Friday, January 23, 2015

The Potato in France: Historical Food Fortnightly Challenge 17, Revolutionary Foods

Pomme de Terre a L'Econome

Challenge 17: Revolutionary Foods  
January 11 - January 24
The theme is revolution, and it’s all about ch-ch-ch changes. Food can be inspired by revolution, can showcase a revolutionary technique, or come from a revolutionary time. Give us your best documented interpretation of revolution.

The Recipe: Pommes de Terre a L'Econome 
I chose to do a food that emerged as a result of the French Revolution. While this introduction is by no means intended to be a primer for the causes leading up to the French Revolution, it is interesting to highlight a few key points that show the importance food played in the uprising of the French people.

In the years preceding the French Revolution, food supplies for Parisians were scarce and they were starving. Shortages, particularly of wheat for bread, occurred as a result of a population explosion, war (which pulled me from the fields to serve in the military), severe drought, and an inability by the monarchs to distribute the agricultural resources that were available. Additionally, two major crop failures, one in 1788 and the other in 1789 raised the price of bread to 88% of a Frenchman's wages. Further, a tax on salt was an added economic burden for many people. This was a big deal because bread was an essential part of the diet of the working class French. 

I could have chosen a revolutionary bread recipe for this challenge. In 1793, the General Council ordered that all classes eat the same bread referred to as "Equality Bread". The recipe yielded a brown bread made with a mixture of white wheat, whole grain wheat, and rye. This would have been a good recipe to try; however, I decided to focus on a different staple food item. To augment the lagging wheat supplies and the less than enthusiastic reception of the Equality Bread, the French turned to a crop that they had previously scorned-the potato! In 1795 cookbook called La Cuisinière Républicaine was published by a lade, Mme. Merigot, and its main focus was on the potato. I found an English translation of one of the recipes contained in this revolutionary cookbook.

A Revolutionary Recipe: Pommes de Terre a L'Econome 
by Mme. Merigot in La Cuisinière Républicaine, 1795

Ingredients: (for 4 servings): 3 sprigs parsley, finely chopped. 1 scallion, finely chopped. 4 shallots, peeled and finely chopped. 2 cups chopped cooked meat (leftover meat or poultry). 2 pounds potatoes. 3 1/2 tablespoons butter. 1 egg. 1 egg, separated. Salt. Pepper. Flour. Oil for frying. Chopped parsley (to garnish).


  • The Herbs and the Meat: Mix the finely chopped parsley, scallion, and shallots with the chopped meat. 
  • The Potatoes: Boil the potatoes in their jackets (skins) for thirty minutes in lightly salted water. Peel while still hot; then mash with a fork. 
  • The Patties: Combine the mashed potatoes and the chopped ingredients. Add the butter, egg, and egg yolk. Salt and pepper to taste. Shape into medium patties. (If they are too small, they will be too crunchy, and if too large, the centers will not cook thoroughly.) Beat the egg white until it begins to stiffen. Dip the patties into the egg white; then roll them in flour. 
  • Cooking the Patties: Place the patties in a frying pan with very hot oil. Turn so that they will brown on all sides. 
  • To Serve: Drain well, and serve garnished with parsley.
Recipe Source: The Grand Masters of French Cuisine: Five Centuries of Great Cooking, Celine Vence and Robert Courtine [G.P. Putnam:New York] 1978 (p. 253)

Date/Year and Region
French Revolution/1795

How Did You Make It

I followed the recipe exactly as stated. For the leftover meat, I used ham:
Chopped Ham and Vegetables

I have never boiled potatoes with their skins on before I made this recipe.  It was really easy to peel the skins and the potatoes remained fluffy and not water-logged:
Peeling the Boiled Potatoes
Here is the mixture which includes all of the ingredients:
All Ingredients Combined

The recipe claims it serves 4 people.  The serving size is large because I had enough of the mixture to make 12 4-ounce patties:
Fried Potato and Ham Patties

Time to Complete
It took about 40 minutes to cook the potatoes. The chopping of the ham and vegetables only took about 15 minutes.  Frying takes another 20 minutes or so.  I also placed the patties in the oven to complete heating through for another 15 minutes.

Total Cost
About $2 for the scallions and shallots; I had everything else.

How Successful Was It?
This is a very tasty dish and one I would make again. A creamy Béchamel sauce would go nicely with these potato cakes.

How Accurate Is It?
I followed the recipe exactly as it was translated in English. I do not read French so cannot claim to know if the translation is exact. Of course, I always use my modern kitchen. 
  • When Food Changed History: The French Revolution by Lisa Bramen for, July 14, 2010.
  • for excerpts from:

    • Food in History, Reay Tannahill [Three Rivers Press:New York] 1988 (p. 283) 
    • Gastronomy of France, Raymond Oliver, translated from the French by Claude Durrell [World Publishing Co.: Cleveland OH] 1967 (p. 107-108) 
    • Six Thousand Years of Bread, H.E. Jacob [Lyons Press:New York] 1997 (p. 246-254) 
    • The Invention of the Restaurant, Rebecca L. Spang [Harvard University Press:Cambridge MA] 2000 (p. 106-107) 
    • The Grand Masters of French Cuisine: Five Centuries of Great Cooking, Celine Vence and Robert Courtine [G.P. Putnam:New York] 1978 (p. 253)


  1. Oh these look more than tasty - a nice supper option (or breakfast?). When I make these - for I certainly will make these - I will try browning in a nonstick pan with spray canola or butter-flavor and finish off in the over (I am no longer able to tolerate as much oily/greasy foods as I once could - how I miss those days!!!) Thank you for sharing this receipt and photos, Joyce. Parfait! (French for perfect!)

  2. Cooking potatoes with their skins on is a favorite method of mine, as you say, to keep them from getting water logged! I have plans for French food for this challenge too!


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