Behind the French Menu gives a tasty background to French cuisine, French dishes, how they are made and how they should be served. Where there is a story behind a dish's creation and that story may aid the diner's enjoyment then that will also be included. Bon appétit!
Brandade is a traditional and much-loved dish of finely pureed, hydrated salt cod with olive oil, herbs and a touch of crème fraiche. Expect brandade as either a cold dip or hot entrée, the French first course, as well as a hot plat principal, the main course. In 1830 the chef Charles Durand (1766-1854) published his cookbook “Le Cuisinier,” and the dish became famous all over France with his version of brandade now called Brandade Nîmoise, the Brandade of the city of Nîmes. Durand is famous for much more than a single dish and is called the Carême of Provencal cuisine. Despite the dish being on the best-selling lists two-hundred years ago versions of brandade are still very popular in bistros and all across southeastern France. Mashed potatoes are the most popular addition to the original brandade’s ingredients.
Until the 19th-century salt cod was the only salt-water fish
that most of France saw.
Dishes made with dried cod were part of France’s culinary history for at least one thousand years before the arrival of refrigeration. Then with the advent of canals and steam engines, towns away from the coast and rivers like the Seine finally had fresh saltwater fish available. Nevertheless, dishes made with salt cod remain best-sellers.
The trade of dried cod was a vast industry where Scandinavia, especially Norway led the way; they stretched the then plentiful cod on wooden racks for drying in the cold winds on their cliffs. When the better tasting dried salt cod arrived about 400 years ago it created the foundation stone for hundreds of new recipes. Salt cod dishes have played an equally important part in the history of Italian and Spanish cuisine.
Brandade Nîmoise– The traditional brandade made without potatoes. It is a fine puree of desalted dried cod, olive oil, and herbs and may be served hot or cold; often as a dip or a spread. The popular inclusion of mashed potatoes will usually be on today’s menu listings just as Brandade or Brandade de Morue.
The French never leave a good recipe alone, and they revisit brandade with any number of changes and so you may see Brandade de Morue à l’Huile de Noix, a brandade with walnut oil replacing olive oil and other fish replacing cod.
Brandade De Morue Mesclun de Salade et Piquillos– Brandade accompanied by a mixed green salad and piquillos. Piquillos are marinated sweet red peppers that are part of Spanish and Basque cuisine. The sweet peppers will have been cooked over charcoal with their skin removed by hand, then preserved in their own juices and bottled. A Salade Mesclun or Salade de Mesclun should include at least five different salad greens and will be served with a vinaigrette sauce.
Archeologists have shown, according to the formation of their camps, the tools left behind, and the style of the fish drying racks, that the Basque people had discovered North America before Cristopher Columbus discovered South America. They caught and dried cod in Newfoundland. When you think of the Basque sailing to Newfoundland to bring back, cod do not think of ships like Columbus’s with a crew of 30. Forget about it; the Basques traveled to North America in three and four men boats with oars. To read about the importance of cod in the world, there is a well-researched and well-written book by Mark Kurlansky ” Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World.”
Brandade de Morue Parmentière – In this brandade mashed potatoes will be placed on top of cod in a manner similar to Hachis Parmentier which is made with ground beef and considered the antecedent of the British cottage pie. It will be served Gratinée, browned in the oven or under the grill with grated Parmesan or Gruyere cheese on top to help the process. Antoine-Augustin Parmentier (1737 – 1813) gave his name to this dish and many others potato dishes. He is best remembered as the man who made the potato a meaningfulfood source in France and throughout Europe. The potato saved millions from starvation in the famines of the late 1700s. (The potato famine in Ireland began in 1845).
Brandade de Thon – A brandade with tuna replacing the cod. In the Basque country smoked and salted tuna,( not hydrated like brandade), is aged like cured ham and called Battili de Thon; in Spain, it is called Mojama.
Croquettes de Brandade de Morue – Deep-fried breaded balls of Brandade de Morue. This dish is clearly inspired by the popular Accras de Morue which are deep-fried cod fritters also made with rehydrated salt cod. Accras are part of French Caribbean Créole cuisine that began with the salt cod imported by the French Caribbean settlers as a cheap source of protein for their slaves.
