It’s built in a marsh — thus the name, Château du Marais — and the water you see in front is the overflow from what you call the plan d’eau in French, meaning literally “water plane,” which is basically a mirror lake. As soon as there is sun, you can see a silvery reflection of the house, and sometimes the clouds, in the water. I lived in a bit of this house for 18 years. Because the little lake and the house are almost at the same level for the sake of aesthetics, and because the house is built on filled-in marsh, it takes very little to flood it. We always had our rubber boots ready and many the time I had to walk through knee-deep water and across the courtyard to get out. We’d park our cars on higher ground and wade to them if we truly had to go somewhere outside our little world. It was like being a princess locked inside a castle, except I wasn’t a princess. Maybe that’s why I sometimes feel peas under my mattress.
“A bare-chested sun-tanned peasant threshes the wheat, section of August from the Zodiac and the labors of the months stained glass window, 1217, in the ambulatory of Chartres Cathedral, Eure-et-Loir, France. This calendar window contains scenes showing the zodiacal symbol with its corresponding monthly activity. Chartres cathedral was built 1194-1250 and is a fine example of Gothic architecture. Most of its windows date from 1205-40 although a few earlier 12th-century examples are also intact. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.”–Art Archive
My adopted hometown of Chartres is in the Beauce region, the breadbasket of France. Large, flat wheat fields surround the single hill of Chartres, topped with the most beautiful Gothic Cathedral in the world. You can see the cathedral for miles when driving across the fields, and a quite magical view it is, its spires dominating the flat farmlands. No wonder people have been making pilgrimages here for at least 5,000 years.
Chartrains, as we call the people from here, come from the land. Everyone in the region has a farm or has family who owns one, and because of the abundance of grains of every kind — wheat, barley, corn, rye and many more — grains are an integral part of the local diet.
This traditional recipe is referred to as “bread from the mill,” but no one knows the exact origin of that name. In the past, the Beaucerons (the inhabitants of the Beauce region), of Celtic and Druidic origins, ate this on the Jour des Morts, the day of the dead, which fell on November 2 after All Saint’s Day, when the living were said to communicate with the dead, when tombs and graves were said to open so that the world of the visible and invisible could intermingle for a short period.
Early in the morning of November 2, local bakers made pain aux morts, or “bread to the dead” (this could even be translated in a more ghoulish manner, “bread (made from) the dead”), out of flour and milk, for a traditional 10 a.m. breakfast before going to the cemetery.
In the nineteenth century, the church decided that All Saints Day sufficed and such pagan customs were more or less done away with. Beaucerons continue to eat this bread during the All Saints celebrations, however, calling it “bread from the mill” instead of “bread to the dead.”
I often serve this recipe with apéritif, but it can also make a vegetarian dinner, and can, of course, be eaten year round.
6 pains au lait or 3-4″-long milk breads
6 cups milk
1 1/2 cups Swiss cheese or similar, grated
Cut the bread in half lengthwise.
Use a spoon to scrape the crumbs out of the crust, taking care to leave the crust intact, and put the crumbs in a bowl.
Pour milk over crumbs and mix.
Add the eggs and the grated cheese and mix well.
Fill the crusts with the bread crumb mixture.
Use kitchen string to tie the bread halves together.
Heat cooking oil in a deep pan or fryer. When the oil starts to bubble, drop in the bread and cheese preparations.
Cook until golden brown.
Drain on paper towels and serve immediately while hot.
What to Eat in France: Bûche de Noël, or Yule Log, Traditional French Christmas Dessert
The Yule Log, or the bûche de Noël, “an elaborate creation consisting of a rolled, filled sponge cake, frosted with chocolate buttercream to look like tree bark and festooned with meringue mushrooms, marzipan holly sprigs, spun sugar cobwebs and any other sort of edible decoration,” is the traditional choice of Christmas dessert in France. It comes in many flavors and pastry chefs and home cooks alike let their creativity go wild.
Etre le dindon de la farce. / To fall victim to dupery.
Une dinde. / A stupid, pretentious woman.
Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, perhaps France’s best-known gastronomic writer, said that the turkey was certainly one of the most beautiful gifts the New World had given to the Old. “…the fattest, and if not the most delicate, at least, the tastiest of all domesticated birds.” It’s not often that the New World gets such compliments from discerning French epicures.
Turkeys were originally called poules d’Inde, “Indian hens,” in France, because they were thought to have come from India, which they later learned was Mexico. The French were not the only ones to get the name wrong. In Hebrew a turkey is a tarnagol hodu, meaning literally “Indian chicken;” in Russian indiuk, Polish indyk and Yiddish indik.
There is some controversy over who brought turkeys to Europe. Columbus probably brought brought them back in the early sixteenth century, since records show that King Ferdinand had ordered that every ship to bring back ten turkeys before the Spanish explorer Cortés set out in 1519. In any case, by 1548, they were the rage in France. In 1549, Catherine de Medicis served 70 “Indian hens” and 7 “Indian roosters” at a banquet held in honor of the Bishop of Paris.
French aristocrats were accustomed to eating all sorts of feathered creatures, including chewy storks, herons, peacocks, swans, cranes and cormorants, so it wasn’t surprising that they fell in love with the less-chewy turkeys, and that in 1570, Charles IX and Elizabeth of Austria thought turkey noble enough to serve at their wedding feast.
By the seventeenth century, the French were raising turkeys as if they were their own and most cookbooks included turkey recipes. French chefs weren’t lacking in ideas: they made stews and ragouts; they larded, roasted and glazed it; they stuffed it and made it into soups and pâtés.
Marie-Antonin Carême preferred the wings, which he deboned, then stuffed with chicken and truffles. Alexander Dumas, in his Dictionary of Cuisine, included 27 recipes. Turkeys were well established in the Hexagon.
Christmas dinners usually meant lots of mouths to feed, so turkey, being the largest of the winged creatures available, eventually became the dish of choice for Christmas feasts. By the nineteenth century, it became customary to stuff the Christmas turkey with chestnuts, and the tradition continues today.
The French and What They Eat: The History of Frites, what we call French Fries or Chips
Avoir la frite. / To have the French fry, meaning “to be fit.”
The French swear they invented frites, what we call French fries. The Belgians also claim to have invented them. One thing we do know is that French fries, or “chips,” as the British call them, came on the scene relatively late in the context of food history, since potatoes were incorporated into the French diet well after the discovery of the New World. It was in the late eighteenth century that Parmentier made them popular; before that, they had been the food of the poor who couldn’t afford bread and had often been used as animal feed.
But before there were French fries, there were fried potatoes, sliced, then fried in butter or lard, or sometimes breaded and fried like fritters. There is mention of this method in the eighteenth century, and recipes started appearing in French cookbooks in the nineteenth century. Already in 1807, the famous gastronomic writer Grimod de La Reynière, advised eating steak with potatoes fried in fresh butter. The following year, Stendhal wrote in his journal: “At quarter past four, I ate grilled mutton with fried potatoes and salad.”
It was only in 1838 that a Belgian by the name of Monsieur Fritz discovered the secret to making frites or French fries as we know them today. He had learned the technique in a rotisserie in the Rue Montmartre in Paris. His secret was to cut the potatoes into sticks instead of slices. This method soon took over in France and abroad.
Early Recipes for Frites and French fries
Make a batter using potato flour and two eggs beaten with water. Add a spoon of oil, a spoon of eau de vie, salt and pepper. Beat well until there are no more lumps. Peel raw potatoes. Slice. Soak in the batter. Fry until they form a nice color.–Madame Mérigot, La Cuisinière républicaine / The Republican Cook, 1794
Peel raw potatoes. Slice them. Flour them and throw them into extraordinarily hot deep fat. When they are fried, sprinkle salt on them.–A.T. Raimbault, Le Parfait Cuisinier / The Perfect Cook, 1811.
