NEW YORK (Reuters) - Few subjects stir French passions more than politics and food, so perhaps it was inevitable that the two realms would eventually collide - and meld - in a cookbook.
“French Country Cooking,” a compendium of recipes contributed by members of France’s National Assembly, serves up a lavishly illustrated complement of French cuisine, from rustic one-pot stews to refined roasts and decadent desserts.
Jeanette Seaver, the book’s translator, spoke to Reuters about the unusual project and the French obsession with food.
Q: How did the idea for this book come about?
A: The idea came from a French parliament deputy (Francoise Branget), who like many French people cooks well. She called upon many of her colleagues at the Parliament. She was able to have a good 90 of her fellow deputies donate recipes, really from the little country villages that they come from, where recipes were passed down for generations. One found a recipe folded in the library of their grandfather that dated from before the (French) Revolution.
Q: Were any Assembly members reluctant to embrace the project?
A: No, not at all. They’re very proud, very happy to talk about and share and even parade their particular region.
Q: Did the members choose which recipes to submit?
A: They did indeed, so it’s very personal. And we see how so much of French gastronomy as it is known today truly emanates from a time when farmers had no money, and were not allowed to fish nor hunt on the property of their lords. They could only use the eggs of the farms and poultry and the greens and vegetables, so you will see a lot of recipes emanating from a time when people were abjectly poor. Their imagination went to work and created astonishing dishes that have become icons of French cuisine.
Q: It seems the French are especially passionate about food. It’s hard to imagine a cookbook featuring senators’ recipes.
A: Yes it’s true, the knowledge and the history is part and parcel of the French citizen. You go into restaurants and people are not only discussing what they’re eating, but also what they’ll eat tonight or what they ate yesterday. It’s an important part of the French culture.
Q: Do you see food as being political in France in some way that perhaps it isn’t in the United States?
A: Well each province is very vigilant about the territory’s food. I remember going through the various villages to taste the cassoulet, and each one claimed it was ‘the’ recipe, which in their mind it might have been. So it does become very possessive or territorial.
Q: What do you see as being some of the main differences between the French home cook and the American home cook?
A: I think the French are basically more sophisticated, but I think the Americans have come up a long, long way and become very sophisticated. At times I see people will cook better in New York or San Francisco than they will in Paris.
Q: How have you seen French home cooking changing in the last 10 years, and where do you see it heading?
A: I think the new young home cook is less ambitious than our mothers, in that there is more a trend to buy ready-made, though it can be wonderfully prepared. In Provence I went to the market for some chives and she looked at me and said, ‘What’s that?’ I was appalled. She said ‘Well, I don’t really cook, I open cans, and frozen. This is a 35-year-old person, and okay she doesn’t represent France, but it’s a little signal, and I wasn’t very happy to hear that.
Q: Yet it seems in America it’s just the opposite.
A: Oh it is, it’s a blossoming of a gourmet generation. But in France, women long ago joined the workforce, plus so much of what you can buy is exquisite and it’s not too expensive, so that’s unfortunately been a kind of a trend.
Q: How do you think someone might be surprised by the book?
A: By the very unlikely recipes that are not in normal cookbooks, things like potato pie, things with improbable ingredients that are fun and cheap and accessible. It’s very much like walking through a museum of gastronomy.
It represents a culture that is so typically French, in that if you consider each of those political members are as close to their cuisine as to their history, and maybe some might be political enemies, but metaphorically they come together around the table.
Q: Or around the cassoulet — or perhaps they argue about the cassoulet.
A: Well that’s fine, too. It’s part of the family, and that’s what makes France different.
Braised Duck with Cherries, from Val-D’Oise.
1 Muscovy duck, about 3 pounds
1 celery stalk
2 juniper berries
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 bouquet garni
5 cups red wine
2 cups chicken stock
salt and pepper
6 tablespoons butter
2 pounds pitted sour cherries
2 tablespoons sugar
Put duck, vegetables, spices and bouquet garni in a heavy casserole, add wine, stock, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer 30 minutes.
Preheat over to 350, then remove duck, carve into serving pieces, place in ovenproof dish and dot with half the butter.
Roast 1 hour, basting pieces with cooking juices every 10 minutes.
Melt remaining butter in skillet, add sugar and cherries, sauté 10 minutes and lower heat to minimum, simmer 10 minutes.
Remove duck from oven, place on serving platter, pour warm cherries over and around duck and serve.
Reporting by Chris Michaud; editing by Patricia Reaney and David Gregorio