There are two other writeups in this node on ratatouille, a dish from southern France. They are interesting because of their viewpoints of French cooking and for the ingredients suggested.
While ratatouille is not haute cuisine, let alone cordon bleu, its recorded history goes back to the early 1800’s. Like most traditional things, it has been passed down from generation to generation, adapting to the times but retaining its inherent nature.
Ratatouille has Basque roots and can be traced back to the Midi-Pyrénées Region of southwest France, a mountainous land where sheep-raising was the principal agricultural industry. At that time the dish was a stew of mutton and potatoes, which was then thickened after being served by crumbling heavy country bread into the individual bowls. The first literary mention of "ratatouille" was in the mid-1800’s. French poet and author Alfred de Vigny wrote, “It is agreeable, this mixture of potatoes, mutton and bread which is called ratatouille." De Vigny was obviously defending the dish, as it already had a poor reputation.
As early as the 1820’s French soldiers had coined the word "rata". To them it meant a hot dish of poor ingredients, badly made. There was a marching song at the time which had a refrain, "C’est pas d’la soupe, c’est du rata!" (It’s not soup, it’s rata!)
Soup in that era was the mainstay of the rural French family. La bonne soupe was on a par with le bon pain as the staff of life. Even today, many French homemakers provide a nourishing soup as the main (and often only) dish five or six evenings a week during the winter season. The French military was no exception to this practice at the time “rata” appeared in the language. Clearly, the soldiers wanted a good soup instead of what they were being served.
The combination of "rata" and "touille" is another indication of the original poor opinion of this dish. While the verb "touiller" means "to stir", it also indicates "everything indiscriminately mixed together", i.e. a mess.
The word "rata" is still defined today as a ragoût grossier, or a meat and vegetable stew of inferior ingredients. The word "ragout" itself, dating back 400 years, was originally a verb which meant "to revive the appetite (goût)". It then became specialized to mean the seasoning of a sauce intended to revive the taste of a dish.
"Ragoût" appeared just after the Middle Ages, a time when food preservation was poor and cooks often had to mask ingredients which were not entirely fresh, to put it mildly. This lead to spicy sauces and the use of various types of pepper. The French military bought in bulk, as cheaply as possible, and the cooks tried to mask the taste of tainted meat and rancid oil by using spicy ingredients.
With the usual French flair for making ordinary things taste exceptional, "ragoût" evolved, region by region, into such culinary triumphs as blanquette de veau, bœuf bourguignon, cassoulet, civet, navarin, and – yes - ratatouille.
Some of these dishes such as blanquette and cassoulet can be elaborate and a bit expensive to serve, as they often call for rich ingredients or ingredients that are commonly found only in the region where the dish evolved. To make a cassoulet, for example, calls for quite a bit of goose, and often confit d’oie is specified. Unless you happen to live in the Pyrénées area where it is produced, this ingredient will put your dish into the luxury category. Ratatouille is an exception, as it is still a simple dish that makes use of commonly-found ingredients.
At some point in its history, ratatouille left the Basque country and moved to the French Riveria. Most good cookbooks today will define ratatouille as coming from the city of Nice. "Ratatouille niçoise" does not contain mutton or potatoes as these are not native to the Riveria. Nor does it contain mushrooms, white wine, cornstarch, soy sauce, grated cheese, tomato puree, sun dried tomatoes, hot sauce, canned chickpeas, or just about any vegetables that strike your fancy.
In the south of France, ratatouille is not something you serve the boss when he comes to dinner. It is a dish that people make to use up all the eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, onions and bell peppers that are overflowing family gardens or are so cheap at the seasonal markets. It is seasoned with herbes de Provence because that is what people use in Provence. And, please, no dried lavender or orange zest. Herbes de Provence, as used in Provence, consists of six ingredients: rosemary, oregano, savory, basil, thyme and serpolet, which is wild thyme. This last ingredient, found only in Provence, is why French people are amused to find "Herbes de Provence" that have been grown in other countries.
Ratatouille is cooked in olive oil (if you can afford it) because that was the main cooking oil of the Riveria region and the taste is linked with ratatouille. Today people living outside of Provence often use a bland oil such as corn oil or rapeseed oil.
Ratatouille is not intended to have a thick sauce. It is simmered, not boiled, and the liquid reduces drastically. It can be served hot or cold. It can be eaten by itself or served over a starchy staple such as rice, although French families sop up the sauce with bread. In my family we like to stir a freshly-laid raw egg into a plate of hot ratatouille (the heat of the vegetables cooks the egg slightly); that may be a special local taste. Black olives have appeared recently as an ingredient but, again, unless you live near Nice, they will be an expensive addition to a traditional family dish.
"Le Petit Robert" ISBN 2-85036-186-0.
"La Bonne Cuisine Française" ISBN 2-263-00315-0.
"La Cuisine Provençale et Niçoise", Dominique Compans, 1995. Éditions Jean-Paul Gisserot