"Une belle femme plaît aux yeux, une bonne femme plaît au coeur ; l'une est un bijoux, l'autre un trésor." Napoleon
"A beautiful woman pleases the eye, a good woman pleases the heart; one is a jewel, the other a treasure."
The French language has many, many, fewer words than English and it is therefore possible to translate the phrase 'bonne femme' in a number of ways. 'La femme' for example can mean either wife or woman - so whether Napoleon was talking about women in general or wives in particular it is impossible to tell without the wider context. Bonne means good. But good in itself can mean so many things can it not? Put both those words together - 'bonne femme' - and you get good woman or good wife although actually I think the actual phrase can mean housewife. Now to be fair I am not absolutely sure about that last interpretation but there are certainly a huge range of meanings that can be applied to 'bonne' in the context of either woman or wife, from a philosophically benevolent one encapsulated in the word 'treasure' to something meaning 'good' from the man's not so benevolent and selfish point of view. First define 'good'. I doubt that the women themselves would ever have referred to themselves as 'bonne femmes'.
I guess it was ever thus in the world of male/female relationships, although hopefully the times they are a'changing.
In the context of French food, the phrase 'bonne femme' means nothing very specific in terms of ingredients, although it may do for specific dishes like Sole bonne femme, which seems to require white wine, mushrooms and new potatoes. If you are curious you can watch this video - Julia Child showing you how to cook sole in white wine, beginning with sole bonne femme. It's quite long, but a curiosity and certainly shows off her unique style. You might love it, you might loathe it ... It's quite long.
There were lots of photographs of Sole bonne femme and yet again they demonstrated how you can get quite different results with just a couple of the same ingredients. I'm not sure where the first one comes from, but the second is from Delia who calls it Baked fish fillets with mushroom stuffing. But hers is a variation. The sole is generally served flat. The sauce looks similar though.
Not that sole is of relevance we Australians. I don't think we have sole here. I'm not sure what the equivalent fish would be. Suffice to say that it's a flat fish.
But I sort of digress.
'Bonne femme' in the context of French food really means something pretty simple, and homely. I felt that the painting at the top of the page by one Thomas Faed a Scotsman painting in the latter half of the nineteenth century expressed the idea of 'la bonne femme'. And to digress again. If you feed in 'bonne femme painting' to Google images you get a whole lot of paintings of boorish women, working away at something or other. Housewife - meaning a sort of home slave - is the general idea. It's a dull day and I'm feeling a bit gloomy, so I guess I am tending to see just the downside of being a housewife when really I should be concentrating on the 'treasure' bit. I suppose if the housewife is appreciated then it's Ok, but I suspect that these days the term is even more derogatory than it used to be. If you are 'just' a housewife - caring for your home and your family, without pursuing a career of your own, then basically you are of no interest and even worse - a failure. In my day and before it was just what was expected of you.
But yes, in the context of food I think it is a sort of comfort food label. Something uncomplicated, reassuring, comforting and homely in the best possible sense. I think I first came across the term in Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cookery, when looking for a recipe for all the wonderful daily soups that I ate whilst in France. And here is a picture of a blogger's version of it and below is Elizabeth David's recipe in her own words. Not so many extra ones as in so many of her recipes but a few, and very definitely Elizabeth David.
"POTAGE BONNE FEMME
This old-fashioned French soup is the cheapest and one of the nicest of all vegetable soups.
1lb potatoes, 3 carrots, 2 large leeks, 11/2 oz butter, 2 pints water, seasoning. To finish the soup, a little cream, parsley or chervil when available.
Melt the butter in your soup pan, put in the cleaned and finely sliced leeks and the diced carrots. Let them get thoroughly hot and saturated with the butter; add the peeled and diced potatoes, the water, a little salt, a lump or two of sugar. Cook steadily but not at a gallop for 25 to 30 minutes. Sieve through the finest mesh of the mouli, twice if necessary. Taste for seasoning, and when ready to serve add the cream, and parsley or chervil chopped very, very finely. Enough for four.
The carrots are not essential to the soup, but they add a little extra flavour and colour."
A few things to add to this. No longer so cheap I think. Leeks are expensive. You really do need the sugar and my French hostesses didn't add cream, they added a knob of butter to your dish. And yes they only ever used water. And it was delicious.
Once you have mastered this basic recipe the world of soups is open to you. Just vary the vegetables. Or don't purée the soup. Here are two more examples (pictures only): Purée Léontine - another from Elizabeth David and named for a young cook who fed the family with whom she stayed in Paris. It's slightly more complicated in that it includes spinach, peas and shredded lettuce and the herbs are parsley and mint with some finely chopped celery for a final added crunch. The second is from Richard Olney's Province the Beautiful Cookbook and is called Soupe tôt fait - which means quickly made soup. It's just sliced potatoes and leeks cooked in water until tender, served over bread and sprinkled with olive oil. I've tried it. It's amazingly good. But then I guess the classy Vichyssoise is really the same thing.
Then there's the soup that started me off on the potage thing - maybe another day - 'potage' I mean - Stephanie Alexander's Velouté of Batavia or Escarole lettuce and radish tops. Same thing really but made with lettuce as the feature vegetable - specifically the one that's a bit like endive, and everywhere in France but not here. Curly and slightly bitter. There is sorrel in there too. The method is exactly the same though.
However, I had in the back of my mind that Robert Carrier had a meat recipe with 'bonne femme' in the title and indeed he does. It's Carré de porc à la bonne femme (alas no picture) and like Elizabeth David's soup is a recipe I made several times. Really it's just roast pork but it does have a few mushrooms roasted with the pork near the end. Simple though - which qualifies it to be 'bonne femme'.
Then, back to Julia Child and a follower from a blog called Authentically Nikki, who makes her Chicken bonne femme (Poulet en cocotte Bonne Femme). Essentially as she says, it's "just a pot-roasted whole chicken with potatoes, onions and bacon."
Potatoes and onions again - well they are basic which is perhaps what 'bonne femme' might also mean.
I notice that my recipes today are all from 'old-fashioned' cooks. And I guess that 'old-fashioned' is yet another interpretation of 'bonne'.
Not related, but I came across this nice Julia Child quote in the process of 'researching' this post and thought I would share it.
“The best way to execute French cooking is to get good and loaded and whack the hell out of a chicken. Bon appétit.” Julia Child
I must say I feel a bit like whacking the hell out of something today!
Come to think about it Julia Child was a truly great woman - a 'bonne femme' of the highest order. And she and Elizabeth David were treasures.