This question and many others just like it have been posed time and again by Jews curious about France. Is there such a thing as Jewish French cooking? It’s only natural to wonder where Jewish history and tradition might fit in to the famously lavish and delicious culinary heritage that everyone associates with La Belle France. Specifically, the long-standing Jewish zest for food and cooking (as seen in countless religious traditions centered around ceremonial meals), paired with that very same foodie enthusiasm in France, must give way to an intimate and strong bond. Right?
Well, it’s rather hidden. Joan Nathan, author of the upcoming In Search of Jewish Cooking in France (Knopf, 2010), has been looking for it, and she’s uncovered some flavorful and fascinating tidbits. “Jews have lived in France for the last 2,000 years, at least. And they’ve come and gone…returning with changes in recipes depending on what country they were in. Because France is such a rich agricultural country, many recipes inform from the land.”
An example? There are several, but they are spread out like clues on a dusty map. There are many sources from whichmodern French Jewish cuisine (if there truly is such a category) draws inspiration. Alsace, in the northeastern corner of France, has served as the gateway of sorts to Germany and Eastern Europe, the birthplace of the kugel and schalet, anapple pie-like dessert popular in France and with Jews (and similar to a charlotte, a classic French dessert with fruit and biscuits). And on the other end of the French map there is Provence, where Sephardi (representing North African and Spanish/Portuguese Jews) influences are prevalent, and recipes call for tomatoes, fennel and other sun-kissed plants and vegetables.
And these influences can be segmented, as it were: the Ashkenazi (denoting Central and Eastern European Jewry) influence can serve, in a way, to “mark the path of Jews as they traveled/got kicked out from country to country, whereas the Sephardic influence is happening now,” Nathan asserts. The latter is in reference to an influx of Sephardic Jews living in France today.
And some of the things they’re cooking? There are traces dating back several generations to dishes like Hamim, a ‘Sephardic chulent’ that may or may not be a Kosher adaptation of cassoulet, a celebrated French meat stew which traditionally includes sausage. Or Bourride, which Nathan describes as a delicious-sounding bouillabaisse (a classic Marseillais seafood dish), sans les non-Kosher crustaceans, of course.
Shaya Klechevsky, a Jewish chef with Sephardic roots living in New York and owner of At Your Palate, a gourmet Kosher personal chef service, is in love with French cuisine. “It's hard for me to say that I have ONE favorite French dish, but I do have a place in my heart for Coq au Vin and Boeuf Bourguignon.” But he continues: “I need to qualify this by saying that much of traditional French cuisine is NOT Kosher by design, but has been adapted (ie: tweaking recipes by not including bacon or dairy with meat).”
And there you have it – even though the bonds here are quite natural, especially when considering the parallel between the typically carnivorous nature of a Jewish meal and the similarly meat-heavy French menu (not to mention how both cuisines tend to center around wine), the French side of things takes it all one step further: by prepping a classic poulet rôti with a whole stick of butter (!), for example. Chicken (or meats) + butter (or any dairy products) = a Kosher faux pas!
Fresh off the heels of Julie & Julia, an enterprising blogger in California has undertaken something similar with Jew & Julia (www.jewandjulia.com/), in which she identifies this very conundrum:
“French cooking and Jewish cooking are at complete odds with each other; French seemingly hedonistic in its call and response to food simply for the flavor, texture and pleasure of the experience. Jewish cooking seeks the flavor, texture and pleasure but with the additional project of attaining them without mixing meat and dairy, to name just the most basic of limitations. French: complete indulgence and satisfaction. Jewish: calculated and hard-won delicacy.”
But can’t everyone enjoy French food? Of course! Maintaining the Jewish dietary laws within a French culinary context is entirely possible. If you’re looking for proof, there is no better way than to taste it! During a trip to Paris, for example, there are so many places to sample haute French cuisine while remaining entirely Kosher. Take Le Jaguar in the 17th arrondissement; in this high-end and extremely well-reviewed restaurant, you can even order foie gras! Wandering the streets of the Marais, Paris’s most historic Jewish neighborhood, will turn up similar results. The boucheries of Rue des Rosiers sell Kosher foie gras, lamb shanks, duck and more. This street is also a perfect representation of the various points of influence which make up the cornucopia of French Jewish cuisine. Chez Marianne*, near rue Vieille du Temple, offers up the best of Mediterranean and Sephardic delicacies and mezes (middle eastern appetizers), like Kefte (a ground spiced meat dish).
But literally across the street, there are at least two bakery/delis serving the best of Eastern Jewish fare; Sacha Finkelsztajn’s yellow patisserie and traiteur, run by a phalanx of Eastern European women, boasts a spread of breads like Rogalik, Kummel and Razow, and Gehakte herring, Polish mashed herring, or Körözot, paprika-spiced cheese from Hungary. And for those who are Sabbath observant, be sure to visit Les Ailes in the 9th arrondissement and a stone’s throw from various beautiful Parisian synagogues. The pre-paid Sabbath meals are elaborate and copious, featuring classic couscous, grilled fish, various salads and more.
It would seem that France is in fact a veritable crossroads of delicious Jewish cuisine from around the world. And as for Brioche? Joan Nathan says: “Modern brioche bread is like babba or babka, which were made with traditionally egg and yeast-heavy doughs similar to that of challah.” And Jews have been making challah, well, forever. So it’s safe to say there’s a correlation!