"Our primary purpose in this book is to teach you how to cook, so that you will understand the fundamental techniques and gradually be able to divorce yourself from a dependence on recipes." Julia Child
Starting point? Another first recipe, because, having done a first recipe post on Monday, I picked up my next first recipe book which is the first volume of Julie Child and friends' Mastering the Art of French Cooking, just to see what the first recipe might be. I thought it would be boring old stock but no, it was Potage Parmentier - potato and leek soup. Now I love potatoes and leeks, so I couldn't resist exploring and so here I am writing about potato and leek soups.
And here is the very simplest version - A version from Richard Olney in my Provence the Beautiful Cookbook. He calls it Soupe tôt faite, which means quickly made soup. And it is. All it is, is slice potatoes and leeks, boiled together in a pot with water until the potatoes are soft. Pour into a bowl which has a slice of bread sprinkled with olive oil in it - done. I have made this soup and it's great. This is what Olney says about it:
"Also called soup vite facho and a refreshing change from the usual long-cooked potato and leek soup."
It's the sort of thing some long ago peasant - well after Columbus went to America of course - would have thrown together for dinner. The Irish have probably been doing it since they had potatoes - the Welsh too. Well any European I guess with little local touches like that Provençale olive oil doused bread. So I looked and of course they have - in Wales it's called Cawl cennin and in Scotland Tattie and leekie. And yes - everyone has a version. And because Julia Child and Co's aim was to wean us off recipes I wasn't going to give recipes here, but I see I already have.
My copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking - shown here - is old. I have a Penguin 1968 reprint although it was first published in 1961. It cost 10 shillings and sixpence I see. And it's falling apart as you can see. The ironic thing is the aim of weaning you off recipes is carried out by publishing probably some of the longest recipes you will see published anywhere. Which is very daunting, but if you ever come across this book, or if you have it, then don't be put off. They are long because they explain everything that you have to do, with cross-references to other recipes which share the same techniques and/or ingredients. I see I bought it in England so it would definitely have been one of the books which taught me to cook - encouraged perhaps by these words from the Introduction:.
"Cooking is not a particularly difficult art, and the more you cook and learn about cooking, the more sense it makes. But like any art it requires practice and experience, the most important ingredient you can bring to it is love of cooking for its own sake." Julia Child
But back to that first recipe - Potage Parmentier - "Leek and potato soup smells good, tastes good, and is simplicity itself to make" it says in the introduction - and it's the same ingredients as Soupe tôt faite - leeks, potato and water, though you can add a bit of cream or butter when it's served. Not a lot more to be said really except for the fact that it is really delicious - which is a bit of a surprise considering the simplicity of it all.
But I had questions. Of course I did. Why is it called Parmentier? After all lots of people just call it leek and potato soup. Well it's rather a nice story really. It's named after this man - Antoine-Augustin Parmentier who lived in the eighteenth century, and who is esteemed for making the French like potatoes. For the French, unlike the rest of Europe, did not take to potatoes. Indeed they considered them dangerous and responsible for leprosy. And so in 1748 they were banned for human consumption and merely fed to the pigs.
Meanwhile our man Parmentier - a pharmacist - was a soldier in the Franco-Prussian war and was taken prisoner by the Prussians. Whilst in prison he was forced to eat potatoes - and surprise, surprise he loved them. And so when he returned to France he made it his mission to convert the French. Which, after a great deal of campaigning, he eventually did so that in 1772 the ban was repealed.
"Why tell this story? In our hectic lives, grabbing familiar ingredients from supermarket shelves without a second thought, we can easily forget the value of our food – how it was produced or the culinary history of how it arrived at our table to nourish us. Knowing the history of food, how it has traveled to us through time as well as space, brings a dish alive and helps us connect to it on a deeper level. So perhaps as you prepare this inexpensive and healthy soup you can imagine the revolutionary Parmentier gifting bouquets of potato blossoms to Queen Marie-Antoinette and King Louis XVI and paving the way for the invention of the French fry." Emily Buchanan Coaching
One of the things that finally brought the French round was the fact that in 1781 Louis XVI granted him some land at Sablons to grow potatoes, and he supplied guards so that the potatoes were not stolen. Thus they became a thing of value.
As for Antoine-Auguste Parmentier - not only was a soup named after him, but when he died he was buried in that most famous of Parisian cemeteries - Père Lachaise cemetery - and yes those are potato plants around his rather impressive memorial.
Mind you Potage Parmentier is not a name that is universally used for potato and leek soup - the hot version and it's not even that well-known. As I said before lots of people just call it Potato and Leek soup - even in French cookbooks. Elizabeth David does not have a recipe for it and neither do Robert Carrier or Jane Grigson. One of the few versions with that name that I found is this one on the left, although the maker - Emily Buchanan couldn't resist a fancy garnish of tempura leek. The Food of France - one of my other sources of classic French food also calls it Potato and leek soup, but it's the same thing as Potage Parmentier. Indeed they are a bit purist and insist on only using the white parts of the leek. Julia Child is much more flexible and uses some of the green part - as do I - and Felicity Cloake diverges quite a bit - she bakes her potatoes first for a start!