N.B. Charles Durand, in his first cookbook, Le Cuisinier Durand, 1830, uses the term Morue à la Branlade, a strange spelling that disappears in his second cookbook Le Cuisinier Durand: Cuisine du Midi et du Nort. In neither book does Durand use the words Brandade Nîmoise, a name added as Nîmes became famous alongside Durand. Merluche is seen nearly as often as the name Morue for salt cod, and the word Stockfish, the Norwegian name, pops up on some menus. Fresh cod is called Cabillaud though to complicate matters the words Morue Fraîche are also used. All over France, there are dishes made with brandade, and when dining in the Alsace under the name Skrei, which is a Norwegian name for cod, you may enjoy brandade served inside a pastry casing.Someone with better French than mine will hopefully explain all the different usages.
In Provence, another traditional dish with rehydrated salt cod as its primary ingredient is claimed by the City of Nice. It is a hearty stew of boiled hydrated salt cod with tomatoes, potatoes, onions, and garlic called Stockfish à la Niçoise or in Provencal Estoco-fi à la Niçardo; elsewhere it is called Estoficado or Stocaficado
The interest in the Cuisine of Provence
(BTW: Nîmes is over the border from Provence in historical Languedoc).
Charles Durand, who made the original brandade famous was born in the town of Ales, 25 km (16 miles) from the city of Nimes where he opened his famous restaurant in about 1795. Interest in the cuisine of Provence had begun with one of the earliest Parisian restaurants Le Trois Freres Provencaux, the Three Brothers from Provence, which had opened in 1786 just a few years after the first French coffee shop; one of those first coffee shops Le Procope remains open today. To put Durand in perspective, he opened his restaurant in Nîmes in about 1795, just after the French revolution had started in 1789. At that time Paris had about 100 restaurants compared with about 40,000 today.
The City of Nîmes
Nîmes is the capital of the department of Gard in the new super-region of Occitanie, and just 16km (10 miles) from the Alpilles of Provence, was already important when the Romans settled in France two-thousand years ago. The city is a beautiful place to visit, with an excellent daily market, Les Halles, in the center of town. A must to visit is Maison Carrée, a nearly wholly preserved facade of a Roman temple and the Arena of Nîmes is one of the three best preserved Roman arenas in the world. How the arena remained complete without most of its stones being used for other buildings is an amazing story. The arena is incredible with the best audio guide, in English, that I have heard for any building bar none. The arena is used throughout the summer for concerts and more; however, you may wish to visit other places on the French holiday of Pentecost. Then the arena is used for a bloody Corrida; a complete Spanish bullfight with Matadors and Toreadors where they kill the bulls in front of thousands of cheering fans.
The Nîmes’ once a year bullfights are a popular event enjoyed by those who consider bullfighting a healthy continuation of the Roman gladiatorial contests. However, they conveniently forget that in Roman times during Pentecost they may have been the ones who were fed to the lions. Despite being secularized Pentecost’s dates still move around between mid-May and Mid-June; check the dates online. (Pentecost is mostly called Whit Sunday and Whit Monday in the USA and UK).
Today Nîmes is famous for its olives, the Olive de Nîmes AOP and the Nimes olive oil the Huile d’Olive de Nîmes AOP. The Nîmes olive is the Picholine Olive, easily recognized as it is a green, long and narrow, pointed olive. The Nimes AOP olive oil is made with blended oils of the Picholine, Négrette and Noirette olives. Local wine-lists will offer AOC wines with the Costières de Nîmes appellation.
Arles, on the border of the Camargue, is just 34 km (21 miles) from Nîmes and has an English language website:
Avignon is 44km (27 miles) from Nîmes and has an English language website:
The region of Languedoc – Roussillon where Nîmes is situated, and the region of the Midi-Pyrenees were joined together and became the super region of Occitanie on 1-1-2016. Occitanie borders the region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur.
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Bryan G Newman
Behind the French Menu
Copyright 2010, 2018.
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