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) and Poulet au Bon Join Sauce Meliot (Chicken in a Sweet Clover Sauce) were just an everyday part of home cooking.
That’s why one of my favourite cookbooks is the culinary memoir “When French Women Cook”. 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.
Image from foragerchef.com
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 with, as author Madeleine Kamman writes, “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 their potagers (kitchen gardens) and foraged in nearby 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.
I remember such a woman most fondly. I had the pleasure of experiencing her cooking (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 Marie, the housekeeper.
Marie 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, 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 at Noma, diners pay a fortune for the pleasure of wild rose petals, seaweed and forest lichen strewn 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 Marie 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 necessarily mean we can’t enjoy a little more culinary pleasure at home?
For Henriette, Eugenie, Magaly and Marie, harvesting, preparing, cooking and eating were not onerous chores to be squeezed in between cleaning the house and doing the laundry. Meals were important breaks in busy working days – and let’s not kid ourselves – their days were just as busy as ours. For them, as Kamman writes ”dinner tables were islands for animated conversation” and good food was an unquestionable fundamental pleasure of everyday life.
So what’s changed? How did we lose touch with the joy and art of home-cooking? Is it simply because we’ve touch with the land itself? These women (like Marie) went to market and purchased the foods they saw growing in their local farm fields. They had a small kitchen gardens with potted herbs and tomatoes, and they foraged for the dandelions, lambsquarters, wood sorrel and nettles from the fields, meadows and forests which surrounded their villages.
Today most of us live cut off from the daily vistas of nature, fields, forests, farms, our feet rarely touch the bare earth. Our food comes mostly from shopping in stores and the daily contact we once enjoyed with mother nature through our food – is gone. Without this personal, meaningful connection with the land and the food we eat, is it any wonder that ‘fast food’ is the order of the day?
Who knows? But for me, cooking the food I gather is a joyful ritual. Being outside and seeing the beautiful bounty coming up in the garden and in the wilder fields and forests fills me with pleasure – and anticipation. What delicious dish can I cook up for supper tonight?
By no longer putting our hands in the dirt (so to speak) have we lost something essential to our culinary “joie de vivre”? Good cooking isn’t expensive, it doesn’t take a lot of work, nor is it hard to do. It just means stepping outside and seeing what mother nature is offering for dinner.
After all, it’s in our blood. We’ve all got generations of grannies standing behind us who knew how to whip up a simple great meal – like the eight unsung heroines of good cooking featured in “When French Women Cook: A Gastronomic Memoir”. They may not be celebrity chefs but their simple recipes tell you everything you need to know about transforming local seasonal ingredients into culinary masterpieces. Plus there are some great wild food dishes to boot!