Books Culture Food

Eating French to be French

As an English person living in France outside Oxford term time, my sense of self-worth mostly depends on the success of my market shopping trip each morning; for as well as being where I buy food, the market is where I measure my integration into the French Fifth Republic.

Some days go badly. Once, after a particularly distressing series of misunderstandings, the butcher started wrapping up calf brains for me, instead of the filet steak I was trying to buy. But it’s the simpler, daily confusions that are most disillusioning: the times I ask for potatoes – ‘apples of the earth’ as the French call them literally – and get apples of the tree; the times when a familiar French word spoken to me slightly quicker than normal seems to shut my brain down so that I couldn’t even say ‘potatoes’ in English if I had to. 

But other days go better. If I ask for dix tomatoes and get dix tomatoes – or even six – things have started well. And if, while ordering my tomatoes, I speak more than one sentence without the seller’s face crumpling at the noise of my French accent, I feel as French as Charles de Gaulle or a warm baguette. I am a citoyen.

Fortunately, thanks to Elizabeth David’s classic, French Provincial Cooking,the good days now outnumber the bad. David’s influence had been immense, on British cooking as well as on me. She was born in the UK, in 1913, but spent her early life living in France and travelling the Mediterranean, where she fell  in love with the fresh ingredients and vast variety of Italian, Greek, and French cooking.

When David returned to Britain just after the second world war, British food was still rationed and cooking was dominated by tinned food, lards, and anything designed to survive the blitz and the long process of rebuilding the nation. British cuisine was the anthesis of what David had known on the continent; cookery books gave recipes for crown stew and tinned apricots fried in bacon fat. As David puts it, ‘while we were struggling with our little bits of rationed meat and our weekly egg, the Burgundy wine potentates sat down to a meal of freshwater fish.’

David soon wrote a series of articles and books that transformed British cuisine. Mediterranean Food was published in 1950, quickly followed by French Country Cooking, Italian Food, and Summer Cooking. But this extraordinarily productive period was crowned in 1960 by what is perhaps David’s best loved book, French Provincial Cooking.

The book has everything that made David a great food writer. Above all, she insisted that good cuisine is usually cuisine faites-simple: fresh and simple ingredients, simply presented. She had no time for Campari-flavoured mousse frozen in liquid-nitrogen, or any other intimidatingly complex haute cuisine. David did not think that complexity could not produce good food – her point was that the British, who had grown so used to the grey slop of the war years that foreign food must have seemed unattainably elaborate, should not fear French cooking. She wanted to reassure the British that, contrary to popular belief, ‘a galaxy of seasonings, oceans of wine and cream, thick sauces and a mass of garnishes are alien to the whole spirit of French cookery.’

David was a great writer as well as a great cook, and French Provincial Cooking is also special for the way itevokes food’s relationship with place and culture. The book is a testament to the way David used cuisine to explore and learn about France; it was in this way, for instance, that the name of the obscurest medieval village became to her ‘inseparable from the memory of café au lait in bowls, and croissants, and crisp curls of very white butter on little oval dishes’.

Learning about French cuisine has been my way of learning about France, too. I take David’s book with me when I travel the country during the long summers, and, no matter the city or province, it gives me little pieces of local culinary knowledge and dishes to try. Food and memory, salted butter and Brittany, have all blended together for me as they did for David. And as I’ve grown to know and love the country in this way, I’ve learned to do the daily things, such as give a coherent response when the baker asks jarring questions like whether I’d like my baguette well cooked or not. These are the daily things which make you feel like a functioning member of society.

Recently the seller at our local market asked me whether the gratin dauphinois dish I tried the week before was a success, and I managed a conversation and some questions about the skins of different potatoes. When I walked home, I played la Marseillaise in my head, and I thanked Elizabeth David for helping me feel a little bit French.

Ben O'Brien

Outside of his degree, Ben likes France and most things French, revolutionary critiques of Enlightenment Modernity, and learning to write about these and many other things. As well as writing for The Oxford Blue, he works for The Isis magazine and is currently investigating the 'academic gig economy' and the exploitation of young academics.