3 Oct 2010

A Vintage Provençal Cookbook (Part 1)

Introducing La Cuisinière Provençale by J.-B. Reboul (P. Ruat publisher, 396 pages), more than a recipe book, it is a potted history of bygone culinary tradition that used to belong to mémé's auntie Claire. In other words, a family heirloom - an antique item in its own right - that is also a piece of gastronomical testimony evidencing a bygone way of life. Strangely enough, there is no date anywhere in the book, so by taking an educated (and conservative) guess, I reckon this is at least 100 years old.

This book is about Provençale cuisine and probably as close to the truth as you can get. Starting with a few general observations, bread seems to be a key-component to soups and accompaniement to other dishes, comparatively to today's bread-shy culture. The Provençale flavour pervades throughout, with Mediterranean fish, olive oil, garlic, capers and herbs living up to the Provençal stereotype. The game dishes demonstrate that hunting played an important part in society. While mutton, pork, etc. were more likely to originate from your own stock or that of the local farm than from the butcher's (unless of course you were a town-dweller).

The second section of the book deals with food preservation (key at the time, when refrigeration was no option): tinned food, pickles, desiccation, marmalades, jams, fruit and plant syrups (including mallow root and violet flowers), candied fruit and fruit spirit (including the old-fashioned Ratafia and the fennel seed-based Anisette).

The compilation of 811 recipes are short and to the point, yet clear enough for a cook to follow, without getting lost in an array of details and cookery jargon (although a lexicon is provided at the end). Let us pause for a second and put the book in its context: although I would be tempted to say that the book's audience was likely to be individuals who could read and manage a household, and possibly students in home economics, some of its recipes (the less common ones, shall we say) could also have been directed at cooks on the payroll who may have been told by their masters to follow a recipe that they had no prior knowledge of, referring them to the book.

The book structure, divided into chapters, is straightforward, starting with hearty - mostly meaty - stodgy soups, some of which erring on the unpalatable: Potage Purée de Navets au Lait (a milk-based turnip soup served on bread slices), Garbure aux Marrons (boiled chestnuts served in their stock, over bread slices and finished in the oven), Aigo Boulido (literally: boiled water, to which olive oil and an egg yolk are added, before the bread). Other surprises and oddities await the modern reader at every page.

Advice is also provided along, for instance on how to achieve the perfect Pot-au-Feu (hotpot), with patience and no strong flames. And we find out that a true Bouillabaisse (fish soup) commands at least 7 or 8 guests due to the fact it needs to contain as many different varieties of fish as possible, in order to achieve the required richness of taste. The book gives much importance to fish dishes (but not just to sea fish), braised, grilled, baked, stuffed, etc. Frogs and snails end the fish chapter (likely to reinforce the French reputation abroad as frog and snail eaters!). (to be continued)

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