Fin de siecle: Has French cookery had its just desserts?

Fifty years ago, Elizabeth David documented the diversity of French provincial cooking in a classic book. But is it a disappearing tradition? John Lichfield goes in search of temps perdu
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almost 40 years ago, a hungry, young, homewards-bound British hitch-hiker (me) wandered into a small restaurant in Saint-Lô in Normandy. For my last eight francs (roughly 80p), the patronne, wearing the severe black dress still in vogue among French café patronnes, served me chicken in cream sauce, puréed potatoes and a tumbler of red wine. The food was magnificent. I have never since eaten mashed potatoes of such exquisite and profound splendour. I fell in love with France that Friday evening in mid-August, 1971.

Last summer, a tired and hungry me (now also of a certain age but not wearing a black dress) sat down on the terrace of a brasserie on the main square in the beautiful town of Beaune, capital of the Burgundy wine industry. I ordered a salade du pays (a "country", or "local", salad). I was given a ragged heap of tired lettuce, littered with fragments of dry white bread and bacon cubes poured from a supermarket packet. I fell out of love with France that day (temporarily).

A half-century ago – 11 years before I staggered into that restaurant in Saint-Lô – a book was published which changed Britain forever. Long before Delia Smith, there was Elizabeth David, whose French Provincial Cooking (Michael Joseph, 1960) is credited with persuading Britain that food could, without shame or great expense, taste of something.

French Provincial Cooking was more than a recipe book, although it was also, triumphantly, that. It described a nearby world – and many worlds within that world – where food was not just a necessity but a way of life; a defining characteristic of local, cultural identity. One of France's foremost food historians, Philip Hyman, describes Elizabeth David's book as "anthropology, a study of provincial France, region by region, which describes how people lived, not just what they ate".

Fifty years on, given my recent experience in Beaune – and several similarly painful experiences – a question arises. Does French provincial cooking still exist? Have the many gastronomic worlds just across the Channel, described so lovingly by Elizabeth David, vanished under the bulldozers of nouvelle cuisine, fast food, hypermarkets, ready-made

meals and "efficient" agriculture? Does authentic regional cuisine still survive in the frenetic France of the early 21st century? In restaurants? In the home?

After 14 years in France, I already had my own optimistic prejudices and my own frightful suspicions. I set out to discover what other people thought. My trek took me to France's finest, regionally-anchored chef, Michel Bras (holder of three Michelin stars and often listed among the top five chefs in the world). It also took me to my next door neighbour in Calvados, Madeleine Lechartier, who still cooks, beautifully, in the Norman style taught by her grandmother. Both gave me their versions of local recipes, which should be relatively easy for readers to try.

I also spoke to two of the world's foremost experts on French regional foods, Philip and Mary Hyman (American, married to one another, and great advocates for the continuing splendours of French cuisine).

Hyman says: "French Provincial Cooking is an important book, which deserves to be better known by the French. It gives a marvellous picture of France at a pivotal time in its history, in the midst of the 'trente glorieuses', or 30 years of growth and industrialisation after the war. In 1960, France was still predominantly an agricultural and rural country, but things were already changing rapidly, as Elizabeth David herself recognised."

Half a century ago, there were, maybe, 3,000,000 farms in France; in 2010, there are 500,000 and falling. France is now an urban and suburban country with, in the north, east and centre, immense cereal ranches connecting the urban sprawls. Why does that matter? Listen, first, to Elizabeth David in 1960 again: "A flourishing tradition of local cookery implies ... genuine local products; the cooks and the housewives must be backed up by the dairy farmers, the pig breeders and pork butchers, the market gardeners and the fruit growers, otherwise regional cookery simply retreats into the realms of folk-lore".

Is that the fate which has befallen French provincial cooking in the past 50 years? "Not exactly," says Hyman, who with his wife, edits a series of government-sponsored books on French regional food traditions.

"Yes, of course, much has been changed and much has been lost. It is a fact – and Elizabeth David says that it was already happening in 1960 – that many restaurants have abandoned regional traditions in favour of nouvelle cuisine or an amorphous kind of 'French Food Today'.

