What to Eat in France: Dinde Farcie aux Marrons, Turkey Stuffed with Chestnuts
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.