Arab Traces in French Cuisine
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing writer
Did the Arabs have a hand in the formation of the world-renowned French cuisine? The very idea is, I am sure, preposterous to the majority of those enamored with the cooking of Napoleon’s land. Yet, the Arabs did contribute a part of their culinary taste to the French kitchen. Even though not too often a point of focus, the sons of the Arabian Peninsula have left a significant imprint on the cuisine of the French.
The first contact the Arabs had with France was in 712 A.D. when after occupying the Iberian Peninsula the Arabs crossed the Pyrenees and, for a time, subdued the southern part of France. Making Narbonne their headquarters they swept north to near Tours where Charles Martel at the Battle of Poitiers halted them. By 759 A.D., they were pushed back to the Iberian Peninsula.
However, this was not the end of Arab relations with Europe north of the Pyrenees. They returned by sea, again and again, to raid and occupy parts of the French Mediterranean coast. For the next 300 years, their forays took them as far as the outskirts of Paris and the Italian Lombardy Plains.
0n the other hand, wars, and raids were only one side of the coin. All types of commerce flourished between France, the Muslim East, and Moorish Spain. As far back as the time of Charlemagne in the 8th century, southern France had trade relations with the Muslim world. J. Evans in her book Life in Medieval France states that Benjamin of Tudela, writing in 1160 A.D., describes Montpellier, founded by refugees from Maguelone, a Muslim city destroyed by Charles Martel in 737 A.D., as a very good center of commerce to which Christians and Muslims came from all quarters to trade, and that its streets were thronged with merchants from North Africa and Syria.
During one of their raids in the 9th century, the Arabs established a base at Garde-Freient in the Massif des Maures (Mountain of the Moors) and remained there for a hundred years. It was only in the 11th century that they were finally expelled from that part of France.
Yet, even though the Arabs were in parts of France for over four centuries, very few of their traces remain. There are only scattered reminders like the ruined Muslim castle near Ste. Agnes and the name Gourdon la Sarrasine (Saracen) to indicate that the Arabs once inhabited this land. A.N. Brangham in History, People and Places in Provence writes that unlike Spain, very little has endured from the Arab presence – some Arab words have been absorbed into the fisherman’s language; the town of Almanarre derives its name from the Arabic Al-Manar (lighthouse); some Saracen pottery; and a number of legends.
However, these few vestiges of the early Arab contacts with France were greatly re-enforced in the 19th and 20th centuries after the occupation of North Africa, Syria, and Lebanon. Millions of people from these colonial countries made France, especially its southern provinces, their home and introduced their ways of life and foods.
Today, the cuisine of Languedoc and Provence, the charming provinces of southern France, are saturated with Arab influences, both historic and modern. A. Willan in French Regional Cooking writes:
“Arabs have been lured back to the French labor force four hundred years after their expulsion by Henri of Navarre. While their medieval presence lingers in names like Castelsarrasin and the narrow streets and tall, blank-walled houses of old Languedoc, the proliferation of Arab pastry shops and the busy trade in African spices attest to their return.”
According to Clifford A. Wright in his encyclopaedic work, A Mediterranean Feast, the villages in Haut-Languedoc hold several times a year, at the harvest celebrations, festive dinners called mechoui – derived from the Arabic word, mishwi that in the Arab world refers to roasted goat or lamb, usually served on festive occasions.
This Mediterranean proficient food expert suggests that the use of spices, like cinnamon and saffron, came by way of the Arabs while the famous Languedoc bean stew, Cassoulet, is related to the fava and mutton stews of the Arabs, coming by the way of southern Spain – its name derived through Spanish from the Arabic, qas’a (a large shallow bowl). He points out that a sauce made from almonds and garlic and the wide use of rose water in Languedoc and Provence has an Arab origin. Likewise, he mentions that the Arabs inspired Provençal pasta dishes that came by way of Italy.
The food of these regions looks across the Mediterranean, and to Spain for their inspiration. As in the Arab world, lamb and mutton are the favored meats and, like in the mountain villages of Lebanon, birds are often on the daily menu. The taste for high-flavored condiments, love of crystallized fruits, the use of excessive garlic, cooking with olive oil, and finishing the meal with fruit instead of dessert, all have their origins in the Arab lands.
Also, in the same fashion as in the Middle East and Spain, the inhabitants of southern France specialize in serving a great number of appetizers as the first course of a meal. According to A. Willan, this habit is Arab inspired and probably came to southern France by way of the Moorish occupation of Spain.
In our modern age, the North African dish couscous has spread throughout France and has become almost as French as bouillabaisse. The sizeable Arab population of the country and the many returning Frenchmen who had lived in North Africa have made couscous a true Gaulic food. It is said the French have so excelled in the preparation of this dish that they have produced couscous tastier than that found in its land of origin.
A friend of mine who was a student in the Sorbonne discovered couscous in one of the peoples’ cafés in Paris. He became so enamored with its mouth-watering qualities that every Sunday he would treat himself to a meal of couscous in this humble French restaurant. However, he always thought to himself, “if this dish is delectable and appetizing prepared in a French eating place, how much more succulent it must be if cooked by North Africans.”
During his last day in France, for an ultimate treat, he chose a classy Moroccan restaurant. It was a complete disaster. The couscous he had enjoyed for six months in the French workers’ café was much superior in taste. My friend had discovered what many already knew – couscous had become an integral part of the French kitchen.
Besides couscous, the people of this land of the Gauls have taken on a number of other North African and Middle Eastern foods as their own. If one should leaf through all-encompassing French cookbooks, one will find mergaz, moussaka, stuffed vegetables, tasty casseroles with an Arab touch and fiery garlic sauces – foods which in the past have come, and at present continue to enter France from the Muslim lands. These traces of the historic Moors and the modern sons of Arabia in the culinary arts of France have, without doubt, added to the richness of that cuisine.