I was lifting a crate of walnuts out of the barn yesterday, when my eye was drawn to a box full of dusty, old books. One of them was open on a page, where across the cobwebs, I glimpsed the word “Macarons”, beautifully handwritten, yet slightly faded. Flabbergasted, I almost dropped my walnuts and thought it better to place them on the floor.To my delight, once I got past the mustiness and brushed off a thick layer of dust, I found a handwritten gem, of precisely 178 pages of recipes, completely indexed, along with newspaper cuttings and menu cards from official-looking dinners (at the town hall or an assembly of solicitors).It appears to date from the 1890s.
We rent a flat and workshop in a “maison bourgeoise”, now quite rough around the edges, but once a well to do house, where the owners of a prosperous sawmill lived, on site. The workers lived on the ground floor and the director’s family, upstairs. The grandson of the original inhabitants is our landlord. I can only imagine that this was perhaps lovingly written by his “grand-mère”. What strikes me, is that among the opulent 11 course meals with lashings of fine wines, quoted on the menus, there is the frugal nature of the handwritten treasures. Accompanying “fricassée de poulet” and “pommes de terre à la provencale”, I find remedies using plants to treat a cold, a home-made shampoo and wood polish recipe, how to eradicate fleas and strangely, how to whiten your hands??!!All these concoctions consist of ingredients we have to hand in most households ie. vinegar or savon de marseille or even beer to polish up bronze, along with local finds such as boiled pine-tree buds as a cold remedy, or a walnut mixture used to darken eyebrows. Amazing!
The other book is also a frugal-foodie’s bible! “La Nouvelle Cuisine Pratique de Tante Claudine”, whose chapters are divided into meat, fish, vegetables etc. I have never seen a more comprehensive recipe book. I love the introduction:
You will find ways to make the most of ordinary household provisions, to prepare, in the easiest and most economical way, healthy, substantial food, sufficiently varied and always pleasant for the eye and the taste buds.
I almost have a tear in my eye as I read this!This is exactly what I advocate.It only reinforces my theory that it is second nature to the French to be frugal and make the most of local, fresh produce, basic household provisions and what nature provides. I was similarly enthralled when I read Elizabeth David’s “French Provincial Cooking”, but this is more personal, in our barn, with a history. There is no date on the published book, but judging by its appearance it is probably from the same era as the notebook.
As I come back to planet earth and start to shell my walnuts, I decide that this is to be my bible. Flicking through the dusty pages, I find a perfect recipe to use-up my leftover chicken “Poulet Sauté”. I’ll post-it later. So many recipes to read and so little time!