When French Women Cook: A Gastronomic Memoir
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.