Photographs, textiles and food - Gabriel Gaté and France

Updated: Jan 31, 2021

"Every man has two countries: his own and France." Thomas Jefferson


I feel I actually have three - England, France and Australia - in order of experience.


I am back to my Christmas cookbooks and this one. This is not actually the front cover of the book, but I think it demonstrates what I so love about the book.


I confess when I first saw that I had been given this book, I thought to myself 'ho hum' a bit. Gabriel Gaté is not a trend setting chef. He does not extend beyond French cuisine. His persona is very amiable and pleasant, but not amazingly charismatic. He's not a great writer either. The very brief introduction is informational and explanatory more than anything very personal or descriptive. The book is a summation of his turn as the presenter of the food segments on SBS's Tour de France broadcasts. He did this for 20 something years and I did love to watch the segments. But in a way, not especially for the food, but more for the glimpses of French life. At first glance this book seemed to me to be a bit like that. Hey - it didn't even have any pictures of the recipes' finished product.

This is the actual cover of the book - maybe the publisher's actually spent some time deciding which of the two should win. I actually think they should have gone for the frontispiece, but then again maybe not.


Although it is labelled A Cook's tour of France, it is not actually organised by region, but follows a relatively standard cookbook format, beginning with Starters and light meals and ending with Desserts and tarts. Each recipe does acknowledge its regional origins though, and every now and then, when the recipe is not written by Gaté himself the author - often Phillipe Mouchel and Pierrick Boyer - is also acknowledged.





So yes it's a survey of French regional food and haven't we been there before? But actually on closer inspection some of the recipes are less well-known, and some of the standards - Ratatouille for example - is more the invention of a current NIçois chef (although unnamed) - than the standard traditional dish. I mean it is served cold - yes others serve it cold too - but with a lemony crème fraiche topping, as shown above - et voilà - Verrine de Ratatouille Niçoise au chantilly citron. (Actually still not quite accurate as verrine is a kind of glass, and in the video and the recipe it is served in a glass.) And if you are missing photographs of the dishes in the book, just look them up on the net. As they are from an SBS series, they are all there - with videos too. Which may perhaps explain why the publishers did not feel the need to decorate the book with photographs of finished dishes. Although they should perhaps have mentioned the availability of the videos.


Instead, what they have produced is a gorgeous collection of photographs, presented in a beautifully designed format that features lace curtains, the patterns from those curtains, other textiles, buildings, scenery, bicycles and produce - la France in fact. Texture and ambience. There are no credits for any of the photographers, or indeed the designers - it is all credited to the publishers - Hardie Grant books, so one can only assume that there is a design team and that they have plundered the international archives (with copyright permission of course) for the photographs.


Some of the photographs are overlaid with the lace curtain motif - as in this illustration that accompanies the first recipe in the book - which I'm going to try some time soon I think - for Lyonnais cheese dip with herbs (Cervelle de canut). The French translation is somewhat unappetising - 'the brain of a silk worker.' According to Wikipedia it is "thought to reflect the low opinion the affluent in Lyon had of the weavers." Although how that concept translates to the name I have no idea. Another theory is that is related to the silk workers' revolts in the nineteenth century. Again, why that has anything to do with the dish is not clear. Suffice to say that it is obviously related to the silk workers. For a time the silk industry was the main industry of Lyon.

The French use fromage frais for this dish. Gabriel Gaté uses creamed cottage cheese or quark, and trendy Jill Dupleix uses goat's curd, or soft fresh goat's cheese mixed with ricotta. An American recipe used yoghurt. Not the same at all I would think. It's basically a rather yummy sounding cheese dip, and next time I have need of a dip, this is what I shall be serving. The picture above is from SBS online. Not nearly as evocative as the photograph in the book is it? And the other thing to note in the photograph that makes it so French is the baguette - even Laurent's don't look like that - the knife, the plate and the tea towel on which it rests. And those lace curtains. You see them everywhere, which is perhaps why they have been chosen as the motif that brings the whole book together. Below is a photograph I took of some - these in St Rémy de Provence I think:

And yes St. Rémy is a tourist town, but here's the thing about the French tourist towns. The French great take pride in how they look. There are prizes for the most beautiful and the most full of flowers, and so individuals take a lot of care in making their houses attractive and photogenic. This is a particularly good example because of the artful placing of the bag and the hooks. It's a domestic work of art, that you find everywhere in France, and everywhere in this book.


The French just love old things and have these wonderful second hand stores in which you can pick up all manner of things and textiles of all kinds always feature hugely - lace, bed linen, napery etc. David and I visited the town of L'Isle sur Sorgues back in 2012. It is a town dedicated to antiques. Alas I don't have photographs of the textiles, but I do have a picture of David - perhaps my all-time favourite - outside one of the shops, and the interior of part of another.

