French cuisine is known around the world, but it might come as a surprise but there is no national French cuisine. Modern day France is an amalgam of different cultures and peoples and nations forged together over thousands of years and you can see that reflected in the culinary traditions of different parts of France.
Cuisine reflects culture. When Caesar described his conquest of Gaul he famously said, “Gallia est omni divesa a parti tres” or “All Gaul is divided into three parts.”
There were different tribes, people, languages, customs and safe to assume, different cuisine. And so it remained for nearly 2000 years. Over the past perhaps 75 years traditional methods of food preparation have largely become a thing of the past, nothing goes out of season, and the chef is not limited to locally sourced produce. At the same time, cuisine has evolved to broaden its appeal, increase the margins, speed up preparation, and take advantage of modern efficiencies. All of that is good… except iconic regional cuisine that has been a cultural artifact for hundreds of years can be so diluted that it is lost.
Now I admit this is a rather esoteric point, I would never have aware of this had I not had cousins in France. One of those cousins is a chef who owned a B&B in the south of France and for him globalization & modernity has produced a sterile, homogenized culture and cuisine. It looks good, tastes great but it’s no longer rooted in the land, history and local customs.
So, what Chef Erik have set out to do in this five (5) stop culinary tour is to honestly and authentically feature some of the most iconic regional specialties from Provence, Alsace, Pays de la Loire, Normandy and Gascogne, to talk a little bit about the history, geography and culture of the different regions and how the cuisine sprung up from that.
Little is known about the people that originally settled Normandy in prehistoric times, but interestingly their mark remains. Normandy is home to many megalithic monuments much like Stonehenge in southern England. Little is known about the purpose of these monuments, but they are found throughout Normandy.
History becomes a little more certain in the first century BC. When Caesar’s legions streamed across the Alps in 58 BC and made their way north to what today is called the English Channel, he encountered tribes he called the Celtae and Belgae. Having read a bit of classical Latin, I can tell you that the Romans were not usually very kind or generous in their description of the native peoples they sought to subjugate. Their goal was to dehumanize them. Yet it is interesting that in his Bellicum Gallicum – Gallic Wars – Julius Caesar pays a rare complement to the Belgae, referring to them as “fortissimi” or “courageous”.
But for better or worse the resistance the courageous Belgae and Celtae were able to muster was futile. The fact is the Gallic tribes hated each other more than they hated the Romans, and by the time they united around a leader named Vercingetorix, in 52 BC it was too late. The Gallic tribes were defeated at the battle of Alesia, near modern day Alise Sainte Reine in the upper Loire Valley. Gaul became a Roman Province. The region we call Normandy was named Lugdunensis Secunda.”
When the work of the Roman legions was completed, Rome followed a pattern to Romanize its conquered lands. This typically included construction of roads and a policy of urbanization.
During the first century AD we see the development of the first great cities in France: Lutetia, which became known as Paris, Rotomagensium, which we know as Rouen, Baiocassium, which is modern day Bayeux, Abrincatum, today called Avranches, Ebroicorum mediolanum, or Evreux and Lexoviorum, modern day Lisieux.
By the late 3rd century, Rome – once assumed to be invincible – began to implode under the weight of its own excesses. Nature abhors a vacuum and various Germanic tribes from the east streamed into Gaul. Perhaps you can’t completely blame them after hundreds of years of ruthless subjugation, but the Goths and other Germanic invaders devastated Roman Gaul including Lugdunensis Secunda.
But by the late 5th century the area came under the control of the Frankish chieftain Clovis, and a measure of peace and stability returned. Christianity came to Gaul around this time and cloistered religious communities and churches were rapidly built. Charlamagne was the greatest Frankish king during this period.
It wasn’t long after his death that Charlamagne’s empire began to fray. This time it was the Danish Vikings. It cannot be overstated the impact the Vikings had on northern Gaul. One could argue that the destruction the Romans brought had a purpose, the spread of their civilization, laws, and arts. But the Vikings destroyed for the sake of destruction. Up and down the Seine and Loire and along the channel coast the Vikings left a path of death and destruction. Up and down the Seine and Loire the cry was heard, “A furore Normannorum libera nos Domine,” or “From the fury of the North men, deliver us LORD.”
The Vikings laid siege to Paris in 900. In 911 Charles, king of the west Franks, made a deal with the Viking leader Rollo to suspend attacks in France in exchange for the region around Rouen.
In the years that followed the descendants of Rollo and his followers created an aristocracy that adopted the local Gallo-romance language, intermarried with the area’s native Gallo Frankish inhabitants, and adopted Christianity. This mixture of Danes and Gallo-Frankish people became known as the “Normannorum” or the Normans.
Why the history lesson? Because cuisine, like culture and even language springs up from the history that gave birth to it. Norman cuisine is different the cuisine of other regions of France in part because of connection with Scandinavians that lived off the sea. Much Norman cuisine is based on cold water seafood.
There is another connection with its Scandinavian roots is the use of apples. Early Greek and Romans reported the native Celtae drank fermented apple juice or “cidre.” But it wasn’t until the 9th century with the increased Viking Settlement that apple groves were expanded. Apples are a cool weather fruit and an important part of Scandinavian diet. Even today, Normandy is the world’s largest exporter of apples, producing 800 different varieties. Most traditional Norman cuisine uses apples, cidre or calvados, the later a distilled spirit made from apples.
And there is one other denominator that is common to many Norman dishes, and that is a heavily reliance upon dairy and beef. In Normandy the weather is cool and damp. The pastureland is fertile and provides abundant forage for the vache normande or Norman cow. The milk they produce is very high in fats and it creates exquisite butter and cream and cheeses. They also provide a well marbled beef.
You might say all French cuisine is heavy of the butter and cream. While that may be true of the haute cuisine of 5-star restaurants, it is not true of the cuisine of many regions of France.
For example, in Provence you would be hard pressed to find an old recipe that used any butter or cream. It is not that they didn’t have cows or cheeses, but in part because historically dairy wouldn’t keep in the hot climate of the south of France. Perhaps more significantly, unlike the north of France that was genetically influenced by the Scandinavians and other northern Europeans, 80% of southern Europeans are lactose intolerant. So again, we can understand the traditional cuisine in the light of history and culture.
At the Culinary Tour of France at Shiloh Manor Farm, Chef Erik and I are focused on providing an authentic dining experience featuring iconic regional specialties, paired with imported regional wines and cheeses and live bistro music. The last stop of the Culinary Tour of France arrives in Gascogne in southwestern France. Gascogne was originally inhabited by a people Caesar called the Aquitani who spoke a language related to modern day Basque. Encompassing the region from Bordeaux to Bayonne along the Atlantic coast, to Toulouse, with the Pyrenees mountains along the southern border to Spain, Gascogne is the land of d’Artagnan of the Three Musketeers and Cyrano de Bergerac. It is also home to a delicious cuisine unlike anything else you find in France! Details of the menu are being worked out wit the Chef, but you can count on an exquisite, traditional and authentic dining experience that captures the heart and soul of Gascogne!
à la prochaine!
The Culinary Tour of France at
Shiloh Manor Farm