"All of that is true, but, if you know where to look, it is also not true. There is, if anything, a strong tide running in the other direction, which wants to identify and preserve regional specialities before it is too late. This is driven by the recognition that regional specialisms, if marketed right, can be a route to commercial success."

A good example is the "Norman rice pudding" or Teurgoule, which Elizabeth David described in 1960 as a mythical dish; she had heard of it but never eaten it. You can now find sometimes excellent, caramel-flavoured Teurgoule in almost every supermarket in Normandy.

In sum, there are regions – Alsace, the south-west, Lyon – where regional cuisine is relatively thriving. In others, including Normandy sadly, many traditions have been lost but are gradually being re-discovered.

What has, I fear, vanished almost everywhere is the "little restaurant in Saint-Lô". It is not easy these days, certainly not in Normandy, to find a small, unselfconscious restaurant serving good food cheaply in a regional style.

Michel bras (pronounced Braz) started in just such a restaurant – his mother's restaurant, in the small town of Laguiole in Aveyron (in the southern Massif Central). He has gone on to become probably the most admired, and copied, French chef of his generation: and the most celebrated three-Michelin-starred chef in France to be still rooted in his home region (and his own terroir).

Bras, aged 63, now has a restaurant and hotel which resembles the hide-out of a James Bond villain, perched high on an otherwise barren hill overlooking his home town. He also has a restaurant in Japan. Part of him, you feel, misses his mum's old place.

"A restaurant like my mother's, ah! Now that is something that you can now scarcely find around here," he says, as we sit in his restaurant kitchen with his son, and co-chef, Sébastien, after they have completed a busy Sunday lunch. "I regret that very much."

But why have such places disappeared? "This is a fascinating subject," he says. "People are trained in the schools of catering to cook in a a generic French way that they assume that people want. They are not so interested in regional tradition." And what about in local homes?

"Ah, there too, I fear, the old ways are disappearing," Bras says. "Women have to go out to work. They have supermarkets and frozen food and ready-prepared meals. They don't have the time, or inclination, to search for the right ingredients, to go to the markets and cook in the old way. The skills are no longer passed from mother to daughter. They are, I fear, vanishing."

I ask Bras if he still regards his own cooking as rooted in the French Provincial or "Auvergnat" tradition.

"What we try to do here, Sébastien and myself, is based on the philosophy and soul of the cooking of the region... but taken to a new level, made sublime," he says.

"You have to remember that this was always a poor region. Here, people traditionally had to struggle not to starve. Their cooking was based on making a little go a long way, of taking very basic, simple products – potatoes, milk, herbs – and making something palatable.

"Our approach is based on the same philosophy. We are trying to stretch simple products, to discover their essence and turn them into something magical."

Magical indeed. Michel Bras's hill-top restaurant is provincial French cooking placed on a pinnacle or levitated to a mystical plane. His most celebrated dish is "gargouillou", which contains between 60 and 100 different vegetables, herbs, flowers and grains. All are sprinkled with the Bras version of a regional classic – lait de poule, a milk-based sauce, flavoured with chicken.

To eat gargouillou overlooking 100 kilometres of the many-coloured, autumn ridges of Aveyron, Cantal and the Lot, is to eat a symphony. I dare anyone to eat chez Michel and Sebastien Bras and say that French cuisine – provincial or otherwise – is dead.

You will say (rightly) that it is all very well if you can afford the money, and the time, to eat on a gastronomic hill-top. What of other, more mundane, less expensive places? Even in 1960, Elizabeth David said: "One hears ... and reads in the newspapers, so many bitter criticisms from English tourists about French food...".

Things have, doubtless, got worse since then. As with French wine, French cheese and French bread, there is wonderful stuff around, but there is also plenty of lazy, cynical imitation and carefully-packaged rubbish.

