Today top restaurants are lauded for making wild food into “high cuisine” – but I am inspired by a much older (and heartier) gastronomic tradition. One in which dishes like Veloute aux Sorties (nettle soup with potatoes, cream and butter) Poulet au Bon Join Sauce Meliot (chicken in a sweet clover sauce) and Salade de Mache et de Mogettes (lamb’s lettuce and fresh bean salad) were just an everyday part of home cooking.
That’s why my favourite cookbook is the culinary memoir “When French Women Cook”. In it eight village women from different geographic regions, share their best loved recipes like Cotelettes D’Agneau Au Cresol De Fontaine (lamb chops in watercress sauce) and Creme De Pissenlits (cream of dandelion soup) and Omelette Aux Chanterelles (pictured in photo above).
I love that these recipes weren’t invented by ‘visionary’ chefs, defined by a philosophy of “seasonally regionally sourced sustainable ingredients” – but by ordinary women as author Madeleine Kamman writes “with worn hands stained by vegetables peeled, parched by work in house, garden or fields, wrinkled by age and experience”.
I’m in awe of these women. Women who went to market, picked from kitchen gardens and foraged in fields and forest – every single day. Women with names like Henriette and Eugenie and Magaly, whose formidable knowledge, love and passion for food and the art of cooking, shines on each page.
And I remember such a woman most fondly. I had the pleasure of experiencing her cooking (as well as the best food I’ve ever eaten) during several childhood summers in France. There my uncles, aunts and sundry cousins congregated in my grandfather’s alpine chalet for a noisy four-course midday meal prepared by Maria, the housekeeper.
Maria wasn’t a chef, or even a ‘cook’ but a plump middle-aged woman (who along with keeping house and her everyday duties) would whip up a meal for ten (or more!) using fresh local ingredients she had purchased in the village market or harvested that day. And she single-handedly created a celebration of regional cuisine that would rival any on offer in any upscale ‘farm to table’ dining establishment today.
And then she went home and did it all again for her family.
Today the traditions of home-cookery, once the basic knowledge of every french housewife, how to pick produce, forage for wild edibles, utilize herbs, marry flavours, make a cream sauce or a stock, even how to roast meat, are no longer passed mother to daughter, but paid for in cooking school. And we have come to a place where we pay – often exorbitantly – to enjoy what was once a simple daily pleasure – field to table fresh food.
Diner’s at the Blue Hill Farm Restaurant “ooh” and “ah” over tomatoes and carrots speared on stakes and brought to table, and at Noma, diners pay a fortune for the pleasure of wild rose petals, seaweed and lichen on their plates.
And in this new food culture – the women who knew the fields and forests like the back of their hand, are forgotten. Home-cooking, as all things done in the home as opposed to the workplace, is without economic value or prestige. Now celebrity ‘chefs’ require a full retinue of kitchen staff to accomplish what our housekeeper Maria did every day.
Now don’t get be wrong – I’m not trying to romanticize the past (or the vast unpaid labour of women who made it all possible). Plus I love dining out. And I’d walk a mile for a glorious meal prepared by wild food chefs like Bill Jones or Tom Kral any day. But does that mean necessarily mean we can’t enjoy a little more culinary pleasure at home?
For Henriette, Eugenie, Magaly and Maria, harvesting, preparing, cooking and eating were not onerous chores to be squeezed in between cleaning the house and doing the laundry. They were social occasions, important breaks in busy working days – and let’s not kid ourselves – their days were just as busy as ours. Theirs was a time when, as Kamman writes ”dinner tables were islands for animated conversation” and good food was an unquestionable fundamental pleasure of everyday life.
How did we lose touch with the joy and art of home-cooking? Is it I wonder, simply a result of losing touch with the land itself?
Our french housekeeper, Maria, lived in a village surrounded by farms, open meadows and forest. She went to market and purchased food she saw growing in the farm fields all around her everyday. She foraged for dandelions, lambsquarters, wood sorrel and nettles from roadways and hedgerows, and she had a small kitchen garden with mostly potted herbs and tomatoes.
Today most of us live cut off from the daily vistas of nature, fields, forests, farms, our feet rarely touch the bare earth. Food comes mostly from shopping in stores and the daily contact we once enjoyed with mother nature through our food – is gone. Without personal, meaningful connection with the land and the food we eat, is it any wonder that ‘fast food’ is the order of the day?
Growing and gathering food is our oldest and most primal relationship to the earth. By no longer putting our hands in the dirt (so to speak) have we lost something essential to our well-being? By tending radishes in our kitchen garden or rosemary in our pots, or foraging for wild edibles in forest or field, can we revive our culinary “joie de vivre”?
Who knows? But for today’s overworked and underpaid, good cooking doesn’t require a fat wallet or oodles of leisure time. This isn’t about GOOP food elitism. It is about the pleasure of simple, affordable and even free food. And it doesn’t take a lot of work, nor is it hard to do. It just means starting with fresh seasonal ingredients and some basic food preparation skills.
So I urge you to pick up your own copy of “When French Women Cook: A Gastronomic Memoir” In it you’ll find everything you need to know about reviving the joyful art of home-cooking – and you’ll find some great wild food recipes to boot.