As we’re continuing this month’s theme where we celebrate all culinary things Frenchie (well, you’ve got to really, the French are such a retiring lot — they’d never dream of singing their own praises), it seems like now is the time to let you into my shameful, dark secret. There is something in my past that I cannot escape from, no matter how much I may wish to. That secret, dear reader, is that I am, in fact, a quarter-French. Yes, some of my genetic make-up is Frenchie. Being a proud Englishman, this obviously churns me up inside.
Now my Gran, or Bonne-Maman as I called her, like many a Frenchie, thought of herself a good cook. Unfortunately for her she moved to England shortly after the end of the First World War. She left the bucolic center of France and found herself in the industrial paradise that is Teesside. It is somewhat redundant to note, but I will anyway, that England in the 1920s and 1930s was very different from the England of now. This is a time pre-Ainsley Harriot. Look at what passed for cookery films — not a single mention of Sally Salt or Percy Pepper. Even in the leafy climes of Islington you would be hard pressed to find a sun-dried tomato or a tub of hummus. These were dark, Ainsley Harriot-less times indeed.
So when I was instructed that as part of this blog I would be making a Parisian lunch using Elizabeth Bard recipes here in the Dennys-loving part of California that I call home, I thought back on my Bonne-Maman. Living in another country now is so easy. On my phone I can read English papers, I can, for the most part, try and approximate dishes that I’ve eaten in other countries. I can go into a supermarket in your average suburban strip-mall and I can guarantee I can find some exotic fruit or vegetable that it would have been unthinkable for this supermarket to stock 15 or 20 years ago. So when I received my recipes for an Omelette with Goat Cheese and Artichoke Hearts and for what Elizabeth Bard titles Better than French Onion Soup (after today’s Rugby World Cup Final, I’m guessing she means it should be called New Zealand Onion Soup), I’m struck by how easy it is to find all these ingredients and how easy it would be to find them in my hometown, where my Bonne-Maman spent the next 60 years of her life after moving there from France as a young adult.
But, for the most part, Bonne-Maman wasn’t able to get everything that she needed and so would make do with local alternatives. As a child in the early 80s when Bonne-Maman was still able to live in her own house and do her own cooking, I saw the end product of all of her years living in the north-east of England (hardly the gourmet capital of the world) and the compromises she had to make to recreate dishes from her French background. There was a whole repertoire that she had. One, in particular, that I recall was that when she would make a roast she would have a little side-dish to go alongside it that consisted of sliced onion doused in malt vinegar. It seems curious, though the way she made it, not at all unpleasant, and I am sure it has some French classic as its antecedents and for years could probably only buy malt vinegar in Hartlepool. The other thing I remember is steaks. Her steaks were bloody, which I think the neighbors rationalized as her being French (and they are such an odd sort). I seem to recall this being a source of contention in my parents’ relationship as my Dad favored the bloody steaks he had been brought up on, but my Mum insisted that they had to be cooked well-done. It was a debate that was only ended when the crisis over British beef in the late 80s saw my family dramatically reduce its beef consumption.
So as I follow Elizabeth’s recipes, I am just struck by how easy it is to buy and prepare all the ingredients that I need to recreate a delicious Parisian lunch, but my poor grandmother had to make do with malt vinegar, pease pudding and her own ingenuity.
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post on classic displaced writing.
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