French Gastronomy : The History and Geography of a Passion

 

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Opening with a tongue-in-cheek discussion on whether gourmandism is a sin in France (or anywhere), the author is equally at ease citing evangelical and Pauline epistolary evidence as the classical Greek and Roman philosophical commentators on how to live life well. For those concerned with the eating habits of Jesus, the author points out that once the fasts ended, Jesus ate and drank heartily with the best of them.

From there, the lively analysis moves to explain that French food is so varied because it lay on the path between the warring and striving clans of the past. Political changes brought trade and the next thing you know, wealth builds, which buys good cooks, fine ingredients and the leisure to stay at table.

The Parisian dedication to eating and measuring success by wealth of the table long predates the ostentatious 1890’s or the studious culinary minimalism of the 1980’s. The Venetian ambassador to the King of France in 1577, surely no bumpkin, commented on the diverse provisions and how rich and poor alike eat well. In the early 19th century Parisians could buy strawberries in January, grapes at Spring solstice and pineapples year round.

The big advance in French cooking occurred with the change in meat preparation from roasting on an open fire or boiling in a suspended pot to a raised prototype stove called a potager. Built of bricks and tiles, a similar cooking system existed in Italy a century before it arrived in French kitchens in the 1700s. Hot coals were arranged inside the potager and cooks could simmer broths, stir sauces, and braise meats. “Henceforth, cooking was done standing up, close to the source of heat, a position more favorable for producing complicated hot dishes.” Of course the elaborate presentation caused the food to cool by the time the dish reached the banquet table.

In more recent centuries, the author’s primary source archives expand. Chapters dedicated to the French royal and imperial kitchens extend to the rest of Europe because any duke worth his salt wanted a French chef. Contemporary French food nationalism, street eating habits and the revival of regional producers dedicated to traditional specialties come under Pitte’s scholarly scalpel, always leavened with humor and graceful translation by Jody Gladding. In the end the author is hopeful that the French will abandon fast food and nouvelle cuisine, returning to their gourmandizing  and sinning ways.

French Gastronomy: The History and Geography of a Passion, Jean-Robert Pitte

Columbia University Press, 2002, 207 pages with index.

Reviewed by L. Peat O’Neil who teaches Food and Travel Writing for the Smithsonian Resident Associates Program and L’Academie de Cuisine.

Following the Sun

Following the Sun, A Bicycle Pilgrimage from Andalusia to the Hebrides     

Book cover
Following the Sun
by John Hanson Mitchell

John Hanson Mitchell

Counterpoint, 2002

ISBN: 1-58243-136-1, 280 pages

Who wouldn’t enjoy following the sun through Europe to end on Summer Solstice in Scotland? That’s the premise for the author’s bicycle journey from Cadiz, Spain to Callanish, Scotland.   is to follow the sun, a passionate interest of The author is passionate about connecting with people and explores the differences among cultures as well as the universal binding qualities of humanity.   The trip took place a while ago, during the early years of the Common Market.  Considering one of the finest travel books ever — Patrick Leigh Fermor’s “Between the Woods and the Water” — was written decades after the experience, I fully embraced the timelessness of this enjoyable narrative where spirit transcends distance.

The author is well integrated in local habits, traveling as a slow-moving cyclist on a Peugeot clunker.   He mentions being thanked for American assistance to Europe during WWII — that’s because  even now in the 21st century, European  folks of a certain age often insert a thanks for Liberation Day in conversations with visiting Americans.

The reader wheels along with the author.  And it’s a great ride.  Mitchell artfully describes landscape, the curious characters and the local cuisine.  He never misses a human interest story and samples the local plonk, usually with a talkative companion.

Interwoven with the journey narrative are tidy summaries of historical or scientific detours relevant to the place, climate or festivals encountered by the author.  Religious cults, folktales, myth, pilgrimage routes and culinary lore expand the thread of  Hansen’s journey.  He arrives in Scotland for the summer solstice.

En route,  we learn of the westerly winds that permitted Christopher Columbus to push further west off the “edge of the known  earth” and eventually sight the islands we know as the West Indies. This provides a segue into the solar influenced civilizations of the new world.  Ever mindful of the sun, Mitchell discusses bird and animal behavior related to the sun and solar eclipses.  We hear about the religious and intellectual growth of Spain during the enlightened years of Muslim rule prior to. He touches on bullfights and the Mithraic cult of the bull and sun, early Christian rituals, Greek myth, harvesting grapes and how to cut peat. All of it is fascinating material, lucidly presented.  Alas, the book lacks an index.

Several times Mitchell mentions sojourns in Spain and France prior to this bike pilgrimage, so we can assume he knows the languages, always useful for independent travelers. Either he diligently recorded his previous travels, or he plays with memory.  It would be useful to know whether he kept a diary at the time to assist memory and  report past conversations verbatim.  Many travel writers do this.  For example, “A Time of Gifts” and “Between the Woods and the Water,” describe Patrick Leigh Fermor’s walk across Europe at age 18; he wrote these books as a mature adult and occasionally quotes the people he met years earlier, but makes it clear that he was using detailed diaries as a source.

Mitchell acknowledges contributions from friends he met up with during the journey.  While I believe it is possible for a writer to have vibrant memories of significant journeys and other experiences in life,  it seems only fair to let readers know about invented dialogue based on memory.  Then we’re more likely to accept that every encounter really took place and wasn’t a mirage or convenient authorial invention.

–L. Peat O’Neil

Double 00 Books Store

L. Peat O’Neil blogs about travel at http://AdventureTravelWriter.org and contributes to numerous online and print publications.

She wrote Pyrenees Pilgrimage about a solo walk across France from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean along the

Map of the St. Jacques de Compostela routes through Europe.
Map of the St. Jacques de Compostela routes through Europe.

Camino of St. Jacques de Compostella that extends across all of Europe and into Spain. She is also the author of  Travel Writing – See the World, Sell the Story.

The Atlantic Rim

While the Pacific Rim captures attention  ::

Consider the Atlantic Rim, an older trade route.

Map of N. Atlantic Ocean floor and N. Atlantic Rim coastal areas.

The July 3, 2008 issue of London Review of Books discusses two recent books:

North Atlantic Map. http://en.wikipedia.com
North Atlantic Map.
http://en.wikipedia.com

My interest in the history and geography of the Atlantic Rim took me to Kenneth White’s book On the Atlantic Edge. White’s ideas about geopoetics are provocative. He’s a Scotsman who lives in France and writes in English and French — a forward-thinking author with poetic nuance.

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On the Atlantic Edge
by Kenneth White

Resources:

The Atlantic World Research Network – University of North Carolina, Greensboro

Atlantic World Foodways Conference – January 31 – February 2, 2014.

Transatlantic Exchanges Forum – Plymouth University – Atlantic Studies Initiative.