Love French Food? Thank the Jews
France has the third largest Jewish population — about 600,000 — in the world after Israel and the United States. Over the centuries Jews have migrated from North Africa, Poland and Russia, and today some 300,000 live in Paris. For 2,000 years, Jews have played a profound role in the evolution of French cuisine, and yet their contribution is barely acknowledged.
In researching my new book, “Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France,” I learned that Jews originally came to Marseilles with the Romans in the first century. And yet they’ve always been regarded, to some degree, as outsiders by an essentially Catholic country. Scars of anti-Semitism have made French Jews cautious, even with people like me who come seeking recipes. This may explain why the country’s Jewish culinary contributions have been overlooked.
When I approached French Jews to gather recipes, their first response was often that they didn’t know any Jewish dishes. They consider the food they eat as French — they shop for seasonal produce at their local markets, and like all French people, obsess about their next meal. But when older French Jews talk about the recipes of their childhood, the descriptions resonate with memories: traditional dishes like carp served cold with sauce verte, a green parsley sauce so French it is mentioned in Taillevent’s famed 14th-century cookbook. Carp with sauce verte, or carpe à la juive, survives mostly as a Jewish holiday dish.
Isolated communities like the Jews of Alsace or the Juifs du Pape in the south of France often retain otherwise forgotten recipes, like a tian of salt cod with spinach, once eaten for Purim and probably during lent for Catholics.
A heavenly beurre blance sauce
Another Alsatian specialty is fish choucroute (sauerkraut) with heavenly beurre blanc sauce, a dish appreciated by kosher customers. In Strasbourg, where everybody eats sauerkraut, there is even a theater and restaurant called Choucrouterie built in an old sauerkraut factory. In the Middle Ages people wrote about the stinky Jewish Sabbath stews with cabbage. Who knows which came first, the Jewish or the gentile version?
The modern Jewis macaron
More recently, French Jews put their own touch on macarons, a very French dessert. The modern Jewish macaron is associated with Boulay, a town about 25 miles north of Nancy. It seems the recipe originated with a Jewish wine salesman named Bines Lazard who began selling the macarons in his shop, Maison Lazard, in 1854 where they were proclaimed the best in France. The same robust cookies, made from the traditional almonds, sugar and egg whites, are sold as macarons de Boulay to this day.
During the Middle Ages, Jewish merchants were international traders. For centuries they provided the sole avenue for products like grain, salt, salted and dried fish and spices to reach France. Can you imagine French cuisine without those staples? As historian Henri Pirenne comments on this period, “if the Jews were so favoured, it was only because they were indispensable.”
Beef as a Sabbath dish in pot au feu
During the eighth to 11th centuries, centers of Jewish commerce and learning sprang up throughout France, and Jewish food traditions were introduced: southern and northern, Sephardic and Ashkenazic. In the 10th century, Benjamin Tudela, the first Jewish census taker, dubbed what is now northern France and southern Germany Ashkenaz because of its Jewish population. Here Jews could no longer rely on olive oil from the south and used goose fat instead. Cold weather vegetables like cabbage and horseradish root were more prevalent than spinach and chickpeas. Beef became the Sabbath dish in pot au feu as opposed to the lamb or goat used in Hamim or Adafina to the south. Kugels, knaidlach (which we know as matzo balls), chopped liver, all well-known Ashkenazic recipes, started in this area and moved east.
On force-feeding of geese to produce foie gras
The most famous Talmudic scholar of this period was Rashi, whose home in Troyes, in the Champagne region, became one of the most important centers of Jewish life in Europe. Rashi’s commentaries on the Talmud and the Torah give fascinating glimpses into the cooking of northern France during this period. A thinker who knew about both religion and agriculture, he condemned the force-feeding of geese to produce foie gras, and the excessive amounts of goose fat that was essential to Jewish cooking in those days. “Israel will one day pay the price for these geese,” he wrote, “… for having made these beasts suffer while fattening them.”
Throughout history French Jews have been grain merchants, cattle merchants, chocolate makers and chefs. They have worked at les Halles and Rungis and have enjoyed their version of French food, without the pork. They have made French food their own, just as their culinary traditions have seeped into the foods of their regions. In France, for instance, matzo or pain azyme is not simply the unleavened bread of Passover, but a well-loved diet food, marketed to women across the country, from all backgrounds since the Middle Ages.
French cuisine could not be what it is today without the influence of the country’s Jews.
Makes about 5 dozen.
- Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Whip the egg whites to almost-stiff peaks in the bowl of an electric mixer.
- In another bowl, stir together the sugar and ground almonds. Fold the sugar and almond mixture gently into the egg whites in 3 batches.
- Drop teaspoons of the batter onto the baking sheet, and bake for about 15 minutes or until just dry.
Joan Nathan is the author of ten cookbooks including the recently published “Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France” (Knopf, November 2010). She is a regular contributor to The New York Times, Food Arts Magazine, and Tablet Magazine, among other publications.
Photo: Joan Nathan Credit: Michael Lionstar