In 2018, three of my French grand-parents passed away in the course of just a few weeks. I felt overwhelmed by this very strange course of events, not knowing how I could best pay tribute to them. The answer came a few months later when I decided to start a little family project: capture and share my grand-mothers’ recipes with the rest of the family as a way to honour their memory and celebrate their culinary heritage.
Both of them were fantastic cooks and I grew up with their cooking. From the flavours of the bouillabaisse to the colours of the salade niçoise, these vivid memories were still with me. However, I sadly did not take the time to ask them enough about how they cooked all these iconic family recipes, what products they picked, what techniques they used. Maybe I was too young, or maybe I was convinced that I could always call them on a Monday night, like I used to do at university, to ask for ideas and tips after picking up my veggie box subscription.
A little adventure started. I explored their kitchen drawers, discovered their recipe journals, magazine cuttings from the 70s and some notes from my great-grand mother. I also decoded all the scribblings in my grand-mother’s own bible, a cookbook called La Cuisinière Provençale, by Jean Baptiste Reboul. I classified and filed everything, took some pictures and transcribed all the recipes on my laptop.
Then, I started to cook. I followed my paternal grandmother’s pissaladière recipe, I baked the gratin dauphinois and the daube provençale from my maternal grand-mère. I also prepared apricot, figs, peach and strawberry jams like my grand-father, continuing his generous tradition of gifting them to friends and family. Cooking became more than just putting ingredients together. I remembered anecdotes and stories of my childhood, under the sun of the south of France. I was happy to feel them close to me thanks to these familiar recipes and evocative flavours.
In his book, Manger est un acte citoyen (Eating is an act of civic duty), Alain Ducasse presents the kitchen as “a place of generational transmission, between previous, present and future generations”. The French chef tells us that we must act against the decline of the culinary transmission, once a key component of families’ identity, and safeguard traditional knowledge, moving from the savoir-faire (know-how) to the faire-savoir (“let know”).
Culinary wisdom from older generations has to be preserved, revived and listened to. It is essential to keep these family recipes in writing so that they do not fall into oblivion. They are part of our identity, a true gem in a world where food culture sometimes becomes too standardised and uniform. We should never forget to celebrate these recipes and traditions, share them with others, and keep them well alive.
We should also learn about food traditions from other families and other cultures. I think that when food is linked to personal relationships it tastes much different. I learned how to cook ajiaco, a soup from Bogota that my Colombian partner’s mum makes. I asked the Italian farmers I volunteered for to write down their family recipe of schiacciata toscana and share with me the secret ingredients of their ragù. These recipes are now all part of my own cooking identity, enriched by these meaningful testimonies and experiences.
So, why don’t you also take part and keep on sharing these culinary traditions? One of my paternal grand-mother’s favourite recipes is the pissaladière, a thin-crust onion tart from Nice. She used to prepare it fairly often for family gatherings, always making two as she knew we will devour it, or very much enjoy the leftovers later. She used a recipe she got from her sister-in-law and improved it over the years. With this recipe, you also get an understanding of the food culture from the Nice region, with anchovies from the Mediterranean and small black olives from Nice (DOP). Preparing a pissaladière requires a bit of time (mostly because of the onion chopping!) but it is very easy. Then, like my grand-mother did, it is up to you to reclaim it, make it evolve according your own taste, your knowledge, your local roots.
For two pissaladières (or a big tray):
- 350g bread flour
- 160g butter
- 1 egg
- 1.5kg onions
- A few anchovy fillets and a handful of small black olives
- Oregano, salt and pepper
- For the dough – mix the flour by hand with small cubes of softened butter, adding a little bit of salt. Make a well and add an egg and some water as you go. Work with the fork to start with and add a little more flour or butter if necessary. Then, with your hands, work the dough into a firm ball. Let the dough rest for a few hours with a little flour on the top (ideally, leave it all night in the crisper drawer of your fridge).
- Finely chop the onions and gently brown them in a skillet over medium-low heat until golden. Add some salt / pepper and some oregano. It can take up to 45 minutes.
- Roll out the dough with a rolling pin. Butter the tin and arrange the dough. Prick with a fork and make a small edge on the side.
- Add the onions, the anchovies and olives, as well as some oregano and a drizzle of olive oil.
- Put in the oven for about 20-30 minutes at 200 degrees. Lower the temperature a bit towards the end of cooking. Bon appétit!
Text and Images (C) Adrien Giacchero
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