The Famous Regional Cuisines of France Started in About 1920

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Blogs and the illustrated food magazines, not to mention countless books of 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 that 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 well discussed 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. All interested in regional food traditions might 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 promote 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 areas were considered retrograde in comparison to the supremely metropolitan Paris, centre of French civilization and refinement. Under the revised 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 a unified France forward.

This valuing of locality was intended to reduce an historic 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 meant such travel became more attractive. Travelling meant staying there – and eating there. What better way to appreciate the regional than to eat distinctively local food?

But what if there wasn’t any, or any to speak of? 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, le 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 type 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 traditional provender was not the type of food to entice the gastronomic tourist – those familiar with reliable 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 stock the regional larder the tourists expected. To achieve this (the argument goes) 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 dishes, now of some appeal to the new gastro-tourists.

Via this process including reviews in the gastronomic press and newly-issued regional food books, the post-WW I period “discovered” regional cuisine. It was found, usually and not surprisingly, in local restaurants and hotels. Yet these hospitality centres mostly did not exist in the 1800s and needed to be created, to provide running water and adequate toilet facilities, for one thing.

The comfortable, well-provisioned auberge of rapt attention today was an adaptation of rudimentary, or yet too-luxurious, facilities, The rude country shelter or the grand hotel with professional cuisine – neither met the needs of questing bourgeois travellers rattling across town and dale in sturdy new motorcars.

The legitimacy of the newly-discovered culinary heritage was sometimes debated. Still, by the mid-1900s the idea that each region of France had a traditional cuisine, based on distinctive local ingredients and practices, became an article of faith. It was useful to contrast with the Paris-Isle de France flambeau of food excellence with haute cuisine at the apex.

And so this new rural eating heritage 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, with nouvelle cuisine adding to the mix from the early 1970s, and today fusion and other influences of globality.

The Guide Michelin started in 1900 but only covered restaurants from about 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, the pen name of Maurice Sailland, one of the great gastronomes of the 1900s. But again, many of the succulent dishes now lauded were of doubtful antiquity. Of those that had a clear heritage, they were often festive or special-occasion food – rarely eaten by the typical paysan.

Xin cites 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 venerable 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 Paris offering 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 local speciality of cider as medium. Yet, evidence 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 main deductions and arguments are undoubtedly correct, I think the situation was probably more nuanced, depending too on the region. 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 some people substituted another fat fish available from freshwater, or finally a coarse sea fish, where useful. So, contemporary recipes using these different fish 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 is weighted toward the “invented” end as Ms. Xin’s study is fairly persuasive.

My next posting, now the third post of a 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 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 emerged in the last 100 years. The books paint an alluring tableau, one that captivated first France, then Britain and much of the world. But like a lot of things, things are not quite what they seem when a little investigation is paid.

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*Postscript added April 8, 2016. 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. Still, that the general fare of peasant and labourer in Normandy was for the most part bread and soup seems undoubted. Indeed, the eminent London-based, French-born restaurateur and food writer Marcel Boulestin (d. 1943) states exactly that on pg. 34 of his Classic French Recipes (1971, a selection from his 1930s works).

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 Paris-devised, sole-and-white wine dish had inspired a Norman “original” based on cider, especially as Trouville was a resort for the fashionable, but to hold to the general theory of Ms. Xin it is not necessary to believe that.  Maybe sole with cider held sway traditionally in a coastal section of Normandy, while today it is considered a provincial culinary birthright tout court.

Boulestin’s book, according to the credible-sounding blurb on the back cover, depicted the French bourgeois eating of Paris and prosperous towns 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, at least in a part of Normandy. In the French north, carbonnades of beef (beef and beer) seems to have been another. This did not mean the bulk of people in these regions ate them ever or very often, but the dishes may have existed for a long time.

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

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