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Tasting France Through 5 Signature Dishes

Clockwise from top left: bouillabaisse; choucroute garnie; cassoulet; galette; quenelle de brochet.

Brittany draws a sharp distinction between savory galettes — made of wholesome, nutty buckwheat flour — and sweet, tender dessert crepes of beau blé, or white flour. The buckwheat galettes preserve a proud tradition of self-sufficiency. In the 15th century, Duchess Anne of Brittany saved the region from famine — and ensured its independence — by introducing crops of blé noir, or buckwheat, a hardy plant that thrived despite the area’s poor soil. Though highly nutritious, buckwheat lacks gluten, which limits its uses in the kitchen; galettes are one of the few ways to consume it,

Travelers have been eating their way around France, at least, since the 1920s, when the French food writer Maurice Edmond Sailland — known by his pen name, Curnonsky — published La France Gastronomique, a multivolume guide to the country’s regional cuisine. In the decade that followed, Les Accords de Matignon — a pet project of the Popular Front, the 1930s leftist political party led by Prime Minister Léon Blum — guaranteed two weeks’ paid vacation to French workers. Working-class travelers took advantage of the new policy and government-sponsored train tickets, streaming south to resort towns previously the exclusive domain of the bourgeois. Eventually the Guide Michelin replaced Curnonsky as the primary source for travelers, and hungry motorists ignited an interest in regional cuisine that became a French passion.

Farther south, in the commune of Pleuven, stands Chez Mimi (24, rue du Moulin du Pont; 33-2-98-54-62-02; creperie-chezmimi.fr), where locals pair buckwheat galettes with the traditional accompaniment of gros lait (a house-made yogurt, thick and creamy), and schoolchildren exclaim over une bonne beurre-sucre, a simple, supple dessert crepe that contrasts the tang of salted butter with the sweet crunch of sugar.

When the French economy crashed after World War I, these formidable female cooks shifted their talents from wealthy bourgeois mansions to the city’s restaurants and bouchons, using the region’s fine ingredients to prepare simple yet perfect meals. As automobile travel grew popular, word of Lyon’s exceptional cuisine spread, helped in large part by Curnonsky, who in 1934 declared the city the world capital of gastronomy.

These casual establishments tend to be decorated in motley bric-a-brac; strangers sit elbow-to-elbow and the menu rarely deviates from dishes like tête de veau (poached calf’s head) and tablier de sapeur (a sort of chicken-fried tripe). But their most famous menu item is the quenelle de brochet, a football-shaped dumpling, similar to an oversize gnocchi, traditionally served in a coral-pink puddle of the shellfish-infused sauce called nantua.

“quenelle de brochet”
Pike was once plentiful here in the Rhône river, but it’s very bony and hard to eat. Originally, quenelles were a way to stretch and preserve the fish.

the best versions are cooked and cooled — preferably overnight — at least three times, a slow process that yields beans redolent with the deep flavors of the confit and pork sausage, topped by a thin layer of the dish’s natural juice and starches sealed in the oven.

Housed in a traditional Alsatian farmhouse in the village of Stutzheim, not far outside of Strasbourg, Le Marronnier (18 Route de Saverne; 33-3-88-69-84-30; restaurantlemarronnier.fr) welcomes lively crowds of locals. Like them, I began with a crisp-edged, bacon-strewn tarte flambée, cooked in the kitchen’s wood-burning oven, before tucking into the generous choucroute garnie, piled high with seven different cuts of pork and sausage.
france  français  cuisine  gastronomy  restaurant  list  alsace  bretagne  Toulouse  food  history  lyon 
may 2014 by aries1988

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