The Famous Regional Cuisines of France Started In About 1920

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

Blogs and richly illustrated magazines about food, as well as countless books of the food publishing industry, have certain postulates. One is that regional cuisines exist in many countries, not least France. By dint of using local ingredients and being made by area residents, they reveal age-old connections with land, heritage, 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, is largely a recent invention, dating 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.

Many of the authorities are masterfully 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. I urge all who are interested in regional food to read this 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 socio-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 debacle of 1870 and loss of Alsace-Lorraine. In lieu of military and diplomatic supremacy, France would henceforth vaunt its venerable provinces as a unifying principle. Formerly, the back country was considered retrograde in comparison to Paris, the 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 it would work in tandem with the provinces to form a new national vision.

This new emphasis on the local was also intended to reduce regional rivalry and stress the common unity of all French citizens.  In a striking image explained in Xin’s study, France became “paternal” ancestor of the post-1870 citizen, while his region or pays was the “maternal” one. This neatly paired the modernity, organisation and power associated with Paris with the emotive and nurturing support of one’s ancestral pays. Together, they formed the French family, foundation on which the Third Republic would thrive.

Appreciating rural diversity meant travelling to these regions, which was now facilitated by better rail and especially motorized transport in the early 1900s, as well as improved accommodations and power supply. Travelling meant staying there – and eating there. And what better way to appreciate the regional than to eat distinctively local foods.

But the reality was, the traditional sustenance of the French regions before the Revolution, and well into the 19th century, was basic and monotonous. It was a blackish mixed-grain bread, pain bis, or stodgy, flour-based galettes or crêpes. This was paired with an ever-boiling soup which used a mixture of local vegetables and meat only when it was available – a rare event for most of the populace. Any available fruit, fresh or preserved, was put on table, and any bit of wine or other drink that might come the household’s way. This was the 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 entrance the new gastronomic tourists familiar with Paris restaurants, as it rarely offered meat, or butter, or multiple courses, or anything other than a rare cake for a fancy dessert. Thus, dishes needed to be devised to form the regional culinary larder the tourists expected.  To do this, either standbys of the professional Parisian kitchen were simplified, or the reverse occurred, basic regional preparations were enhanced with meat, butter and sugar to make them appeal to the new gastro-tourists.

Via this process, culinary reviews and books of the post-WW I period  “discovered” regional cuisine, offered to be sure in local restaurants and hotels. These hospitality centres mostly did not exist in the 1800s, and needed also to be created, to provide running water and adequate toilet facilities, for example. The comfortable, well-provisioned country auberge of rapt contemplation by all today was a romanticized improvement of 19th century facilities which, because they were too rude or yet too luxurious (the grand hotel with professional cuisine), failed to meet the needs of a newly prosperous class rattling across village and dale in sturdy new motorcars.

The legitimacy of this newly uncovered culinary heritage was sometimes debated. Still, by the mid-1900s, it became an article of faith that each region of France had a traditional cuisine based on local ingredients, one useful to contrast with the still-potent haute cuisine of Paris and Isle de France.

In effect, the rural food tradition became the mother, and the haughty professional cooking of Paris the father, of the modern French food family. So it remains today despite some changes to the old plan (the nouvelle cuisine, encroaching globality).

The Guide Michelin, which started in 1900 but covered restaurants from about 1920, assumed an increasingly important role in fostering 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, a lot of it was festive or special occasion food rarely eaten by the average person in the pays.

Xin gives the example of the Normandy “classic” of chicken with cream and Calvados, a dish that by now has been described in hundreds of books and other accounts as a regional staple. While cream and Calvados are certainly Normandy products, and used to good effect, the dish originated in Paris in the 1800s under the influence of haute cuisine. In a discussion one might think of in beer cuisine terms, Xin explains that sole à la Normande was an 1800s Parisian dish of some complexity using white wine. Gastronomes touring Normandy in the 1920s assumed it had to be based on an original, simpler dish using cider. Yet evidence that sole was traditionally cooked with cider in Normandy seems thin on the ground…*

Reading all this has made me understand why I couldn’t find many examples of French or Belgian beer dishes in 1800s publications.

While the deductions and arguments in Ms. Xin’s study are unquestionably correct, I think the situation was probably more nuanced than some of the authorities she cites suggest. 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 used eel – another fat fish available in freshwater ponds and rivers, and finally sea fish of a “coarse” nature as well. This is drawing from, or extending, a tradition rather than inventing something from whole cloth.

Nonetheless, I would not say the truth lies somewhere in the middle  – Ms. Xin’s study is too persuasive for that.

My next posting, now to comprise the third part of this series, will describe beer and fish dishes currently known in the French Nord Pas-de-Calais. Whatever the origin of those recipes, they certainly make for some good eating, and after all that is the vocation of any recipe. But the next time you page through a handsome coffee table volume of French regional food, listing appetizers, main courses and desserts from a dozen or more French food regions, consider that most of it has emerged in the last 100 years. Certainly it is an alluring vision, one which captivated not just France but Britain and the world, finally, but like a lot of things in life, it’s not what it seems at first sight.

*Postscript added April 8, 2016: Beer Et Seq, in his continual investigation of the history of foods cooked with beer and other alcohols, has just noted that Alexandre Dumas, in his famed culinary dictionary (1873), describes a dish of sole from Trouville (obviously, the modern Trouville-sur-Mer, Normandy) as made with cider, here. I remain convinced that the fare of peasant and labourer in France was for the most part based on bread and soup. Indeed the French-born Marcel Boulestin states exactly this on page 34 of Classic French Recipes (1971, a selection from his classic books of the 1920s and 30s published by his estate).

Nonetheless, particular dishes associated today with the French regions will in some cases have a long 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 its 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 was another. This did not mean the bulk of people in these regions ate them ever or very often, but that they have existed 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.