I had a surprise this morning when I sat down to write this post. I thought today’s recipe for a festive potato dish was gratin dauphinois, but discovered that what I’ve been calling dauphinois all these years is actually gratin savoyard — the difference being that the latter contains cheese while the former does not. Never mind. It’s a fabulous dish both earthy and elegant, loved by young and old, and would grace a holiday table with a French touch.
Gratin savoyard / Potato gratin from Savoie
Now, a little lore. Both gratins mentioned above hail from the Alps of eastern France, but the Savoie — home of gruyère and emmenthal cheese, and this country’s most mountainous area — lies north of the Dauphiné, which borders on Provence. Gratin dauphinois was reportedly first mentioned in print in 1788 when a local duke served it to some of his officers, accompanied by roasted ortolan buntings, small wild songbirds that are now a protected species (although François Mitterrand is known to have eaten them with great gusto during his presidency).
The dauphinois version of the gratin is made simply of potatoes, cream, garlic and seasonings. I don’t know who had the brilliant idea of adding grated cheese — this most likely happened centuries ago — but what I can say for certain is that restaurants throughout France serve the gratin that way and call it dauphinois. It is served alongside all kinds of meat and poultry, or on its own, accompanied by a salad. This past week my friend Tony took the Eurostar over from London for a one-day visit and chose entrecôte steak with a cheese-topped ‘gratin dauphinois’ when we went to lunch.
If you’d like to serve this gratin for a holiday meal, it would go beautifully with roast beef, roast veal, or any type of festive roast bird: duck, goose, partridge, pheasant, guinea hen, quail, or even turkey. At the moment, I’m thinking about which recipe to offer you next week as a possible main dish for your holiday table. If you’d like to weigh in on the subject, please send me a note using the Contact page on this site.
Finally, for those of you who live in Paris, I’m delighted to announce that I will be reading from my new book, Desperate to Be a Housewife, next Friday, December 13, at the Abbey Bookshop’s annual Christmas party. The event begins at 7 p.m. and will also feature the French author Christophe Lebold presenting his new biography of Leonard Cohen. The bookshop is offering mulled wine and Christmas goodies. Contributions of Christmas cookies are welcome! I do hope to see you there.
I live in Scotland. A recipe passed down generations of my family is very similar to Gratin Savoyard. Both my mother and grandmother ran restaurants, hotels in Scotland. There is a history of chefs within the broader family. This recipe is layers of thinly sliced potato and onion, seasoning, grated cheese, wild mushrooms, sprinkle of finely chopped garlic, onion, potato, grated cheese. Depending on the depth of dish these layers would be repeated finishing with potato and a layer of grated cheese. Dot with butter then cream poured over the ingredients before baking. The dish was rubbed in butter and garlic before adding the ingredients. Often served with roast mutton. My mother preferred Gruyere but Grandmother always used local produce. There are similar cheeses in Scotland. Whether this version has any routes in Scotland or there is a French connection I do not know.
Steve, many thanks for sharing this recipe, which sounds delicious! I particularly like the idea of adding of wild mushrooms. I don’t know whether there is a French connection to the Scottish take on this dish — maybe another reader can provide some insights. In the meantime, I will look forward to making your version in my kitchen. Cheers, Meg
I’ve a mind to make gratin savoyard [the beef stock version], adding chopped onions, serving with fine french beans, runner beans or broad [yup, you guessed it] beans! Seems to me it’d go well with a decent burger….?
Hi Dave. Gratin with a burger? Since you ask, I’ve never seen this here in France. Most often a gratin of any sort is served beside grilled meat, usually steak, while burgers are served with French fries and/or a salad. But if the idea appeals to you, my advice would be, go for it! All best, Meg
Hi, I think your post is a little misleading, Gratin Savoyard is actually made without cream. It primarily consists of thinly sliced potatoes, garlic, butter, cheese and beef (brown) stock…
Nick, thanks for this intriguing comment, which piqued my curiosity. I made a couple of calls to check it out, having failed to find a definitive answer online or in my French cookbooks, and here is what I discovered. There are various ways of making gratin savoyard, one of which contains no cream and instead, like you say, uses stock. This is the way they did it in the old days, according to Yveline Zjena, owner of the Auberge Mas du Capucin, in Tréminie, in the French Alps, which specializes in gratins from around the region. “There are three kinds of gratin savoyard, and all three are correct,” she said. “The first is the peasant way (façon paysanne), which uses cream, bacon and the Savoyard cheese called Abondance. The second is like a gratin dauphinois, with the addition of cheese. The third is the one we call ‘le gratin du pauvre’, with no cream but with stock and pieces of cured ham and bacon. We don’t make it that way anymore.” Wanting to check further, I phoned the Auberge Lamartine, a highly reputed restaurant in Le Bourget du Lac, in the heart of Savoie. “Yes,” said the chef when asked whether he used cream in his gratin savoyard. Personally, having lived in France for 40 years, I have consumed many delicious mouthfuls of gratin savoyard, in restaurants and at home tables, and I must say that most or all of them involved cream. So it looks to me like a case in which cuisine has evolved over the years. Your recipe is most likely the original, and mine a more recent version. But I like the idea of making the dish without the cream. Just might try that this evening… All best, Meg