The first step to discovering Jewish cuisine in France is to figure out who is actually Jewish—a tall order in a society where religious affiliation and other personal matters generally stay private. Once the veil is lifted, a rich history unfolds.
In Joan Nathan's newest cookbook, Quiche, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France (Knopf, 416 pages, $39.95), the author sets out to unearth the ancient Jewish flavors hidden in modern French cuisine. In doing so, she tells the story of French Jewry, shedding light on a people who have adapted for two millennia to one of the most revered and, as it turns out, dynamic food cultures in the world.
Jews have been present not just as observers who have watched French cuisine develop, but as merchants who first introduced new foods, or as neighbors sharing communal ovens in the quarters of Paris.
Jews first came to France with the Romans nearly two thousand years ago and have been present not just as observers who have watched French cuisine develop, but as merchants who first introduced new foods, such as chocolate and fava beans, or as neighbors sharing communal ovens in the quarters of Paris. According to Nathan, they have been eating truffles since the 5th century, and as a community they have become associated with their love of artichokes. Rashi, one of the most famous commentators in the Talmud, was a winemaker and an anti-foie gras advocate.
The book's very title, Quiche, Kugels and Couscous, acts as a guiding map for the book, listing three specific foods of varying origins that reveal the three main influences of French-Jewish cooking: classical French, adapted from and developed in concert with French cuisine; Eastern European fare in Alsace, the place of origin for Ashkenazi Jewish culture; and North African and Sephardic dishes.
Bayonne, in the southwest of the country, welcomed Jewish refugees from the Spanish expulsion in the 15th century who brought cocoa beans, as well as textiles and spices, across the border. Jewish chocolate production began in earnest in the southwestern region and became the livelihood of the community. Nathan includes a 400-year-old recipe for Chocolate Almond Cake that has been kept orally by one Bayonne family in Spanish, Ladino, and later French.
As she usually does, Nathan shares personal, intimate stories of cooks, local artisans, and chefs, many of which weave in and out of narratives of the Holocaust and of North African immigration, and which serve as the contextual backdrop for each dish.
Courtesy of Knopf
Michel and Francoise Kalifa, for instance, met at Michel's butcher shop in the Marais quarter of Paris. Michel, a Moroccan immigrant, is among the new crop of North African butchers introducing new cuts and new flavors to the French marketplace. Michel's wife, Francoise, came from a family that originated in Poland. Nathan writes about tasting Michel's North African-inspired charcuterie, and then she tries Francoise's Ashkenazi chopped liver with a confit of carmelized onions cooked in duck fat—a recipe included in the book.
Chicken and goose liver feature prominently in Jewish-French cuisine, according to Nathan. For centuries, Jews have been the finest purveyors of foie gras. As they moved into Northern France, where olive oil was no longer available and lard was the main cooking fat, they sought a kosher alternative. Force-feeding geese produced the necessary fat, and foie gras was a natural byproduct. Force-feeding geese became so prevalent in the Jewish community, Nathan writes, that the chef of Pope Pius V wrote in 1570 that Jews were known for the finest goose liver in Europe.
Nathan's book also documents how remarkably flexible and adaptable Jews have had to be in France. Instead of the non-kosher quiche Lorraine, French Jews developed quiche à l'oignon, a pork-free alternative. "Trust me, you won't miss the bacon," Nathan says. A Sephardic recipe for chocolate mousse replaces cream with olive oil and brandy. And in Alsace, where tarte flambée is the Sunday night ritual, Jewish Alsatians use the leftover challah dough as the tarte base, omit pork from their recipes, and even use matzah during the holiday of Passover. Moreover, haroset recipes and matzah ball sizes (both for the holiday of Passover) vary from north to south.
North African flavors and staples such as tagines and tchoukchouka make up a good portion of Nathan's book—a symbol of how the French-Jewish community and its cuisine have been transformed by the early North African immigration of the '60s and '70s. This is just further evidence that pinpointing the history or the story of Jewish cooking in France, and its relation to "French" cuisine, is complicated. Yet Nathan sees hints of a Jewish connection in the eggplant caviars and fougasses (old ladder breads), and especially French chocolates. Her book is a riveting documentation of French Jewish history that will enhance any reader's understanding of his or her next French meal—and might well cast a new Jewish light onto each dish.