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Classic Foods of Provence

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Photo: Roland Bello

There are 1,100 entries for fruits, vegetables, stews, soups, breads, charcuterie, pastries, candies, fish, cheese, wine, and other foods on A. Bourguignon’s 1929 Carte Gastronomique de la France. Or is it 11,000?I may never find out. Most of the specialties on the map, which is legendary among culinary historians and a handful of other food geeks, but otherwise unknown, are in five-point type. Without a magnifying glass, you can barely make them out. The letters in the words Beefsteak “Maître de Chais” and les foies de canards aux raisins look like a swarm of gnats descending on the Bordelais. In regions that are especially dense with specialties, the entries are practically on top of each other.

Even supposing that I could get my copy of the Carte Gastronomique out of its frame and over to Kinko’s to be blown up in sections (and supposing that Kinko’s didn’t destroy it), transcribing and tallying all the sausages and oysters and gâteaux documented on the map would be a massive undertaking. I had a reason for wanting to put down on paper, in clear, foolproof lists, every entry and the locality Bourguignon assigned to it: for the rest of my life, I would be able to consult the information at a glance and in a more practical form when traveling or doing research. My ultimate goal was to hit the road to see how many specialties, after 79 years, are still being grown, raised, caught, distilled, made, cooked.

With the Carte Gastronomique out of print for nearly five decades, years ago I had a brilliant plan to fund this work by privately republishing the map, using the money Tim Zagat would pay me to offer it as a gift-with-purchase with his first Paris survey. He hated the idea. At this writing, a New Jersey bookseller is offering one on Alibris for $1,500. Mounted on linen, it measures 47 by 38 1/2 inches and is bordered with beautiful period ads for pièces montées cakes and les délicieuses rillettes et les cochons de lait de Tante Madeleine. The last, 1962 edition—16 by 32 inches and minus the ads—is $75, also on Alibris.

Except Zagat, every food professional I have shown the map has fainted, or at least gasped, even the annoying ones who profess to find traditional French cuisine hoary and too saucy. Bourguignon’s Carte Gastronomique is the mother of all food maps, a monument to regionalism. Self-appointed members of the food police blow on about terroir yet know nothing of this fascinating arm of the cartographic arts. I collect food maps and have seven of France alone, the earliest from 1809. Specialties on it are indicated with charmingly naïve pictograms instead of words: baskets of oysters in Cancale, haricots in Soissons, pâté terrines in Angoulême. It’s a delightful but lesser work than Bourguignon’s, which no food map has ever matched for scope or accuracy. The precision with which he places entries according to where they are prepared or produced is breathtaking. An eighth of an inch north of Mamers, one and one-sixteenth inches west of Nogent-le-Rotrou: là!Sanguète de Lapin et Petits Oignons—a “crêpe” of rabbit blood and pearl onions.

With time running out before Alain Ducasse buys up every historic restaurant in France, I resolved to jump-start my project by scaling back my ambitions and biting off a single region. But which one?The map slices the Hexagon into 32. Provence seemed ripe. It has France’s most famous cuisine—and some of the worst eating in the country, thanks to chefs willing to pander to tourism and a generally slovenly food culture. I have lived there on and off for nearly 20 years and can confirm that the situation has not improved since Ruth Reichl’s landmark 1998 slam of the area’s cooking in the New York Times. I hoped it would acquit itself.

Who was Bourguignon?The map identifies him as an Ex–Chef de Cuisine and Directeur of L’Écu de France, a restaurant founded in Paris opposite the Gare de l’Est in 1928. The year is not uninteresting, for it suggests that Bourguignon, assuming he was involved with L’Écu from the beginning, had finished or nearly finished his chef d’oeuvre when it opened. I went by recently and was surprised to find that not only is there still a restaurant at the address, it still has the same name. Brasserie Familiale Depuis 1928, the menu trumpets. The manager told me he knew who Bourguignon was, but there was no map. L’Écu today specializes in choucroute and is one of those chillingly ordinary Paris restaurants of which there must be—what?—1.27 million?I was not inspired to stay for lunch.

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