Now the shops in L'Isle sur Sorgues were a bracket above the brocantes that you will find in every small town - sheds full of what on first sight is junk - but it should give you the idea. The idea being one overriding feature of France. And I don't just mean the tourist spots - although this particular town is one of them. The France that I knew as a teenager was much the same.


Note also that David is lunching. Sort of picnicking. We did this a lot and I think the French do too.


"Contrary to what certain comedians have led you to believe, the national French pastime is picnicking." Bob Hope

And that cheese dip would have been perfect picnic food. As would the last recipe in the book: Cherry fruit salad with Languedoc brandy. It's a fruit salad composed of puréed berries, mixed with cherries and sliced peaches with orange and lemon juice and marc du Languedoc. Decorate with toasted almonds and icing sugar. Sort of old-fashioned really, but utterly delicious and so very French.


Quite unlike Yotam Ottolenghi's last recipe in Flavour - also a kind of fruit salad. But much more fashionable - the presentation - a base of labneh - sheep's labneh at that - with an orange and thyme oil drizzled on top and a mix of whole and puréed (with thyme) berries on top. Almost the same ingredients but a different world really. Though delicious too.


France is old. France is elegant. France is parochial and traditionalist. Above all France is beautiful. If you have a camera - or a phone these days, you only have to point it at just about anything around you and you will get a perfect picture you could hang on your wall.


In the middle of the book is this recipe for Roast guinea fowl with spinach and pears. I picked it out at random and decided to feature it for a couple of reasons. The main, well the first one, being that it demonstrates another use of the lace curtain motif. Gabriel Gaté notes in his introduction to the recipe that:


"I'm always a bit surprised that outside France few restaurants serve guinea fowl. In France it's a popular Sunday lunch treat."


I can certainly attest to its popularity - I have eaten it on several occasions in France. But no you don't find it here. Production is apparently very small and likely to remain so. Well that's what the people at Poultry Hub seem to think, though I do wonder why, because they say that some have got out into the wild and become pests.

And look, on a walk through Eltham I saw one, wondering through a bit of bush. Well I think that's what it is. It's not a great photo - a bit blurry. I was in a rush. I think it had strayed from a rather old and rather ramshackle house one passes on the way from the High School to the main road. Maybe the owners eat them. The aristocrats in England hunt and eat them. That boyfriend I spoke about the other day, used to beat the grouse out of their hiding places for the hunters, on the moors. Not quite the same bird, but similar I think.


So obviously this is one recipe that one is not really going to be able to make from this book and on this occasion Gaté does not suggest an alternative. In fact it is difficult to get any kind of game bird here isn't it? I wonder would duck do? Below is how the finished dish looks by the way - formally arranged in a very French kind of way on a very French looking plate.


Gabriel Gaté has retired from his gig at the Tour de France and passed the baton to Guillaume Brahimi. He may have semi-retired altogether as well. He has had a long and successful career here in Australia writing cookery books, teaching, presenting television series, and speaking at various functions. His website implies that he may still be doing this. He was born and grew up in the Loire valley - my old stomping ground - although the Loire valley is very long, and I do not know in which part he lived. He met his Australian wife in France and left to build a new life in Australia. But he still maintains that beautiful accent and obviously has a great love for his old homeland. As I said before an amiable, low key presenter.


And so, as I said at the beginning I was not overly excited to begin with, but today I have revisited the book and I think it is wonderful. It is so French and so full of such evocative photographs - the subjects of which I have sometimes tried to photograph myself. Like the bike in the picture at the top of the page. This is my lesser version. I do not have an artistic bone in my body. Painting and drawing that is. So now that one can shoot as many photographs as one wants without worrying about the cost I have very much enjoyed photography. But even though I am pleased with some. They are nowhere near as good as the pictures in this book. If I ever want to take a trip to France then leafing through this book is the answer. And on a second look the recipes are interesting too. It has brought back so many happy memories and had me browsing through my old photographs.


Thank you NIc.



POSTSCTPT

Gâté in French means spoilt - in terms of children - and bruised in terms of food. Gabriel Gaté has dropped the circumflex on the a in his name. Maybe it was never there or maybe some long ago ancestor didn't like to think of himself as spoilt.


This book is certainly not spoilt, and neither is Gabriel. The photograph you see here has been touched up somewhat with the lacy motif on the left and a distressed wall background rather than the sky. The colours may also be a little enhanced and yet it is so very, very, very French. The designers deserve a prize.

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