When French Women Cook

When French Women Cook: A Gastronomic Memoir
Madeleine Kamman
10 Speed Press, Berkeley: 1976

Rarely do you find a book on food that is interesting to read AND useful to cook from. It is even rarer when the evocative prose is so beautiful that it both brings tears to the eyes and makes you laugh out loud. When French Women Cook by Madeleine Kamman is just such a book. Originally published in 1976 (reprinted in 2002), it can truly be called a classic.

As Kamman remarks in her introduction, she is telling a story of a France that has slowly receded into the past. It was a time, she writes, when the awards in cooking went to “women with worn hands stained by vegetables peeled, parched by work in house, garden or fields, wrinkled by age and experience.” These are the women in Kamman’s life that this gastronomic memoir is dedicated to – eight chapters dedicated to eight women who influenced her attitude towards food and cooking, preceded by an introductory chapter on basics (ingredients, stocks, pastries, seasonings).

Madeleine Kamman begins her memory journey in the 1930s with great grandmere Marie-Charlotte (affectionately called Mimi Chérie) who had become an economic migrant to Paris in the 19th century after the devastation of her vines in Poitou by phylloxera, but still retained the thrifty habits of her country origins. We then move on to distant cousin, Victoire, living in rustic simplicity in the Auvergne and to another family connection, Henriette, eking out a living making camemberts and anything apple on her small farm in Normandy. During the early war years, Madeleine was sent to the Savoie in the Alps where she met Mimi, a near contemporary, who remained a life-long friend and shared la passion de la casserole – the passion for pots and pans.

Tante Claire in the Touraine ran a hotel and restaurant, the only professional cook (and a great charcutiére) among these eight women whose rilllettes, pâtes, terrines and game dishes brought gastronomes from near and far. Grandmere Eugénie was from Alsace and considered a family culinary legend. She died young, before Madeleine was born, but tales were passed on by great aunt Alwine along with Eugénie’s precious handwritten diary and cookbook in her antique German script. Loetitia from Brittany, like many good Breton cooks, excelled at making specialities from buckwheat – including krampoch (galettes) and farz (porridge) – anything from the spoils of the sea, and baked goods using the luscious creamy butter of the region. Magaly, the vigneron’s wife taught Madeleine the true meaning of Provence cuisine at a time when foreign tourism was beginning to commercialise the area and change the way people presented food.

After an introduction on each of the women at the beginning of their chapters – I admit I loved reading their stories – Madeleine includes recipes for some of their signature dishes. We have Mimi Chérie’s Tourteau Fromage aux Oignons (Goat Cheese and Onion Pie), Victoire’s Poulet au Verjus et aux Raisins (Sautéed Chicken with Raisins and her own homemade Verjus liberally laced with Armagnac), La Pomme d’Henriette (Henriette’s Apple Cream Tart), Mimi’s Truite du Fier aux Noisettes (Brook Trout with Hazelnuts), Claire’s Faisan aux Raisins (Pheasant and Grapes), Eugénie’s Senfnudeln (Noodles Alsatian Style with Mustard Butter), Loetitia’s Soup de Poissons au Vert (Fish Soup with a Garnish of Greens), and Magaly’s Poivrons Farcis a la Brousse (Peppers Stuffed with Cheese).

With these connections, Madeleine covers a good portion of France and indulges in real regional foods. But, the one thing these women have in common is la Cuisine de Misère, or as Madeleine explains, cooking something with nothing – nothing that is that wasn’t hard earned, home grown, traded or bartered, freely foraged or surreptitiously poached. It reminds me a little of the Italian Cucina Povera (“food of the poor”) or traditional Greek country food where everything off the land in its different seasons is utilised. Despite their names, these cuisines of the “poor” are filled with the wealth of what each season provides and pays homage to the ingenuity of the cook. It is a type of cooking, almost a way of life, that attracts me. This book is for like minded people who love a good story as much as they love good food.

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21 comments

    • Glad you already ordered it – two moe Aussies hot on the trail by now! Hope you are having a great time in the outback. Did get to Antica Locanda di Sesto – spectacular! My husband is your slave for the recommendation and is even following them on Facebook. Am (even now) carting bottles of their wine back to the UK.

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      • Ah so pleased you got there and enjoyed it. I wouldn’t normally make a recommendation but I feel we have many similar tastes. Thanks for bringing the nemory of it all to ne in the desert.

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  1. I think I may have read this years ago, probably borrowed from the library. It’s not on any local library list, so I’m I’m to search for a copy online. It sounds wonderful!

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    • It really is spectacular and I am so glad I found out about it! I wish you luck – Francesca (Almost Italian) has already ordered hers and Cherry (The Cheergram and the Silly Yak) is also on the lookout. I’m cooking Victoire’s chicken with verjus when mine matures. It was my read for the hols.

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  2. Another SNAP, this is a book I love too. It’s kind of not glamorous, but one of my favourite recipes is the one for Brussel Sprouts and Apples in the mixed spice — in which I always seem to ramp up the coriander. 🙂

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    • I mentioned the Brussel Sprouts with apples to my husband and now I’ve got to plan a meal around them. There is no way I can’t make them (sorry about the double negative, but I’ve always felt this was a quaint Britishism – like Brussel Sprouts).

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  3. This sounds like a book I need to read. I’ve almost moved away from my much loved historical fiction, then travel fiction and am loving ‘foodie fiction’. Well I guess I just love a good story. I must check it out. thanks!

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  4. I think what I love best about this book, besides the wonderful stories, is that the recipes seem so fresh and modern, even though some of them are clearly centuries old. “La cuisine pauvre” is just as good as “cucina povera.” Peasant food of all kinds is my favorite. Fresh, highly local ingredients, lots of produce, cured meats, whole grains, everything from scratch – yum.

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  5. I got this book at your recommendation, and it is amazing, as you said. Kamman’s writing is beautiful! I just finished the Henriette chapter and need to go out and buy some Camembert and cider, then pretend I live in the French countryside. Thank you so, so much for this suggestion!

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    • I am so glad you liked this very special book! After reading about these women, I really wanted to know more of their history – so many little mysteries still untold. Travelling through France on the way home from our holiday in Italy, we went through Savoy and I kept looking at the hillside villages where Mimi and her herd of cows might have lived. We also bought Camembert for a roadside picnic – and yes, thought of Henriette making endless cheeses while caring for her foster children. A sign of a great book!

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