same as simply inventing a regional cuisine from whole cloth (not that that is illegitimate, but that is not the point for present purposes).

Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the middle, or indeed weighted toward the “invented” end: Ms. Xin’s study is persuasive enough to conclude the latter.

My next posting, now the third part of this series, will describe beer-and-fish dishes currently known in the Nord Pas-de-Calais.

Whatever their origin, they certainly make for some good eating, after all the vocation of any recipe. But the next time you page through a handsome coffee table volume listing appetizers, main courses, and desserts from a dozen or more French regions, consider that much of the repertoire emerged in the last 100 years. The books describe an an alluring vision, one which captivated not just France but Britain and much of the world, finally. But like a lot of things, it’s not what it seems at first sight.

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*Postscript added April 8, 2016: Beer Et Seq, in his continual investigation of the history of foods cooked with beer and other alcohols, notes that Alexandre Dumas, in his famed culinary dictionary (1873) describes a dish of sole from Trouville. This is obviously the modern Trouville-sur-Mer in Normandy. And it is made with cider, see here. I remain convinced that the fare of peasant and labourer in Normandy and elsewhere in France was for the most part based on bread and soup. Indeed the eminent London-based, French-born restaurateur and food writer Marcel Boulestin (d. 1943) states exactly that on page 34 of Classic French Recipes (1971), a selection from his most popular 1920s and 30s books.

Nonetheless, I acknowledge that particular dishes associated today with a French region often will have a certain lineage. I can’t rule out that even by 1873 a Parisian-devised, sole-and-white wine dish inspired, by an erroneous backwards logic, a Norman “original” based on cider, but it is not necessary to hold to the general theory advanced by Ms. Xin to believe that. Boulestin’s book, according to the credible-sounding blurb on the back cover, represented French bourgeois eating of Paris and prosperous town, but also included some “authentic local dishes handed down from generation to generation”. I am ready to believe that sole with cider was one such dish. In the French north, carbonnades of beef (beef and beer) was another. This did not mean the bulk of people in these regions ate them ever or very often, but that they existed for a long time is certainly plausible.

Note re image: The image shown is from Pinterest, sourced here, and is believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.