We all know that France is well known for its wonderful cuisine which includes many vegetable dishes as well as the more famous and traditional meat, fish, cheese and poultry dishes.
Wherever you go in France you will not be disappointed when it comes to its food whether it is from the cuisine of the best hotels to the more humble and inexpensive French cafes and bistros, the food is always the very best of quality.
This is one of the reasons I love France so much. Only they can turn a very simple dish into something fit for a king. This brings me on to the topic of one of my favourite vegetables – the humble potato. Yes, the humble potato really is one of my favourite vegetables and I love it whatever form it takes, it’s so satisfying and comforting like a familiar friend in my kitchen - it can turn a simple dish into something magnificent.
The potato seems to have been part of the French diet forever, but this is not so. Like back here in the United Kingdom the humble potato did not arrive until around the time of Louis XV1 in the 17th century.
They were introduced from the Americas as a food that could be grown in abundance for the peasants to eat. However, it was not a food that was popular with the peasant population at that time and in their green raw state, could be poisonous – even the dogs would not eat them. Potatoes are part of the deadly nightshade family so this is still true today; we should not eat them if they are green.
When grown correctly with the soil covering the growing tubers, the potatoes will not turn green but if left uncovered, the light will turn the potato green and render it unsafe to eat. This is why we should store them in a dark place to prevent them turning green.
So in this instance the French peasants at that time were wise to be safe but eventually the potato became popular when they saw that the Count Parmentier, Antoine- Augustine Parmentier (1737-1813) who was employed by Louis XV1, had royal guards protecting the potato crops on land on the outskirts of Paris.
They now assumed that the potatoes must be very highly regarded and perhaps expensive which is just what they were supposed to think – he had tricked them, a little bit of reverse psychology maybe?
Of course the humble potato immediately became accepted and the rest is history as they say with many potato dishes having been invented over the years, including the potato dish Pommes Parmentier which was named after the Count.
We have to thank the Count for his cunning ingenious here as without the potato we would not have such wonderful French potato dishes which are part of the French cuisine we know and love today.
Almost everyone loves French fries or pommes de terre frites which are usually called pommes frites. Yet there is some dispute as to whether they were originally invented in Belgium or France and both countries claim it to be their dish, so who is right we do not know but we do know that it is a great dish. If the potato frites are cut into very thin strips they are known as aiguillettes or allumettes.
When shopping in France you will see there are a good variety of potatoes for your favourite dishes, and these include the Bintje, Desiree, Emeraude, Franchette, Floriane, and Vivaldi to name but a few. If you are shopping in France and would like to see what French potatoes you can buy take a look at France Potato Board where you can see the different varieties.
So I think by now you can see where I am going from here with our recipe this month it has to be one of the most wonderfully comforting and tastiest potato dishes I have ever eaten. It is my absolute favourite and I could quite easily eat the dish on its own – oh the calories, I know, but it is sheer heaven.
It is usually served as an accompaniment to a meat dish such as Bayonne ham but can just as easily be eaten with a green salad or simply on its own as a bowl of creamy delight. It is none other than the wonderful dish Gratin Dauphinois.
If you have never tasted it, is a delicious combination of potatoes, cream and garlic – as simple as that and yet it is divine.
Often these days you will see recipes for this dish which include cheese but the original, traditional dish did not contain cheese. In fact cheese is not needed as it is just creamy and gorgeous without it. However, you can if you like sprinkle some on the top as I have done here but if you want to be traditional simply leave the cheese out.
Ingredients (To Serve Six)
- 2kg waxy potatoes such as Bintje or Desiree
- 1 litre of cream
- Salt and pepper
- Grated nutmeg
- 3 cloves of garlic
- 4oz of hard cheese, grated
- Preheat the oven to 160C (325F/Gas3)
- Grease a large gratin dish with butter
- Chop the garlic cloves into small pieces
- Peel and slice the potatoes thinly – a mandolin is excellent for this purpose
- Sprinkle the garlic pieces over the bottom of the dish.
- Layer the potatoes over the dish and sprinkle each layer with salt and pepper.
- Continue layering them until you have used all the potato slices.
- Sprinkle with nutmeg
- Pour in the cream.
- Sprinkle with the grated cheese.
Place the gratin dish in the oven and bake for about an hour uncovered until it is golden brown and crispy on the top. During the last half hour or so you will have the most wonderful aroma coming from your kitchen!
Serve with ham, pork, a good quality sausage or simply with a fresh green salad and a glass of wine.