On a recent visit with friends to the Basque country, I was disappointed to find that many restaurants had abandoned the local, distinctive – half-French and half-Spanish style – in favour of the soulless, chi-chi nouvelle(ish) or standard cuisine you might find anywhere in France. We later stumbled on a small family-run restaurant (Iratze, 11 Rue de la Citadelle, Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, if you want to look it up), which served stunning Basque dishes such as shoulder of lamb and haricot beans. The patron and chef was a Basque but he had spent most of his life in Paris.

My wife and I recently tried a pub-like restaurant near Lisieux which advertises itself as serving "authentic Norman cuisine". The view was magnificent. The food was insipid – six out of 10, mostly for effort.

We also ate recently in one of the most celebrated of the traditional restaurants in Lyon – the capital of French cuisine. The Bistrot de Lyon was excellent, if a little self-consciously "authentic". My wife had a pig's cheek stew and I had the Lyon classic, quenelles de brochet, or pike dumplings in a crayfish sauce. Both were wonderful.

I spoke on the telephone a few days later to the Bistrot's owner, one of the best-known Lyon chefs and restaurant entrepreneurs, Jean-Paul Lacombe.

"In Lyon we are perhaps luckier than elsewhere," he remarks. "There are scores of restaurants, in the city centre, and in the old town, which offer traditional Lyon recipes – some better than others. If anything, there are more than there were 10 or 15 years ago. There is a new interest by young professionals in the authentic, something more rooted in local traditions.

"Elsewhere in the country, it is very patchy. In the south-west, yes, local traditionals are still very alive. In Alsace too. Elsewhere, much less so. The problem is that authentic takes more effort. Whether you are cooking in the home or in a restaurant, you have to go around the markets, seeking out the best local produce, the local specialities.

"And even here in Lyon the markets are not as they were. There was a time when the greengrocers' stalls or the charcuteries were run by people who sold their own produce. There are still some like that, but most buy their produce from the same wholesalers that the supermarkets use. To know which is which, you have to look at their faces and hands. It is the same with wine producers, you can always tell which ones are authentic and sincere by looking at their faces and their hands."

Madeleine Lechartier, aged 65, is my neighbour in a small village (population: seven) in the Calvados hills. She and her husband, Michel, are retired. Their great love, apart from their children and their grandchildren, is their garden and food. They think nothing of driving across the département (county), or into the next département, to buy exactly the right duck pâté or poultry or mussels.

"There is a charcuterie in our nearest town," she says, which sells "the best boudin blanc [white blood sausage] that I have ever eaten." There is also, she says, a butcher in the market in Vire, to the south, who sells that great Norman speciality tripes à la mode Caen, which is as good as the tripe that her grandmother made. Madeleine was taught to cook in the Norman style by her grandmother, Marguerite Dersrous, a professional chef. Her lessons began when she was 15 – in other words, 50 years ago, just when Elizabeth David published her book.

"My grandmother had all kinds of old tricks and methods," Madeleine recalls. "For instance, when she was cooking shrimps, she always plunged a red-hot poker into the saucepan just before they were ready. Her shrimps were always redder than anyone else's."

Madeleine still cooks most days in the Norman style. Is she now a rarity? "Maybe. Women don't have the time, or patience, today. But, no, I don't think I'm the only one who cooks in the old way. One of my sisters-in-law does. There is a young woman in the next village who is very good... People buy what they find in the supermarket, I suppose. But, if you know where to look, there are still good butchers and poulterers and charcuteries. Someone else must be shopping there. Not just us."

Much the same message comes from the food historians, Philip and Mary Hyman. The best way to judge the survival of French provincial cooking is not by restaurants, but by the markets and butchers' shops in small towns. Do they still sell regional specialisms and regional cuts of meat?

The Hymans have discovered that, in many places, they do. This suggests that regional approaches to cooking in the home may not be universal (and perhaps never were) but do persist. Mary Hyman says: "In the Auvergne, for instance, we discovered that you could still buy something called the 'sac d'os' or 'bag of bones', which has been an Auvergnat tradition for centuries."

