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A sort of French heritage

"What had stuck was the taste for a kind of food quite ideally unlike anything I had known before. Ever since, I have been trying to catch up with those lost days when perhaps I should have been more profitably watching Léontine in her kitchen rather than trudging conscientiously round every museum and picture gallery in Paris." Elizabeth David

This is Purée Léontine a vegetable soup that is so typical of a French family dinner, based on the soups that Elizabeth David ate as cooked by the family cook Léontine, when she stayed with a Paris family as a teenager.

The quote is so close to my own feelings of wonder at a totally different way of cooking that I experienced in those wonderful but humble French homes as a teenager, and also to my regret at not having noted down the fabulous Madame Perruque's recipes when I worked au pair as a university student. I watched her, but I did not write it down.

I also did not write down the recipes of Mesdames Coutant and Rateau - the two ladies who introduced me to another way of cooking. Which is not to decry my mother's cooking. She was a good plain, English cook whose food was mostly delicious and another source of my cooking heritage. The main one probably as she taught me most of the basics. And she enthusiastically embraced the things I had learnt in France too.

I know I have reminisced about Madame Perruque and my French hostesses before and the food they set before me, but today I thought I would try to summarise the major things I remember about French food. Why? Well last night we had a sort of gratin dauphinois to accompany my slightly adapted Robert Carrier poulet au cresson. The adaptation being au roquette because there was no watercress in the shops this weekend, so I had to substitute with rocket.. And yes it was pretty nice, but not so wow that you would be rushing to make it again. Not a failure - just a so so. The potato gratin however, was yummy - again not the classic - there was stock rather than cream, although there was a little milk, blended with some more rocket. Actually I think the rocket in both dishes really didn't taste of much. It's much better raw.

However, that gratin made me think today of how my everyday cooking owes a great deal to that French heritage. I'll call it French heritage, although I have - sadly - no French heritage. My father's family - whose surname is Mollett, were convinced that they were descended from Huguenots. Alas no. I have now researched them back to 1537 and not a Huguenot in sight, although lots of Norwich citizens for generations including one baker and one who moved to London to become a pastrycook, so perhaps cooking or at least a love of food is in the genes. My mother's side of the family made no such claim. They were mostly sailors.

And just to confirm the lack of French ancestors I did the Ancestry DNA test and so far they have never told me I have any French backgroung. Although I have to say they keep on changing their minds. Once they suggested a bit of Belgian and another time a bit of Breton but not at the moment. It's all British Isles with a touch of Swedish - maybe German.

Anyway the gratin reminded me of the particular dishes that have changed my cooking in various ways, and a gratin is a way of cooking potatoes that the whole family has embraced, and that I and at least one of my sons cook fairly frequently. It was one of the dishes I taught my grandchildren during COVID cooking classes I think. Occasionally it's the classic, with cream, and garlic but mostly I adapt to whatever the main dish is going to be.

So what are the things that stuck in my mind and which I continue to cook or at least have an influence on my foodie choices?

The starting point was the tomato salad that began it all. And I have written about it time and time again. But I had to include it, because this was the Road to Damascus moment, the revelation that food could be so very different. Alas until recently, unless you grow your own tomatoes, it is hard to find those same huge and wrinkly tomatoes that you find in Europe. They are beginning to appear but at a price that most of us would not consider paying. Maybe I should give growing my own one last shot. Because really it's the tomatoes that make this dish.

Haricots verts. I virtually always cook my green beans the way the French cook them - sautéed with butter and garlic. We had them almost every day in Meung-sur-Loire because the Mairie vegetable garden had oodles of them. I really try to cook them the same way but I'm obviously doing something wrong because they never taste the same. Is it the beans themselves, or the butter? I boil mine briefly in a little water before draining and sautéeing. Maybe I shouldn't boil them?

Indeed. It was what we ate for dinner more or less every day. The currently available vegetables were braised a little, then boiled with water - I don't think any other liquid was ever used, then it was put through the mouli and served in those beautiful French soup plates, with a dab of butter on top. I fell in love, and bought my own mouli at some point, and I think that soup might have been one of the very first of Elizabeth David's recipes that I tackled. Potage Bonne Femme probably, although the picture above is the slightly adapted version of her Purée Léontine as presented on Facebook by Borough Broth - a company selling organic soups in England. Gorgeous soup plates. I do not use my mouli for soup anymore. These days I will use a stick blender. They didn't have them back then.

Steak and frites. Well to be honest I very rarely cook this. I'm not very good at steak. But it was in France that I first encountered steak I think. Too expensive at home I suspect. And our chips were the fat fish and chip shop variety. However, in France steak was a frequent dish for lunch - the big meal of the day. And I'm afraid to say it was also often horse meat. I'm also afraid to say that I liked it. I'm not sure that Madame Coutant's frites were quite as matchstick as these, but pretty close.

Salade verte. Different kinds of lettuce and dressed with a classic vinaigrette. I have just noticed that my chosen picture obviously has balsamic vinegar in the dressing. So fashionable but I much prefer the wine vinegar that my hostesses used. Red wine vinegar for them I think. White wiine vinegar most often for me. It was served after every main dish and before the cheese. A tradition we continue at every meal for guests. Before the cheese that is. although most evenings we have a green salad after our main dish. It cleanses the palette. It was also a custom that my mother enthusiastically adopted. I think the Heinz salad cream was seen no more on our family table.

Of the cooked dishes two more that I remember - meat stuffed tomatoes - another dish that I have never been able to replicate - it must be the tomatoes again and ratatouille that I did not encounter until my au pair experience. It was a favourite of my employer, who, I think, thought of herself as a poor cook. She wasn't. A completely new taste for me, which I have to say took me a while to get used to. But I love it now and try to make it at least once in summer.

It's not just the food that I was served, however. It was also the food that was on offer in the shops like the baguettes of everyday, the patisseries which were a Sunday treat, and the saucisson that was sometimes served for lunch or dinner, sliced and served with a dab of butter. Fruit - the most gorgeous peaches - a new fruit to me, as was melon. Most of all there was icecream - and most divinely of all the blackcurrant sorbet.

Did I love everything? No I didn't. I did not like the wine - something that has changed over time, but I am still not a fan of artichokes au vinaigrette or Camembert - although I do now like Brie. Back then they had to serve me mineral water and Gruyère cheese.

Perhaps it's the weather that makes me reminisce. I'm not even tempted by the cassis sorbet at the moment. Far too cold.


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