Jonell Galloway grew up on Wendell Berry and food straight from a backyard Kentucky garden. She is a freelance writer. She attended Le Cordon Bleu and La Varenne cooking schools in Paris and the Académie du Vin, worked for the GaultMillau restaurant guide and CityGuides in France and Paris and for Gannett Company in the U.S., and collaborated on Le tour du monde en 80 pains / Around the World with 80 Breads with Jean-Philippe de Tonnac in France; André Raboud, Sculptures 2002-2009 in Switzerland; Ma Cuisine Méditerranéenne with Christophe Certain in France, At the Table: Food and Family around the World with Ken Albala, and a biography of French chef Pierre Gagnaire. She ran a cooking school in France, and owned a farm-to-table restaurant, The Three Sisters’ Café, with her two sisters in the U.S. She organizes the Taste Unlocked bespoke food and wine tasting awareness workshops with James Flewellen, is an active member of Slow Food, and runs the food writing website The Rambling Epicure. Her work has been published in numerous international publications and she has been interviewed on international public radio in France, Switzerland, and the U.S. She writes for the British publicationsÂ In Search of Taste and Modern Salt, and is now working on two books, The French and What They Eat and What to Eat in Venice.
Vonnas in the east of France is the home of the legendary Michelin-star chef Georges Blanc. He is best known for his Bresse chicken with cream and mushrooms. Traditionally, this chicken is eaten with potato pancakes. This recipe is inspired by Blanc’s mother, La Mère Blanc, who ran his restaurant before him. He learned to cook at her apron strings.
Vonnas is in the Rhône-Alpes region of France, known for poulet de Bresse chickens and poultry, frogs, Reblochon and Beaufort cheese, as well as gratin dauphinois, made with raw potatoes, thick cream and garlic, and pork products, plentiful in the bouchons, small restaurants found in Lyon.
What many of us think of as “French cuisine” is actually haute cuisine, the cuisine that evolved from the aristocratic cuisine of the royalty. This cuisine was centered mainly in Paris and Versailles. Regional cuisine as we know it today did not even exist at the time, since regions didn’t exist until after the Revolution. Until the Revolution, there were provinces and feudal “kingdoms,” abolished afterward. Cuisine bourgeoise, the cooking of the upper middle classes and later middle classes, developed after the Revolution, and gradually filtered down to the broader population.
Regions didn’t formally exist by name until 1890, so there was little meaning attached to the word “region”. One cooked and ate what was available, what one grew and raised and that varied widely. Even the gruel was made with different grains in different regions. Regions only formed an identity after this. Knowledge of regional cuisines increased as travel became easier and accessible to all, especially after the generalization of cars.
French cuisine has always consisted of two tiers: haute cuisine and regional cuisine. Elements of haute cuisine — the cuisine that we inherited from the courts and later the affluent bourgeoisie, the cuisine that elevated sauce-making to an art form — have over the centuries infiltrated the cuisine of the regions, and regional cuisine is the lifeline and wherein lies the future.
Quand les poules auront des dents. / Literally, “when chickens have teeth,” meaning that will never happen.
Bresse chicken or poulet de Bresse has had an A.O.C. since 1957, which defines the way in which they are raised as well as the geographic zone in which they can be raised.
It is a French breed known as Bresse-Gauloise. The feathers are generally white, and they have a red, crenelated comb. They have blue feet and a white beard. About a million chickens are sent to market every year.
Poulet de Bresse and other poultry from Bresse — including guinea fowl, capon, hen and even turkey — is raised under strictly defined conditions, but it is not organic. They are free range and have a grass-based diet, but also eat worms and mollusks. Final fattening is with cereals and milk products in wooden cages. Bresse poultry cannot be slaughtered under 5 months of age if they are to bear the A.O.C.
Boeuf à la bourguignonne, also referred to as beef or boeuf bourguignon, is a French classic from the Burgundy wine region of France. It is made with red Burgundy wine, and simmered for hours. It makes up part of what the French refer to as “plats cuisinés“, or slow-cooked dishes.
This recipe is quite easy to make, and should serve about 8 people. Plan to make it well in advance, since it is best when it is left to marinate for 24 hours and cook slowly several hours on the day of serving. It is the perfect dish for dinner parties or potlucks, and is one of the best leftovers around.
Boeuf Bourguignon Recipe
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