Sunday, December 2, 2007

When France Was a Food Purgatory

This is Paul Bocuse, one of the chefs who helped establish France as the culinary heaven that it is today. But there was a time when the food that adorned the dinner table in France was utterly forgettable mush. In his newly published book, The Discovery of France, Graham Robb writes about the quality of French food in the 19th Century:
The standard [food] was usually too dull to be mentioned, unless it was spectacularly bad, which is why, in early nineteenth century novels, great meals are usually on par with outstanding orgies, with which they often coincide.

Few people would have guessed that France would one day be the goal of gastro-tourists. Beyond the homes of the rich and a few restaurants, recipes were unusual. The word "recette" (meaning "recipe" in French) referred primarily to the preparation of pharmaceutical remedies.
But, surely, I thought, the baguette — the long loaves of soft, chewy dough with a crispy, golden brown crust — had their origin in 1800's France. On the contrary, according to Robb, French bread during the 19th century was nothing to dream about. Bread in the typical village was baked only a few times each year, and the resulting supply was meant to last the locals for several months. For this reason, writes Robb:

For tourists who ventured beyond Paris, the true taste of France was stale bread. ... This was bread that had lived through the year with the people who baked it, as hard as stone, immune to the weather and able to travel great distances. The tougher varieties out of storage [were] fossilized crisps that had to be smashed with a hammer, boiled five times with a few potatoes and perhaps flavoured with milk.

Most travellers quailed at the thought of eating local bread and took their own supply of biscuits.
And, in the province of Anjou, in western France, ordinary people ate

... some salted lard on Sunday to change the taste of the bread.
This makes me want to rush to the bakery in order to buy a baguette, bite into it and just reassure myself that the images that Robb's book created are truly an unfortunate relic of the past.

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