Patti McGill Peterson Center for International and Intercultural Studies
Gastronomy and Regional Identity in France: A Comparison of Food and Culture in Normandy and Provence
As a self-proclaimed Francophone and gastronome (one who is passionate about food), I knew that participation on the France Program would be mandatory to my St. Lawrence experience. I decided that if I was going to live one of the most gastronomically renowned nations for 4 months, I should appreciate the culinary culture of the diverse regions. Thanks to my CIIS travel enrichment grant, I was able to take a culinary adventure and discover how food has been linked to regional cultural identity. I used my language skills, taste buds and experiences to distinguish how the southern region of Provence on the Mediterranean Sea is identified, versus the northern region of Lower Normandy near the English Channel; more specifically, in the cities of Nice and Rouen.
For the first part of my project, I embarked on my train ride south to the coastal city of Nice during the second weekend of September. I knew that my research was dependent upon my resolve to interact with the locals, so I woke up early that morning to investigate the Cours Saleya market in the Old City. It was bursting with exotic flowers, fruit, vegetables, colorful packaging, candied marzipan and more. The Niçoise and Provençal identities were characterized by olives, spices, honey, citrus and oils. In speaking with the local farmers and customers, there were a variety of foods considered as the culinary symbol of Provence, but I was able to pinpoint a pattern: freshness. One vendor told me that there were a lot of good things because of the climate; un beau pays.
After my personal investigation of the Cours Saleya, I met with my culinary course instructor, Rosa Jackson. As a food critic and author, Rosa gave me insight to the history of Nice and type of personality that the region holds. We shopped through the market for the best local ingredients, and then went to her apartment to make a four course lunch. We dined on a Niçoise salad, green lentils with guinea fowl, a platter of regional cheeses from the mountains (in France, cheese is almost always a course) and ended with a lavender honey fig tart. It was interesting to gain a perspective on what the people of Provence value in their diet, and how it has transformed through history.
Later in the semester, I used my cumulative experience of living in Rouen to conduct the Normandy side of my research. I visited two of the significant markets of Rouen at La Place St. Marc and La Place Colbert in order to observe and interview vendors as I had in Nice. The farmers were equally indecisive as to what culinary product represented Normandy, though there were recurring suggestions such as Camembert cheese, beef Bourginon (Burgundy), apples and mussels with fries. I also attended a city-wide celebration of Normand gastronomy, called La Fête du Ventre-literally, the Festival of the Stomach! The region's best producers came to Rouen to showcase their foie gras, apple liqueurs, cream-based delights and more.
The gastronomy of Normandy can be identified through rich cream products, beef, apple confections and shell fish. This is because the region has a climate suitable for apple orchards and pastures of cows, and ports from the English Channel have always been a vital source for food and commerce. Even if you weren't wealthy, you could add cream to your meal and sustain energy for a day of farming. My host parents in Rouen gave me a cookbook with traditional recipes, and this time I prepared all four courses on my own. We had a gruyère cheese soufflé, beef with vegetables braised in wine, a platter of Normande cheeses and an apple-pear crumble for dessert. It was marvelously satisfying to serve my host family and their friends a meal that was entirely based on Normandy.
When comparing the culinary traditions of Provence and Normandy, it is easy to find the outward differences: in the south, the mountains, plentiful sun and Mediterranean Sea supply olive oils and bountiful fruits, vegetables and seafood; in the north, the dampness, the English Channel and rolling valleys source apples, beef, cream and shellfish. The contrast of a light diet versus rich diet, however, reflects the history of the peoples' lifestyles and their regional identity. Despite that technology and globalization has altered different dishes and eating tendencies, I discovered that the French take the most pride in the gastronomy that represents where they came from-as we all should.