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 visit the regions. This was now facilitated by better rail, and especially motorized, transport. Improved accommodations and power supply made such travel more feasible. Travelling meant staying there – 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 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 alcohol 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 lived in the country.

The traditional provender was not the type to entice the gastronomic tourist – those familiar with reliable Paris restaurants. Notably, it rarely offered meat, eggs, butter, or multiple courses, and at most a rare cake or tart 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, for the new gastro-tourists.

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

The comfortable, well-provisioned auberge of popular admiration today was an adaptation of either rudimentary, or yet too-luxurious, facilities, The rude country shelter, or the grand hotel with professional cuisine – neither met the needs of questing bourgeois rattling in town and dale in the 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 traditional cuisine, based on distinctive local ingredients and practices, was an article of faith. The signature dishes were useful to contrast with the Paris-Isle de France flambeau of food excellence, of which haute cuisine was the apex.

And so this new gastronomic, 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 cooking and other influences of globalization.

The Guide Michelin started in 1900 but it only covered restaurants from about 1920. The Guide assumed an increasingly important role in fostering this new gastronomic tourism. So did the well-known, multi-volume work on French regional cooking by Curnonsky, the pen name of Maurice Sailland, a great gastronome of the 1900s. But again, many of the bruited succulent dishes were of doubtful authenticity. Of those that had a clear heritage, they were usually festive or special-occasion food – rarely eaten by the typical paysan.

Xin cites the example of a Normandy “classic”, chicken with cream and Calvados. It’s a dish by now that has been described in hundreds of books and other accounts as a venerable, regional staple. While cream and Calvados are certainly Norman products, it appears the dish originated in Paris in the 1800s as part of haute cuisine. 

Xin explains that sole à la Normande was an 1800s Paris specialty of some complexity, using white wine, not apple-based cider. Gastronomes in Normandy in the 1920s assumed the Paris dish was based on something local that was originally simpler and must have used local cider as medium. Yet, evidence that sole was traditionally cooked with cider in Normandy seems thin on the ground.*

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

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 fleshy fish available from freshwater, or finally a coarse sea fish, where useful. So, contemporary recipes using these different fish can be viewed as an evolution: of a piece with the original conception. This is not the same as inventing a regional dish from whole cloth, not that that is illegitimate, but that is not the point for present purposes.

Perhaps the truth is somewhere in the middle here, or indeed is weighted toward the “invented” end as Ms. Xin’s study tends to suggest.

My next posting, now the third post of a series, will describe beer-and-fish dishes currently known in the Nord Pas-de-Calais (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 coffee table tome listing appetizers, main courses, and desserts from a dozen or more French regions, consider that much of the repertoire may well have emerged in the last 100 years. These books paint an alluring picture, one that captivated France, later Britain, and finally much of the world. But like a lot in life, things may not be what they seem.**

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*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 (75 pages) when online.

**Postscript added April 8, 2016. Alexandre Dumas, in his famed culinary dictionary (1873), described a dish of sole from “Trouville”, clearly the modern Trouville-sur-Mer in Normandy. And it is made with cider, see here. Still, it remains true that the general fare of peasant and labourer in Normandy and much of rural France was, well into the 1800s, based on bread or other grain-based food, galette, say, and soup. The London-based, French-born restaurateur and food writer Marcel Boulestin (d. 1943) mentions this at p. 34 of his Classic French Recipes (1971, a selection of his 1930s works).

It seems though some famous dishes now associated with a French region have a lineage stretching to the early 1800s or even earlier. I don’t discount that as early as 1873 a Parisian sole-and-white wine dish had inspired a Norman “original” based on cider, especially as Trouville was a resort for the fashionable, but some regional dishes are probably older than that including perhaps this one. Possibly too sole with cider was traditional in a small section of Normandy and later adopted as traditional by the full province.

Boulestin’s book, according to the cover blurb, depicts French bourgeois dishes of Paris and prosperous towns but also “authentic local dishes handed down from generation to generation”. Sole with cider may be one of the latter. In the French north, carbonnades of beef (beef with beer) might be a further one. This does not mean the bulk of the people ate such food very often or even at all, depending too on the area and local customs. Regions that were larders naturally would favour a more fulsome cuisine system earlier than more straightened provinces. In the main though we find Ms. Xin’s thesis and her authorities persuasive.

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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