Peach Gratin and Three French Cookbooks to Love
Ah…. French food. Totally stuffy, right? All fancy tarts and a bajillion sauces and lots and LOTS of butter and heavy cream and wine. Right?
Wrong. At least, wrong for most French people. Or at least, most French people fifty years ago. You see, I have this thing about old school farm food. I like it. A lot. And old school French farm food offers a lot of flavor combinations and tastes that Americans might not otherwise consider.
Case in point, The Food and Flavors of Haute Provence by Georgeanne Brennan, When French Women Cook by Madeleine Kamman, and Goose Fat and Garlic by Jeanne Strang. There are two things these three cookbooks all have in common – extensive and fascinating headnotes and explanations, and ingredient-focused, simple, old-fashioned food.
In the case of Georgeanne Brennan, who lives part-time in Provence, the book is arranged by ingredient (such as Olives and Olive Oil, Game and Fish, or Honey and Fruits), which I actually like quite a bit. Each chapter contains a long but fascinating introduction to how the ingredients are used in Provence, including history and charming tales of Georgeanne’s own experiences in the region. Not all of the recipes are explicitly historical, but nearly all of them sound delicious. I recently made a version of her “Peach and Nectarine Gratin,” the recipe and results of which are at the end of this post.
Madeleine Kamman’s book is perhaps the most comprehensive, as well as nostalgic. Madeleine grew up in pre-World War II (and post-war) France and visited friends and relatives (mostly grandparent-aged) in nearly every region of France, but mainly focusing on northern France. Kamman tells stories of her childhood experiences and each province/region gets thorough examination under the tutelage of a single woman who proved to be influential in Kamman’s life. The resulting book is a fascinating mix of history, memoir, and cookbook. Many of the recipes have excellent suggestions for adaptations and sourcing ingredients, and as the book was originally written in the 1970s, it’s interesting to see which previously-rare ingredients are now fairly easy to come by. The recipes also include headnotes noting level of difficulty and the length of time necessary to prepare them, which I find eminently helpful. It’s almost as if Madeleine were sending personable letters teaching you how to cook her favorite French foods.
Alas, some of the recipes are hopelessly old-fashioned, in a way that is both awesome and scary (organ meat is intimidating). And I know I will never make them all – some are simply too difficult or complex for my patience. But there are at least a few recipes in each chapter which I am interested in trying.
Strang’s book reads somewhat like a novel at times. Or at least parts of it. She and her husband moved to southwest France to an old country house in 1961 in a very rural and, as Strang puts it the “least discovered” area of southwest France. And while Jeanne takes a relatively academic tone for most of the book, each section is liberally peppered with first-person accounts and tales learned from neighbors. This cookbook is decidedly old school poverty-inspired (more so than the other two) and describes in detail not only the end use of local produce, game, and livestock, but also how it was raised, butchered, and preserved. Which I find eminently fascinating.
If you are patently against gavage and fois gras, Strang has helpfully put all the information relating to fatted geese and ducks in one chapter, so you could avoid it if you wished. But you shouldn’t, because it is all the more interesting to learn about how exactly the traditionally poor subsistence farmers of the hill country of southwest France used every last bit of the goose than to skip the whole chapter simply because of the livers.
Strand’s book is patently old-fashioned. She set out to record the old ways of cooking unique to southwest France and appears to have done so. The recipes contained within (and they are numerous) are much more unique than I expected, and Strand patiently and thoroughly explains the whys and hows of the ingredients traditional to the region.
These three cookbooks are not fancy, glossy, food-styled tomes. Goose Fat & Garlic and The Food and Flavors of Haute Provence both feature charming ink and line drawings. When French Women Cook has only a few black and white photos, none of which are of the food. And all three do require a certain amount of pre-knowledge of cooking (I wouldn’t foist them on a college student who’s never cooked before, for instance), although all three authors do a pretty darn good job of explaining the tricky bits.
But my favorite thing about all three? They’re unexpected. They’re definitely NOT haute cuisine and I love them for it. Bring on the sausages, vegetables, greens, and fruit. I’ll take them any day over snails, sauces, and chocolate confections.
And now, the recipe you’ve been waiting for:
This recipe is partially adapted from Georgeanne Brennan’s The Food and Flavors of Haute Provence.
2 tablespoons butter
6 tablespoons sugar
4 peaches, quartered, pitted, and peeled (if very ripe, you can peel them after quartering by simply pulling the skin away by one corner – no need to dip in boiling water)
1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
Preheat the oven to 425 F. Generously and thickly butter a 9″ pie plate, then sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of the sugar.
Place all peach quarters, one cut side down, in the dish. In a separate bowl, whisk together egg, milk, flour, and salt until smooth and lump-free. Pour evenly over fruit (it will not be enough to cover them).
Sprinkle chopped walnuts over top, then finish with the remaining 4 tablespoons (1/4 cup) of sugar. Cut remaining butter into small pieces and dot on top.
Bake 15-20 minutes, or until topping is crisp, fruit are tender, and batter is puffed and cooked through.
This dish is heavy on the fruit and light on the batter, so don’t expect it to cut into nice, firm slices when finished. Although you can usually get something slice-like to emerge if you try hard enough. The batter tastes rather of clafoutis, though eggier and fluffier, and the sugar and butter combine to kind of caramelize things on top. Walnuts are not my favorite and I think next time I would substitute pecans or sliced almonds, but I would definitely make this again.
Readers – do you have any favorite French cookbooks you’d like to share or recommend? Or any other ethnic country cooking tales or tidbits?