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Why is it called? Part 3: Foods

Why is it called? Part 3: Foods

Have you ever asked yourself why something is called by a particular name? Why are mushrooms called champignons? How do foods get named? There is often a story. Here is a short list of (mostly French) foods or dishes that are well-known in the Paris area and how they got their names. We invite readers to add their own favorites or ask about other foods for which they would like to know the origin in the comments.

Champignon de Paris

The first mushrooms in France were grown in 1670 by Jean de La Quintinie, garden to Louis XIV. (You may still visit the King’s garden in Versailles, it’s called the Potager du Roi and it is a fascinating history of gardening and early techniques.) Under Napoleon I, mushrooms were grown in Paris in areas protected from sunlight, notably in the catacombs. Later in the XIXth century the majority of former quarries and grottos under Paris were used to cultivate « champignon de couche » which later became known as champignons de Paris. The word champignon comes from the Latin campagne, referring to items grown in the countryside. Whereas the the word mushroom seems to refer to something that grows in moss.


Brandade de Morue

A salt cod and garlic purée with olive oil, hot milk and cream. Brandade is a derivative of the Provençal word branlade which means “something that is pummeled”. Morue is salt cod or stockfish – a dried salted cod. The cod is pummeled to soften it. The dish has its origin in the 18th century in Nîmes and became a local staple for Friday meals when it was customary to consume fish on Fridays. The writer Alphonse Daudet, who was originally from Nîmes, started a group on connaisseurs in 1894 that met regularly at Café Voltaire on place de l’Odéon in Paris for brandade de morue. Daudet loved the dish so much and is quoted as having said la brandade de Nîmes « n’a pas sa pareille et permet de conserver l’accent, les dents blanches et le souvenir!« .

Béchamel

Béchamel was also an invention to go with cod. Salt cod was harsh and needed something rich to embellish it. In 1654, Louis de Béchamel, marquis de Noitel, financier in the court of Louis XIV had invested huge amounts of money in the Newfoundland cod fishery, however the French did not like the taste of salt cod so Béchamel invented a sauce to make it palatable and protect his investment. Originally it was a simple cream sauce with spices such as nutmeg, later eggs were added.

Le jambon de Paris

The most common sandwich you’ll come across in Paris is a « jambon-beurre » or « Paris-beurre » referring to a slice of ham with butter on a baguette. On statistic says that the « jambon-beurre » accounts for 65% of all the sandwiches for a count of 1.3 billion per year! But what is Jambon de Paris? The first historical reference is in 1793. The pork thigh is de-boned, de nerved and lightly salted, then place in a hermetic rectangular mold and cooked for several hours with a boullion containing juniper, coriander, cloves and a bouquet garni. It can be purchased either with or without « couenne » which is the treated skin of the animal. It is cooled and sliced for eating. By why “de Paris”? Because in the past there were numerous pig farms in the Paris area and they produced a product deemed excellent. There is still one artisan producer in Paris, called Doumbea-Sojadam who produces the ham called « Prince de Paris ». Jambon de Paris is also one of the four ingredients in a Croque-Monsieur – along with béchamel. Prince de Paris offers this recipe for a croque (and béchamel) 

Croque-Monsieur

The croque-monsieur was seen for the first time in Paris on the menu of a café on boulevard des Capucines in the early 1900s. Marcel Proust mentions the dish in his 1919 book « À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs »: «Or, en sortant du concert, comme en revenant sur le chemin qui va vers l’hôtel, nous nous étions arrêtés, ma grand-mère et moi, pour échanger quelques mots avec Mme de Villeparisis qui nous annonçait qu’elle avait commandé pour nous à l’hôtel des « croque-monsieur » et des « œufs à la crème ». » The origin of the name is incertain. In the French provinces there was a “croque” which was essentially what we call French toast – bread dipped in egg, then grilled. An explanation of the name comes from the story of the bistrot owner who had a reputation of being a cannibal (probably fabricated by his competitors). One day he ran out of baguettes and made a sliced bread sandwich instead and when a client asked what meat was inside he responded: « de la viande de monsieur évidemment ! » and the name stuck. PS: The Croque-Madame is a “monsieur” topped with an egg.

Reblochon

One of the cheeses, along with Emmental or Comté, that can be used in a Croque-Monsieur is the cheese named by avoiding taxes! In the 13th century the dairy farmers in Savoie would milk their cows just short of completely. The word for a pail of milk was “bloche” and they would be taxed according to how much milk was in the “bloche”. By making their “bloche” a little smaller they avoided some taxes. Later, often under cover of darkness, the would “re-bloche” and milk the rest of the cow’s udder. This milk was creamier and served to make cheese – Reblochon. A slightly different story along with recipes for Reblochon can be found on the AOC’s site

Emmental

L’Emme is a river in the Bernese Oberland in Switzerland and is the area around the city of Bern. In German the word for valley is Tal. And so we have Emmental from the Emme Valley where cheese has been made since 1293.

Béarnaise sauce

This warm sauce which accompanies steak, grilled fish or poultry is made with white wine, vinegar, shallots, tarragon, spices, egg yolk and butter. It suprisingly has nothing to do with the Bernese region. It was born of a mistake in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, near Paris in about 1830, when the chef Collinet reduced his preparation too much and had to add eggs and butter to save the sauce. The name however was inspired by a bust of King Henri IV that throned in the restaurant which was once his residence. The King originally hailed from the Bernese region.

This article is part of a series.

Why is it called? Part 1: Pastries and desserts

Why is it called? Part 2: French place names or toponyms

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