As we have so often chanted, one must know where a French ancestor originated in order to trace back further. Yet, for most people tracing their French lineage, that seems a rather useless joke since, if they knew where, they would not be struggling so to do the research. We have suggested a few ways to try to find where an ancestor's home was, such as using geopatronyme.com to see if the name is unique to a specific part of France, or verifying whether a skill or profession of an ancestor was not from a certain region. Now, in the holiday spirit, we would like to point out that food's well-known regional differences can help the genealogist in France.
Many families have traditional recipes and many of those recipes come from immigrant ancestors. On occasion, those recipes may indicate a region or an even smaller area in France. One must have a light touch in this research. The standard, well known recipes of some regions, such as boeuf bourguignon or tarte tatin or clafouti, have been in every cookery book and so, every French household for years. These cook's warhorses are useless in trying to pinpoint a location.
If, on the other hand, there is a special family recipe for fondue, and a special way of stirring the cheese as it melts, a good place to start looking for ancestors might be Haute Savoie. If there are tales of a great-grandmother who threw apples and apple cider into everything she cooked, from rice pudding to duck, one might well begin the search in Normandy.
We recently helped someone whose grandmother could recall her French grandmother lamenting at how she missed what sounded like"pre-salted lamb". What actually was passed down was the belief that she had a malady causing her to crave salt, the poor misunderstood dear. Gigot de pré salé means lamb from the salty meadow, or salt marsh lamb. The meat has a very distinctive taste and tenderness from the salty grasses the lamb has eaten. It is prepared exactly as ordinary leg of lamb:
Prick the meat all over with garlic, then smear it with butter
Add salt, pepper, thyme, rosemary and onion
Roast it, basting occasionally.
When the meat is golden, add a glass of water to give enough sauce when done.
Gigot de pré salé is associated with just one region in France: Bretagne, and especially with the area around Mont-St.-Michel. Our acquaintance began searching her great-great-grandmother's origins there and, by cracky, she found the family.
Sometimes, it may be simply a usage of food words that will reveal a location. For example, in all of France, a little bundle of herbs tied and put in a pot with cooking food is called a bouquet garni, but if your family calls it the augoûts, they may have come from the Saône-et-Loire region. If you have in your family jargon something like bibichiolo, meaning any food that causes thirst, your French ancestor may have come from Languedoc. Finally, we give our favourite, a word used in Lyon for that most disgusting of vegetables, salsify: doigts de morts, or fingers of death. Quite right.
So, if all else has failed and you still have no idea where in all of France your immigrant ancestor came from , start interviewing the family cooks, dig out old cookery notes and recipe cards and maybe, just maybe, you will get lucky.
Happy New Year
©2010 Anne Morddel