A Review of “Provence To Pondicherry”

A new food book drew my interest recently based on an article in the New York Times. It’s Provence to Pondicherry by Tessa Kiros, published by Quadrille Publications.

The author has numerous books to her credit, covering different Mediterranean cuisines and other topics in food and travel. She was born in England, raised in South Africa, and lives with her family in Tuscany.

The premise of the book is how French cuisines influenced food in overseas French possessions, in this case Guadeloupe, Vietnam, La Réunion, and Pondicherry in India.

It’s a great idea certainly and the book achieves its object well. Books or parts of books have been written on the interaction of English and Indian cuisines, but not so much on France and its former possessions as far as I know.

In Provence to Pondicherry, the history is handled accurately but lightly, with a focus on flora and fauna, food, and people. The book is very well-designed with the cover evoking a lightly distressed 19th century French tome. The photography, by Manos Chatzikonstantis, is superb. Many of the images are arranged in “picture book” collage which suits the subject matter perfectly.

The writing is at once lively and musing and evokes well the areas visited. It pinpoints the various elements which together make a cuisine and culture: not just the produce of land and waters but weather, architecture, what people wear. In France, Normandy and Provence get close attention as vessels departed their ports to bring settlers, ingredients, methods to distant areas.

A telling observation is that, choose elements of the Provence repertoire even at random and they usually will match well. It’s true in fact of many long-settled societies, over time things in a cuisine just “fit”, a slow process of adaptation and accretion, often unconscious. There are many good travel notes, e.g., the contrast of brightly coloured plastic chairs with old weathered walls in Vietnam, underscored well by a photograph.

The recipes are carefully written. The author gives a mussels recipe for each region, so five or six of them, which permits a “compare and contrast” with metropolitan French versions. Classics abound, especially from Normandy, but recipes less encountered are also included. For most readers, the recipes of the former colonial regions will be quite novel. The bananas and rum one looks great, a dish I’ve enjoyed occasionally in the past. I liked also the way the typical French loaf is combined with local ingredients or preparations in Vietnam.

The Guadeloupe section resonated in particular as it recalled a fine dish I once had in Marigot, Saint Martin, a white fish bathed in lime juice. It illustrated well the book’s theme, that ingredients and methods of La Francophonie can combine to great effect.

One hopes a second volume will follow which covers other areas the French settled. Louisiana and Quebec are two which come to mind, but I’m sure there are others.