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French Twist

A classic American cheesecake on the menu of a Provençal restaurant leads to a saunter through the culinary history of Jews and France

Joan Nathan
January 26, 2012

A few months ago, my husband Allan and I stayed at the home of my friend Elisabeth Bourgeois, the chef of my most favorite Provençal restaurant, Le Mas Tourteron. The last night of her season—the restaurant closes from November through February—we ate our way through her wonderful menu: a trio of salads (including cooked tomato salad, warm green been salad and a cucumber salad); guinea fowl from a neighboring farm rolled in an herb crust, and roasted shoulder of lamb coated with mustard and honey.

Toward the end of the meal, the buffet cart was rolled out with tarte au citron, tarte au chocolat, œufs à la neige, and other delectable classic French desserts. And then I saw what looked like a creamy American cheesecake with a graham cracker crust beneath. I asked Elisabeth what it was. “Oh,” she said, “that is a new dessert that our guests really like. It is made with Philadelphia. We learned it from a Japanese intern.”

After Allan and I finished chuckling, we confirmed that this was indeed an example of the classic American cheesecake born when Joseph Kraft, who owned the Philadelphia cream cheese company, bought a graham cracker company. When I asked Elisabeth how the Japanese intern found the recipe, she said that she got it off the Internet and made it for the staff. Today the dessert, less sweet and more lemony than its American counterpart, is a regular on her menu.

I thought about this cake while wandering around Provence during my visit. As I strolled through the 1,000-year-old market, in the shadow of the Roman theater and forum in Arles, I couldn’t help but think about how rich Jewish life must have been in 1306 when, of the 52 butchers in the town, 14 of them were kosher, according to sources researched for my most recent book, Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Food in France. Given the 2,000-year history of Jews living there, Jewishness and Jewish food—like that classic American cheesecake—still pop up in places no one would expect

In the Middle Ages, Jews lived in quarters separated from Christians in every town in southern France and had a protected status in most towns. According to Kalonymos ben Kalonymos, who described the everyday life of the Jews of Arles in the early 14th century, holiday dishes included a round fried cake similar to a doughnut made out of flour, served covered with jam, for Hanukkah. (Sound familiar?) Kalonymos also wrote charmingly about the grape harvest. “Everybody goes to the vineyard and transports grapes either by boat or by horses,” he wrote. “The weather is very hot. Mosquitoes are numerous. They fall in the wine that we are drinking despite everything …”

But for the most part, the 13th and 14th centuries were dark times for Jews throughout France. All, for example, had to wear a round fabric badge declaring their religion and a pointed yellow hat on their head. In 1242, King Louis XI had the Talmud and 20,000 other books burned in Paris, and in 1288, a group of Jews was burned alive in Troyes. In 1394, Jews were expelled until after the revolution, and “officially” no Jews lived in France. A thousand or so Jews, known as the Juifs du pape, were able to live in four towns in Provence: Avignon, Carpentras, Cavaillon, and Isle de la Sorgue, protected by the Italian popes who broke with Rome in the 14th century.

For me, the most poignant visit in this area was the charming village of L’Isle sur la Sorgue on the Sorgue River, in part because very few people who visit this antique center know its history. Allan and I headed straight for the old city and La Place de la Juiverie. Across the street from a new chic chocolate store is a sign that reads “l’Ancienne rue Hébraïque.” Further down the road, the center of the Jewish community, once a square, is now a parking lot. The only remnant of the carrière, which housed about 250 people, is the façade of a four-story stone apartment building, attesting to the extensive community that lived here, protected by the cathedral nearby.

As I looked up at the façade, I remembered what I had learned about the Juifs du Pape. Beginning in 1650 until just after the revolution, when Jews were given back their civil rights, they were locked in the carrière from dusk until the morning. By the 18th and 19th centuries, the Jewish community, despite these confinements, were the leading silk merchants of the town. After the revolution, the ghetto-like existence ended, and the Jews left L’Isle sur la Sorgue and the three other towns for larger cities in France.

But what remains in the south and all over France is a fondness for certain old, distinctly Jewish dishes like eggplant papeton (an eggplant mousse) and matzoh, which the French call pain azyme. It was baked in the matzoh oven, which was in the basement of the synagogues. The matzoh was so popular in the Christian community that at Passover the Jews made extra to be distributed to them in bakeries in the main part of each town.

With all this history under our belt, Allan and I left L’Isle sur la Sorgue, driving back to modern-day Provence and Elisabeth’s home, a stone house nestled in a vineyard. When we woke the next morning, she had a warm brioche ready for us in her sunny kitchen with salvaged wooden tables.

As we enjoyed our breakfast, Elisabeth took another piece of brioche, a member of the babka family, and began wrapping it around a fish first spread with mousseline, then dotted with chopped spinach as the first course in a meal she was preparing for a party in our honor that night. A very complicated dish, it reminded me of a friend’s very simple fish en croûte with puff pastry. Although the fish was delicious, I could not imagine many home cooks making it, so I am sharing my much easier substitute, which, together with Elisabeth’s French-Japanese-Jewish cheesecake will make you smile, even in the deepest winter.

The Recipe

Lemony Cheesecake

Lemony Cheesecake

Joan Nathan is Tablet Magazine’s food columnist and the author of 10 cookbooks including King Solomon’s Table: a Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.