There is no puzzle about this. It forms part of a traditional French marriage between self-interest and human relations. The table is where you are most likely to see those you most care about, and probably the only place you see your family.
My wife's family vaguely centres its summers in a large, leafy house hard by Grenoble, which has, among its many rooms, two centres: two kitchens. And now that the presiding cooks of those kitchens have both died, there are as many competing meals as there are heirs.
My wife's cousins, and collateral cousins, amis de coeur and just plain friends, have been through Sete in a regular rhythm for the past fortnight. Food has been much talked about and much consumed. Custom has it that each will display his or her talents in the kitchen, and earnest discussions take place the night before, concerning the shopping of the following morning, the availability of ingredients, recipes to be used, who's best at what, the inner balance of tastes and colours.
As most of us are inexact cooks - that is, we tend not to follow slavishly the recipes we use - the three main dishes I describe below cannot be accurately traced to their origins, but they are among the highlights of our holidays; and, again unsurprisingly, they are a product of all that talking and thinking about food, part of a general food culture which may be on its way out but seems to be surviving well in our family.
Cousin Edith's Lotte Mauresque
Down here, the monkfish has two names: lotte and baudroie, the latter being the whole fish, the former the more delicate and prized tail. Almost any firmly fleshed white fish can be used for this recipe.
Ingredients: 3lb (1.3kg) monkfish in filleted pieces
2oz (50-60g) tomato concentrate
glass of white wine
1 large onion and clove of garlic
7fl oz (200ml) creme frache
1 level tbs curry
butter for frying
Preparation: Gently cook onion and garlic in butter until wilted; add fish, then wine and tomato concentrate and curry. Cook for 10 minutes, then flambe in cognac and remove; strain the sauce as finely as possible (in muslin or the finest sieve you have) and add creme frache at the end. Serve with sprinkled parsley.
Nathalie's French Osso Bucco or Veal Shanks
Ingredients: 6 veal shanks on the bone, cut about 1 1/2 in thick and
preferably of the same size
2 or 3 large onions
2 1/2 pints (2 litres) white wine
1lb (450g) ripe tomatoes, peeled
2 cloves garlic
zest of 1 orange
oil for frying
Preparation: Brown onions in oil; remove and brown the meat, previously rubbed with lemon and lightly dusted with flour. Flambe with cognac. Moisten with white wine; add tomatoes, bouquet garni, browned onions, salt, pepper, pressed garlic, zest of orange and paprika. Cook for 2 hours (until meat is tender and separating from the bone).
Botsford's Lamb with Apricots
We are fortunate to live on the sea, for fish, and with a hinterland that produces splendid lamb. For this dish, the lamb is just about right in age in the late summer; because of the powerful flavours, to use young lamb would be wasteful.
Ingredients: boned leg of lamb cut into chunks about 2in square with as much fat removed as possible
2oz (60g) butter
1 large onion chopped fine
2 cloves garlic unpeeled
about 20 dried apricots
some fresh almonds
12 walnuts, crushed
currants (white and black)
1tbs balsamic vinegar
juice of 2 lemons
1/2 pint (300ml) stock (chicken or lamb)
1 3/4 pints (1 litre) white wine
3 bay leaves
small sprig rosemary
1tbs fresh thyme
1tbs hot paprika
salt and pepper to taste
Preparation: Brown lamb chunks, lightly floured, in butter in which onions have been wilted. Soak dried apricots in water for 1 hour. Stuff them with almonds and add to the meat, plus lemon juice, stock, wine, herbs, paprika and garlic. Turn regularly. When the meat begins to cook add vinegar, walnuts and currants. Simmer, covered, on a low heat for about 2 hours. Check flavouring regularly. The blend of smells and tastes should be both light and 'high' (lemons and wine), and dark, rich and 'low', or earthy (vinegar and currants). Far from rendering this dish sweet, the apricots make it slightly tart.