Where most people see a map of France, I always see a menu, each region beckoning with its special, signature dish. There are crêpes from Brittany, salade Niçoise from Nice, choucroute garnie (that's how the French say sauerkraut and sausage) from Alsace, and so much more. These iconic recipes, which combine local produce with history, culture, and tradition, have become symbols of their regions, their fame spreading far beyond France and throughout the world.
But when I set out to research a book about the signature dishes of France, I discovered something surprising. For every famous regional recipe, I found a handful of other, unsung recipes. Born of the same culinary traditions, and often showcasing the same ingredients, these dishes, which are no less delicious than their celebrated siblings, offer an insider's glimpse of a region's culture and history.
Cheating on Choucroute Garnie in Alsace
My first incidence of culinary infidelity happened on a trip to Alsace. I was supposed to be researching the region's famous choucroute garnie — a hearty dish of slow-simmered sauerkraut heaped with sausages, ham, and other cuts of cured pork. But every time I sat down in a winstub (wine bar), the same thing happened: I looked at the menu, opened my mouth to order choucroute garnie, and found myself asking for flammekueche.
These thin-crusted, savory tarts flew constantly past my nose, shared by groups of friends who washed them down with drafts of blonde beer, before tucking into their main dish of choucroute garnie. Alas, as a solo diner, this type of multi-course feast was far beyond my prowess. But the mouth-watering perfume of the bacon-strewn pie, the snap of its crust, the golden gleam of its edges proved irresistible. I ordered one for dinner, and became so quickly addicted that I scarcely consumed any choucroute garnie at all on that trip.
Afterwards, on all my ensuing research expeditions, I kept looking for these "other" dishes, hoping to find more hidden gems.
The Dish That Tells the Other Side of Nice
Salade niçoise is, arguably, the most famous dish of Nice. A summery plate of tuna, tomatoes, olives, and anchovies, it hints at the city's humble fishing trade, its proximity to the sea, and beautiful climate that continues to draw flocks of sun-worshippers. The "other" dish of Nice — socca, a savory pancake made of chickpea flour — tells a completely different tale, depicting a wealthy port city that once rivaled Genoa.
In fact, both stories are true. Fishing has always sustained Nice, and salade niçoise began as a plat du pauvre (a poor man's dish) made of local products. But Nice has also long been a maritime powerhouse, protected by the counts of Savoy, and linked to Italian Piedmont and Sardinia well into the 19th century. Merchant ships carried goods (and recipes) up and down the Ligurian coast – including a Genoese chickpea pancake called farinata, which many believe morphed into socca.
Today, socca is sold as a simple Niçois street food, hawked from the back of a motorbike, doused with black pepper, and eaten by hand. Whenever I make socca at home, I think about its story and imagine the homesick Genoese sailor who first brought chickpea flour to Nice.
Why Almost Famous?
What propels one regional recipe to fame while the others rest in (relative) obscurity? Is it the legend behind the dish? Or the enthusiasm of its advocates? After all, many of France's signature dishes have societies to defend them, such as La Grande Confrérie du Cassoulet de Castelnaudary, which protects Southwest France's duck-and-sausage-laced bean stew, or the Association Amicale des Amateurs d'Andouillette Authentique, which champions andouillette, a type of tripe sausage. These groups often host annual festivals that keep alive the tradition and reputation of the recipe.
As well, inaccessibility of ingredients has also played a role. For decades special ingredients, like socca's chickpea flour, were difficult to obtain. Happily, the modern world has largely solved that problem. Finally, these unsung dishes can be celebrated and enjoyed in all kitchens.
From flammekueche and socca, to the farçous, or savory chard pancakes of Aveyron, the "silkworker's brains" (herbed cheese spread), and the shortbread cookies that showcase Brittany's delicious cultured butter, we are delighted to shine the spotlight on France's unrecognized culinary heroes. Here's to these unacknowledged — but no less delicious — recipes! May they finally garner the attention and adoration they so richly deserve.