Archive for the ‘parsnips’ Tag

Parsnips are evil   2 comments

The train of thought has just pulled in to a station called Non Sequitur.
Out steps – a parsnip. Alone on the platform, and looking round anxiously for a context.

parsnip-evil.jpg

Well – I am able to provide it with one, but that’s all this lonely stranger is going to find in France. It will not be greeted by eager cooks or consumers. It’s not out of favour. It’s not out of season. It’s an unter-vegetable – fit only for ruminants of the most unthinking kind. And what was once deemed suitable only for cattle, can never grace the plate of a proper Frenchman élévé dans la tradition.

I’ll probably never get to the bottom of this tradition – it all seems tangled up with the transition from feudalism towards the emergence of the Nation State: it’s the need for all these newly-constructed ‘countries’ to assert their difference.
It involves Louis X1V – ‘le Roi Soleil’ – and the influence of his sumptuous & sophisticated court on all the other little tuppeny-ha’penny countries of Europe. And of course the Academie Française – its thoughtpolice – declaring what is, and is not proper & correct.
An example of its influence: spices. It declared that the strong spices that mediaeval Europe used to enliven its meat (and mask its gamey taste) were unfit for France: henceforth only herbs were acceptable in proper cuisine. The fact that France had lost control of the Spice Route, first to the Portuguese then to the navies of Holland, and later England – was dismissed as irrelevant . . . Naturellement the idea that France’s eating habits (and spending budget) could be held ransom to these uncouth foreigners, was insupportable.
It is worth noting that the dominant theme in English cooking is the use of spices for their own sake, especially in pursuit of effects that combine the sour and the sweet. The records of spice consumption, from the time of the amalgamation of the ‘Sopers Lane Pepperers’ and the ‘Cheap Spicers’ in 1345, shows a binge lasting nearly a millenium. [National dish of England? Chicken Tikka Massala. Somehow shameful? Not in the least : utterly traditional. Spices R Us !]

Pardonnez-moi. We must go back and save the puzzled parsnip on the platform – the whole point of this post. When asked for some panais at the supermarket, the manager had to be called: Non – never heard of it. Other people remembered some such thing – like a carrot? but bigger? and sweeter? and white, you say? C’est possible . . .
Our Larousse Chambers Advanced French-English dictionary is silent on the word panais – no entry at all. But says this for parsnip: ‘panais – légume courante dans l’alimentation britannique’ (‘an everyday vegetable of the British food-trade’) So – they have a tradition de cuisine  while we just eat off the back of trucks?
French Provincial Cooking by Elizabeth David has just one entry: ‘Used in very small quantities as a flavouring in pot au feu.’

We finally tracked some down on a small market stall in Carcassonne last Christmas. An elderly farmer had grown them as a curiosity: he thought they might be mediaeval, but – hélas – he could not tell us how they should be cooked …

Now. At a dinner party given by an eminent medical man living in our village, we enjoyed classic cuisine du terroir (aka cuisine de grande-mère) and learnt that he could not abide curries. Moreover: curries, and anything sucré-salé (sweet&sour) was an abomination, and that no shelf-space should be given to spices in a right-thinking cook’s kitchen: they could only spoil the palette, and ruin a dish. This was a fairly young, fairly cultured modern Frenchman, who will never savour the joys of a parsnip, quartered and tossed in an emulsion of olive oil and shoyu, and roasted ’til meltingly caramelised. And most emphatically not steamed parsnips, mashed with butter and roast cumin seeds, with the Christmas turkey. ‘ Ah, non: Quel horreur!’

Posted December 23, 2007 by Richard Williams in food & drink, france

Tagged with , , , , ,