The Famous Regional Cuisines of France Started in About 1920

Image-laden magazines and other media, not to mention countless books on food and culinary traditions, have certain postulates. One is that regional cuisines exist in many countries, not least France. By dint of using local ingredients, fashioned in the area of production, regional food is held to reveal age-old connections to land, people, and heritage. In a word, it expresses an ineffable authenticity (versus, say, the deracinated cuisines in large cities).

It comes as a surprise, therefore, to learn that French regional cuisine, for its part, seems largely to date from the 1920s. A number of cultural and social studies have concluded to this effect, as documented and elaborated in a 2007 academic paper by April M. Zin, “We Are Where We Eat: A History of Twentieth-Century Gastronomic Tourism in France“.* She argues persuasively that French regional cuisine is essentially a construct of the early 20th century and derives from a complex socio-historical background.

Xin explains that the Third Republic, established in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War, decided to promote regional French identity to rebuild national pride. National confidence and élan had been shaken by the debâcle of 1870, especially the loss of Alsace-Lorraine. To substitute for a lapsed military and diplomatic prestige, France henceforth would vaunt its provincial and local cultures to help sustain national unity.

Earlier, the countryside was considered retrograde as compared to supremely metropolitan Paris, the centre of French civilization and refinement. Under the revised conception, the old rural seats and values they represented (stability, faith, loyalty), would work with the metropole to form the French fact. In a striking metaphor explained by Xin, henceforth the regions would be the spokes in the French national wheel, and Paris the hub; together they would propel the nation forward and restore its prestige.

The new approach acknowledged the value of every citizen’s locality. This was meant to reduce historic regional rivalries and uphold the common unity of citizens. In another striking image, Xin explained that France now functioned as the “paternal” ancestor of the post-1870 citizen while the region or pays of each citizen was the “maternal” one. This neatly paired the modernity and prestige associated with Paris with the emotive and nurturing qualities seen as emblematic of the old pays. Together, they would form the French family, a foundation on which the Third Republic would thrive.

This elevation of rural heritage prompted citizens to want to visit the previously overlooked regions. Travel was now facilitated by better railway and especially motorized transport. Improved accommodations and power supply made such travel more feasible. Travelling meant staying at destination – 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, well into the 19th century, was basic and monotonous. It was based on a blackish, mixed-grain bread, le pain bis, as well as stodgy, flour-based galettes or crêpes. Such starchy matter was enhanced by an ever-boiling soup containing available local vegetables. Meat was added when available, a rare event for most of the populace.

Any fruit, fresh or preserved, available to hand was put on table. So was any type of wine, or other alcohol, that might come the family’s way. Such was the basic diet of the great majority of citizens well into the 1800s, when most still lived in the country.

This traditional provender was not the type to entice the gastronomic tourist, those familiar with reliable Paris restaurants. Indeed the provincial diet rarely offered meat, eggs, butter, or multiple courses. At most, there might be a rare cake or tart for a real dessert. More interesting food needed to be devised to uphold tourists’ expectations.

To achieve this, local menus were supplemented by standbys of the professional Paris kitchen, or local foods were improved with butter, cream, and other good things characteristic of Paris and Isle de France.

This emerging regional cuisine was promoted by an increasingly sophisticated gastronomic press that engaged in regional food surveys, all by the 1920s. The new eating typically and not surprisingly was found in local restaurants and hotels. Yet these hospitality centres had mostly not existed in the 1800s. They had to be created, for one thing to provide running water and adequate sanitation facilities.

The comfortable, well-provisioned auberge of rapt modern contemplation was an adaptation of previously rudimentary, or yet too-luxurious, facilities. The rude country shelter on the one hand, and the isolated grand hotel offering professional cuisine on the other, had to be supplemented since neither met the needs of bourgeois visitors coursing through hill and vale in the new motorcars.

The legitimacy of this rural culinary heritage was sometimes debated but by the mid-1900s the idea that each French region had a traditional cuisine became an article of faith. The signature dishes came in handy to contrast with Paris-Isle de France gold standards of food excellence, of which haute cuisine was the apex.

Indeed by the mid-20th century the rural gastronomic heritage functioned as the mother, and the professional cooking of Paris, the father, of the national culinary family. So it remains today despite some changes to the old plan, with nouvelle cuisine and its successors in the mix and as well as fusion and foreign cookery.

The Guide Michelin started in 1900 but from about 1920 it started covering food and assumed an outsize role chronicling this double gastronomic heritage. So did the well-known, multi-volume work on French regional cooking by Curnonsky, pen name of Maurice Sailland, the great epicurean of the 1900s.

If many succulent dishes to be found in them were of doubtful authenticity, this was overlooked in the general enthusiasm. Those that that had a clear heritage were usually festive or special occasion food, rarely eaten that is by the paysan.

Xin cites the example of a Normandy “classic”, chicken with cream and Calvados, a dish by now described in hundreds of books and venerated as a regional staple. While cream and Calvados are certainly Normandy products, she suggests the dish originated in Paris in the 1800s in haute cuisine and originally used white wine, not cider, but the latter was substituted sur place in Normandy. Indeed evidence that sole was traditionally cooked with cider in Normandy seems at best inconclusive.

Alexandre Dumas, in his famed culinary dictionary (1873), described a preparation of sole from Trouville, or Trouville-sur-Mer in Normandy. And it did use cider, see here.  Yet, quite possibly as early as 1873 a Paris sole-and-wine dish had already inspired a Norman “local” dish based on cider, especially as Trouville was a resort for the fashionable, ahead of other regions in this regard.

Still, we can allow that some regional dishes had certain antiquity, including this one perhaps, cider and all. Another possibility is that cider with sole was traditional in a small section of Normandy and later adopted as a heritage dish in the full province.

Of course, too, regions with a rich agriculture tradition would favour a more elaborate cuisine than more deprived provinces.

Whatever the case in regard to Normandy sole, it is clear the general fare of peasant and labourer in rural France, well into the 1800s, was bread or other grain-based food, galette, say, and soup. London-based French-born restaurateur and food writer Marcel Boulestin (d. 1943) confirmed this at p. 34 of his Classic French Recipes (1971), a selection of his 1930s writings.

The book, according to the cover blurb, depicted French bourgeois dishes of Paris and prosperous towns as well as “authentic local dishes handed down from generation to generation”. This phraseology shows that Boulestin likely did not overstate the case for the culinary larder of regional France. 

At day’s end, we find Xin’s thesis and sources considered persuasive, in the main. Reading the paper made me understand, for example, why I couldn’t find contemporary French or Belgian beer cuisine “classics” in any 1800s source.

My next posting, now the third post in a series, will describe beer-and-fish preparations currently known in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, the area from Boulogne to Lille, broadly. Whatever their origin, they certainly make for good eating, after all the function of any recipe.

But the next time one pages through a coffee table book listing appetizers, main courses, and desserts from a dozen or more French regions, consider that much of the repertoire may not predate c. 1920. Books and glossy magazines paint an alluring picture, one that captivated France, then Britain, and finally much of the world. But like a lot of things in life, the reality historically may be quite otherwise.

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*At February 18, 2019 the document seems unavailable online. This link states it was a dissertation completed in 2007 at Amherst College, Mass. in fulfillment of an Honours B.A. We did review the full text of 75 pages when available online.