With the first night of Hannukah (or “Thanksgivukkah”) on Thursday this week, it’s a great time to look at France’s Jewish history and cuisine.
Though France is very private about religion both politically and culturally, France’s Jewish communities have left a very visible mark – particularly in Paris, and noticeably on French cuisine.
But let’s start at the beginning.
A Merchant Class
Jewish immigrants first arrived in France with the Romans almost 2000 years ago. They quickly established themselves in France’s merchant class and thus were in the unique position of being able to introduce new foods to the cuisine.
Chocolate and fava beans are currently credited to the Jews, according to food historian and author of Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France, Joan Nathan.
Nathan also writes that France’s Jewish population has been eating truffles since the 5th century and have been associated with the popularity of artichokes as well.
Chocolate and Foie Gras (my two favorite things!)
In the 15th Century, Bordeaux and Bayonne were important regions for France’s Jews, when they welcomed refugees from the Spanish expulsion. These refugees brought cocoa beans and Spanish spices with them and, in this way, introduced chocolate production to France.
Chocolate. Um, kind of a big deal.
Also a big deal: foie gras. Did you know that Jews have been the finest producers of foie gras for centuries now? This stems from the Jewish migration to northern France, where olive oil was scarce and the Jews were forced to find an alternative to the un-kosher lard which was popular amongst their French neighbors.
Jews force-fed geese to come up with a good, kosher cooking fat and foie gras naturally followed. According to Nathan, Pope Pius V’s chef even wrote that Jews were known for the finest goose liver in Europe.
A Paris Community
Following the Dreyfus Affair and the 1905 law of Laïcité (a separation of church and state), France’s Jews enjoyed a powerful resurgence that also brought many Jewish artists to Paris, including Marc Chagall.
Paris’ Jewish community centered around the Marais neighborhood in Paris, following the retreat of the nobility and rise of commerce in the area. During the first half of the 20th century, the “Pletzl,” as it was called, saw many German and eastern European immigrants who continued to expand the cuisine.
North African Influence
Post Holocaust, France’s Jewish population significantly decreased, but a new group of Jewish immigrants emerged in the wake of the Six-Day War. Jews from former French colonies in North Africa (namely Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco) moved in such numbers that by 1968, North African Jews made up the majority of the Jewish population in France.
These North Africans brought their own cuisine to the French pot, which arguably had already been somewhat French-ified during the colonization. New forms of charcuterie emerged in local butcher shops and new dishes like tajines and couscous started appearing in the Marais.
Jewish Cuisine Today
A walk in the Marais today is truly an amazing culinary tour. You can have some of the best challah of your life – which kind of makes sense in the bread capital of the world – but you’ll also have falafel to rival that of Israel.
Eastern European and German influences abound, but so do North African and Middle Eastern. And with the Jewish people credited with bringing chocolate, truffles, and foie gras to French cuisine, one has to wonder if there’s anywhere in Paris where the Jewish influence isn’t remarkable.
So even if you’re not celebrating Hannukah this week, lets take a moment to be thankful for our Jewish Frenchmen, who brought some of my favorite foods to the French kitchen.
For more on Jewish cuisine in France, check out Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France