But then she's English and she actually makes no pretence of her soup being French. Which leads me to my next question. Why do we consider Leek and Potato soup to be a French thing? I mean we have already demonstrated that they were late in coming to love potatoes, and Antoni-Auguste Parmentier might have given his name to a soup - well deserved as noted - but it looks like everyone else had a version well before the French.
Well it's because of Vichyssoise isn't it? And here comes another 'story'. Probably like you I thought that Vichysoisse was an old and venerable soup. But no. It was created in 1917 - and - shock, horror - in America at the Ritz Carlton. So it isn't French at all?
Well yes it is - either of the two 'origin stories confirm this. The first one, which, I have to say, very few people quote so maybe it's apocryphal, is as follows:
"One narrative of its history dates back to King Louis XV of France who, in his fear of being poisoned, asked his servants to taste a potato leek soup he had been served, and by the time he started eating it, it had gone cold."
Nice story though. The other - the American version is that was invented by Louis Diat a chef at the Ritz-Carlton. Indeed the Americans celebrate Vichyssoise Day - next week - November 18th. And being America - the Americans claim it as their own. But it's not - because Louis Diat was French.
"Pedants love to point out that, despite the name, this is not French, but was invented around 1910 by Louis Diat of New York's Ritz Carlton. They miss the point. First, Diat was French. Second, it's a variation of potage parmentier, which is as French as cognac. And it's one of the great summertime starters, and one of the easiest: just puréed leek and potato soup, enriched with whipping cream. And perfect for vegetarians because the soup tastes better made with water than with chicken stock." Richard Ehrlich - The Guardian
So how did Diat come to invent it and why is it called Vichyssoise? It was hot in the rooftop restaurant at the Ritz Carlton and so Diat thought to make a cold leek and potato soup which was based on the potato and leek soups his mother used to make at their home near the spa town of Vichy in France. In the summer, when it was hot, he and his brother would add some cold milk to the soup - and this is sort of what he did. Only there was cream and chives on top, and the soup was served chilled. And why Vichyssoise? - well it's the feminine version of the descriptor 'of or from Vichy' - his home town. Feminine because the original name was Crème Vichyssoise glacée and 'crème' is a feminine noun and so the adjective has to agree - as does glacée.
So in spite of its grand and almost American origins Vichyssoise actually has peasant origins.
So lets go back to the peasants and the final potato and leek soup - Potage Bonne Femme - which means 'good wife's (or woman's soup'. And as an aside - now that I think of it, isn't it interesting that the French word 'femme' means both 'wife' and 'woman'? Does it mean that the French expect every woman to also be a wife?
Potage bonne femme may well be the first dish I made from my French Provincial Cooking by Elizabeth David. And here it is. The pages are indeed this colour and the book as you can see is crumbling to pieces. My daughter-in-law found me a newer copy but I still find myself going back to the original. Even if it had not been the first recipe I chose to reproduce, it would have been one of the first, because it is basically a blueprint for all of the soups that I had eaten in the evenings in France. A basic vegetable soup in which the vegetables of the day were boiled until soft, put through the mouli and topped with a knob of butter. I so loved them all.
It's a very simple soup and virtually the same as the generic leek and potato soup but with the addition of carrot and a tiny bit of sugar. This is Elizabeth David's recipe reproduced on a website called Keep Recipes, although I think they got it from elsewhere.
So is this the founding recipe or is it just the basic leek and potato soup? Whichever it is both of them invite you to extemporise. They really aren't a definite, set in stone, set of instructions. And to demonstrate this, Julia Child in the introduction to the Potage Parmentier recipe says:
"It is also versatile as a soup base; add watercress and you have a watercress soup, or stir in cream and chill it for vichyssoise. to change the formula a bit, add carrots, string beans, cauliflower, broccoli, or anything else you think would would go with it, and vary the proportions as you wish."
Which just about sums up the evolution of cooking really. After all if you add 'anything else you thing would go with it' you are a long way from just potatoes, leeks and water.
And one more thing about the sheer practicality of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. In her introduction there are these words:
"We have purposely omitted cob-webbed bottles, the patron in his white cap bustling among his sauces, anecdotes about charming little restaurants with gleaming napery, and so forth. Such romantic interludes, it seems to us, put French cooking into a a 'never-never' land instead of the Here, where happily it is available to everybody. Anyone can cook in the French manner anywhere with the right instruction." Julia Child
Now is that a little bit of a dig against Elizabeth David who is prone to a bit of nostalgic/romantic - indeed entrancing - anecdotes? Both of them, however, could be said to have been responsible for showing ordinary people like me that we could indeed cook like the French.
Final thought. What began as peasant food - and therefore extremely cheap one supposes - is now a bit of a luxury. Leeks are pretty expensive - $2.90 for one or $4.90 if you go organic - just to prove that only the rich can go organic.