This is just what it says, a collection of bones, with varying degrees of meat still attached, which are sown into a large piece of intestine and are used as the basis for a soup or stew. Even at restaurant level, they say, all is far from lost. Philip Hyman says: "Most restaurants in most small towns will usually have at least one dish that is a regional favourite. I think one of the keys – something also mentioned by Elizabeth David – is never to ask local people to recommend a restaurant. They will always suggest some fancy generic place which they assume will be to your taste. No, instead, ask them where they go."

Overall, the Hymans are optimistic but realistic. Has France changed in the past 50 years?" Philip Hyman asks. "Yes. Just as it did in the 50 years before that and it will in the next 50 years. Has it abandoned the things which are quintessentially French? No. There is much that remains if you look for it and you know how and where to look."

There are new ways to look in 2010. You don't have to ask the locals. I wanted to return to Saint-Lô but had no idea where my little restaurant of August 1971 might once have been. I looked up restaurant review sites on the internet. They pointed me to a place called Le Péché Mignon at 84 Rue Marechal. It was said to be relatively cheap, very good and Norman.

I went expecting the worst. The young patronne wore a black trouser suit and blouse with a plunging neckline. I chose magret de canard (duck's breast) in a camembert sauce and creamed, sautéed potatoes. The price was 16.50 euros – double, allowing for inflation, the price of my meal in 1971.

It was, I am delighted to report, magnificent: tasty, solid, wholesome and resolutely Norman.

Michel Bras's Bourriols, or Auvergnat pancakes

Makes 8

85g mashed potatoes
30g barley or rye flour
30g of wheat flour
1 egg
80g beer yeast
3cl milk

Steam the potatoes, mash them finely and blend them with the milk until you have a smooth paste. Mix the different kinds of flour with the yeast and a little water. Add the egg. Mix the two pastes together and season them. The final consistency should be quite thick. Cover with a cloth and leave at room temperature for around two hours.

Place the paste in a warm, non-stick frying pan in small heaps, 4mm thick, which will fatten. When bubbles appear on the surface, the underneath is cooked. Turn the bourriols and cook them for another three minutes.

Bourriols are exquisite if served warm but not too hot. Place a little butter sprinkled with salt or sugar on each one. You can also add a few drops of rum; or chocolate flakes; or fromage blanc scattered with gooseberries.

Madeleine Lechartier's Norman creamed chicken or poule au pot sauce suprême

1 chicken
3 carrots
2 leeks
1 turnip
1 cabbage (if desired)
1 onion
3 cloves
A bay leaf
Salt and pepper

For the sauce:

30g butter
3 soup-spoons of flour
3 soup-spoons of cream
200g very finely chopped mushrooms

Plant the cloves in the chicken and cook it slowly in water for two hours with the vegetables and herbs. When ready, joint the chicken.

Make a béchamel sauce with the butter and flour. Add three ladles of the stock from the boiled chicken, the finely chopped mushrooms and the cream. Cook for five minutes. Pour the sauce on the chicken and serve with rice.

Elizabeth David's Langouste comme chez Nénette (Langouste in tomato and brandy sauce)

This dish comes from the port of Sète in the Languedoc and is a variation of the better-known homard à l'américaine. I have quoted the recipe given to me by Madame Nénette from her restaurant.

"Cut a live crawfish into not too large pieces; put them at once into a wide and shallow pan containing a little smoking olive oil, add salt and pepper and cook until the shell turns red. Add some finely chopped shallots and a clove or two of garlic, crushed and first cooked separately in a little oil.

"Pour in a small glass of good cognac and set light to it; when the flames have gone out, add a half bottle of still champagne or Chablis, and a spoonful of tomato purée. Cover the pan and cook over a steady fire for about 20 minutes. Remove the pieces of crawfish, which are now cooked, and keep them hot.

"Press the sauce through a very fine sieve, let it boil up again, season with a scrap of cayenne and, at the last minute, add three good spoonfuls of aïoli.

"Pour the sauce over the crawfish and sprinkle a little finely chopped parsley over the dish." Enough for two people.

At Elizabeth David's Table: Her Very Best Everyday Recipes is published by Michael Joseph, Hardback, £25