Memories of great food
For me, the idea of “comfort food” evokes memories of cold, black winter nights when you huddle up with a good book and warm your hands around a bowl of Mom’s homemade macaroni and cheese. For Karen, it’s the steaming kettle of chicken and dumplings in her mother’s kitchen as the family gathered on a Sunday afternoon. You might think of your grandmother's cookies, still soft as they come from the oven, or your dad's own recipe for stuffed jalapenos. In the deep heart of France, though, it might mean something else altogether.
What "Comfort Food" Means in France
I’ve been surprised when I ask my French friends about their favorite comfort food to find that the concept doesn’t exactly translate well for most of them. Their first response is almost always “what is ‘comfort food’”? When pressed for a memory of a favorite meal at home or a food they turn to when they just want to feel better, most of them do produce an example or two – but I don’t ever have the feeling that the idea is as evocative or powerful as it is for me.
Still, when I look over the list of responses I’ve compiled over time from people who grew up in the Auvergne, there are several common foods that make up the absolute essentials of hearty French cuisine and that bring back specific memories of good times at home. Here are a few of my personal favorites:
Cheese and potato dishes. The comedian Jim Gaffigan has a bit where he describes all Tex-Mex fast food as being “exactly the same, but with the ingredients sorted differently”. (A burrito is beans, cheese, and rice rolled up in a tortilla, while a chalupa is a flat tortilla covered in rice, beans, and cheese…) Sometimes the same principle seems to apply to the most Auvergnat of all dishes: anything made with cheese and potatoes. The three main variants are:
- Truffade (my personal favorite) – thinly sliced potatoes done in a skillet with a heavy layer of local Tome de Cantal cheese and bacon (pork lardons), sometimes with garlic and onions added. Here’s a recipe for a traditional truffade – it’s easy to make and one good serving will have you feeling full all day long!
- Aligot. This time the potatoes are mashed and blended seamlessly with melted Cantal. When we had aligot as the accompaniment to our lunch in the Ambassade d’Auvergne restaurant in Paris, the head waiter made a point of bringing out the whole pan to dig long, gooey strands of puree and show us how perfectly blended it was.
- Tartiflette. To be honest, this is a dish more associated with the Alps in eastern France – but many of my Auvergnat friends love it too. The ingredients start again with potatoes (in cubes) and lardons, but this time with reblochon or perhaps an aged brie for the cheese. Here’s a wonderful recipe for this dish – perhaps you’ll be able to tell why one of my colleagues at the office covered his PC with decals saying “tartiflette” in several different fonts!
A stew for a winter's afternoon
Pot au feu (or Potée Auvergnate) is another great example of something that recalls fond memories among the people I asked about their favorite comfort food.
It’s essentially a very hearty stew built around a chunk of salted pork PLUS bacon PLUS a few Toulouse sausages, with plenty of potatoes, cabbage, carrots, and (sometimes) turnips floating in the broth. You can find a recipe for this winter favorite here.
The humble lentil
Lentils – the tiny beans associated particularly with the area around Le Puy en Velay in southern Auvergne – are a staple in dozens of recipes. Like a fine wine, the lentils du Puy have been granted their own designation of appellation d’origine controlee, and while the worst restaurant examples are gray, mushy and over-salted, there are many ways to use them that elevate them to the level of fine French cuisine.
Do you have a favorite “comfort food” you associate with life in France? Please tell us what you like – or even share a great recipe if you have one – in the comments space below. And while you’re here, please take a second to share this post with others by clicking on your preferred social-media button(s). As always, thanks for reading!