Sunday’s New York Times Travel section (May 25, 2014) contained an article on “The Roots of French Cuisine,” by Ann Mah, author of Mastering the Art of French Eating: Lessons in Food and Love from a Year in Paris. Inspired by John Baxter’s book, The Perfect Meal: In Search of the Lost Tastes of France, Mah set off of a trip around France to taste each regional specialty in its region of origin. If you can get your hands on a copy of the article, I’d recommend it to you.
I learned all sorts of interesting tidbits. For instance, galettes, or buckwheat crêpes used for the main-course, are naturally gluten free. Yet another reason to indulge! Buckwheat was introduced in the 15th century because the crop could survive in the poor soil of Brittany. Galettes were one of the only ways to use the grain, since it could not be incorporated into traditional bread. Mah recommends the galettes at Au Vieux Quimper (20, rue Verdelet, Quimper).
I learned what quenelles de brochet are. According to Mah, the specialty of Lyon “a fooball-shaped dumpling, similar to an oversize gnocchi, traditionally served in a coral-pink puddle of the langoustine-infused sauce called nantua.” The 500 or 600 year-old recipe was a way of using pike fish which is bony and hard to cook with. A quality quenelle will “feature a cloudlike texture.” Mah suggests the quenelles at Café des Fédérations (8, rue du Major Martin), among others.
Cassoulet, the specialty of Languedoc, was ostensibly invented during the Hundred Year’s War. It gave the soldiers enough renewed vigor to chase the English invaders all the way to the Channel. The hamlet of Castelnaudry, which claims to be the birthplace of cassoulet, serves an admirable bubbling crock of cassoulet at Hostellerie Etienne (1, chemin St.-James). What’s more, it’s served à volonté (ah vol-un-tay), or “all you can eat.”
Mah also explores the best of bouillabaisse from around Marseille and choucroute garnie from Alsace. If you’re planning to go to any of these regions of France, be sure to get your hands on a copy of Mah’s article. I’m just sorry she hasn’t any recommendations for where I’ll be this summer.
Mastering the Art of French Cooking, 50th Anniversary Edition, by Julia Child