Taken from the pages of my new book due out called Savoring the Olde Way – French-Style.
Mine de Recettes and Fumets du Pays-Haut
There is a play on words in the title: A ‘mine’ in this case means a great find, or a gold mine of recipes. ‘Mine’ also refers to the name for the iron mine, the Mine de fer.
Fumet: refers to the fragrance of cooking while Pays-Haut refers to Piennes which is situated on a high plateau. The area is known as the Pays-Haut or Highlands. It is also called Le Bassin Minier or the Mining Basin.
I was born in the Piennois, or the Piennes area, to a father from Poland and a mother from Italy. From a very early childhood, I was impregnated by the “imported” cuisine that gave our region its originality.
From our grandmothers, the ladies who came from somewhere else, a cuisine was born as a way to keep alive in the bottom of their heart, the very poignant memory of their native country. With an incomparable “know how” and ingeniousness against all odds, they would prepare fabulous dishes that would bring together both family and friends around their table. And, before passing away, they made sure that they transmitted their secrets to their daughters, daughters-in-law—or in this case, granddaughters.
While transcribing the recipes, which have been passed on to the daughters, some privileged moments of my childhood came to my mind. I could imagine once again my grandmother working energetically with a ball of fresh dough that she had made, spreading it thinly, using her stick of wood to cut it into very regular lasagna noodles, then placing them over a white sheet, and lifting them in a very wide motion with her two hands to loosen them. And how can I describe the fragrance of the tomato sauce that she had simmering on the corner of the stove, which permeated the air throughout the whole house? Before I even left for school she was letting me guess and dream of what a delicious “pasta asciutta” I was going to enjoy at lunch. I found again the “poundski”, the “capeletti”, the “klouski”, the “tortelli” that I still often taste. And I discovered the tripe soup, the green gnocchi and many other dishes.
* * * * * *
“Oh, Carole, this is a little treasure for you. It’s exactly what we have been telling you about Piennes. I didn’t know the author, Anne-Marie, but she certainly has touched some of the wonder of our little town,” Josiane said as she continued translating
* * * * *
“Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai d’ou tu viens” (Tell me what you eat, I will tell you where you are from.)
They had left from far, far away, with no hope of returning, due to poverty: the path, the little white footpath, the dusty feet, the wobbly cart, the train or the ship, the jump into the unknown. This was the destiny of the immigrant woman: illiterate, speaking a dialect, with a meager bundle of togs, humble memories and a passel of hopes.
And yet, provident mothers, they were carrying the future, the cauldron for feeding and for the ones coming from Italy, the wooden stick to make pasta. They had no idea of their culinary talent which seemed so simple, only based on the poor resources of their native country and the experience of their grandmothers.
The newcomers from Italy discovered in the Pays-Haut an unusual food world where corn, olive oil, tomato, soft cheese, basil, rosemary, sage and many other ingredients were unknown or rarely used.
Each one came with her dishes (recipes): For the Frioulanes and the Venètes, it was polenta; for the Piémontaises and the Romagnoles, it was risotto and for all of them, the pasta.
Only the milk, the bread, the bacon, the butter for some, the potato, and the lamb were familiar to them. Think of how ingenious these women who, as the first to arrive, had to find replacements for their familiar ingredients. What a headache it was for the lady who was taking in paying guests from another region than hers! Even the soil in the gardens was not the same as in their country!
* * * * * *
“Oh, I’ve heard of that,” I said, still brushing the croissant crumbs from my blouse. “When I was traveling on a food tour through Liguria, near Genoa, Italy, we were taught that the only true ‘pesto’ can only be made in Liguria. Why? Because the soil in Liguria produces the only basil that real pesto can be made from. Nowhere else is it truly ‘pesto’. Oh, don’t fool yourselves, they would say. You may think you can make the real thing, but it’s not possible. The flavor is never the same.”
Josiane nodded her head, but continued with the translation.
* * * * * *
The Polish ladies were a little less confused. Because they, too, hailed from a northern region, they found the same resources they were used to or they quickly adapted with milk, rye, barley, buckwheat, cabbage, red beets, horseradish, cucumber, pork, potato. . .
They prepared cereal mush, wheaten soup, pickles, sauerkraut, borscht, the English beef stew of Slavic people. They prepared blood sausage and cold cuts with buckwheat and barley, sweet and moist doughnuts, cakes with poppy seeds . . .
There is much to be said about the more than forty different nationalities that moved to this area (Bassin).
Time went by; the children of the first generation grew up together sharing the same everyday life. But, the sons and daughters of the second and third generations married into other nationalities, from one community to the other, and had children of a “mixed blood”.
The “nonne”, the “bapché”, the “mémères” (three names which mean grandma in Italian, Polish, and French) and many other women exchanged their know-how, the sweets for their grandchildren. The women got together, and found in private stores or in cooperatives of the Mines, the food and the ingredients from different countries. They talked, exchanged recipes, tried new ones and kept the ones that seemed good. Friendships were established, invitations were exchanged. Young girls and young women went to the “Home Economic School” created especially for them. Soon young men went off to Nancy or Metz to college, “Frenchising” their everyday food and drinks . . .
* * * * *
“You know,” said Josiane, “I think that the author of this Preface means that the young boys going to boarding school had the first opportunity to eat typical French food once they were in big cities. Hmmm, I hadn’t thought of that. Had you, Jacky?”
“No, but I remember realizing the difference in the foods once I left home. I can remember thinking how odd the French ate. Yet, I was French!”
“That’s true. I guess I just assumed that it was all French food until I moved away. It’s funny to think of now, isn’t it?”
* * * * *
What is there to say about a young man raised on Potée, potatoes roasted in lard, cottage cheese with chives, pies and potpies prepared by his Lorraine mother and who now was discovering “pasta” prepared by his young Italian wife. “My mother” he would say forty years later, “served the pasta with the sauce on the side; they were white. My wife presented the pasta in the sauce, simmered with love; they were red.” And still today, though he now is alone, he mixes all of it to find again the real taste of his days of happiness. What meaning for a humble dish of pasta, don’t you think?
They say in Spain, that when we ask for the recipe for paella of 100 adult Spaniards, we obtain 100 different recipes. But if we ask the same question of 100 Spaniards of the Levante (Eastern Spain), where the paella is the most well-known, we get 300 recipes: each one will give you his, the one from his mother and the one from his wife.
Food still is a sign of gratitude, even though, we say that it is not what it used to be. Humble dishes from the past are improved (beautified) today. Maybe we do not eat them in a family setting, but in a cafeteria. The descendant of the immigrated woman of the early days is still proud to prepare for parties, all origins alike, the best dishes of this international culinary patrimony.
It always is around a humble table that we learn how to better understand the ‘Other’. No need to have a Balthazar’s feast! Ah! If all the feeding mothers of the world could reach out and hold hands!
Translated by Josiane Selvage for Anne-Marie Osiecki-Taiclet.