Granola. The word slips off the tongue, evoking bowls of grains toasted or untoasted, with or without dried fruit, sweetened or unsweetened. It also evokes a category of person dressed in natural fiber clothing, living off the land, with long hair and, if male, stubble, strong hands, and ruddy skin.
Granola has an illustrious history for something so humble. We most likely owe its creation to the ancient Greeks, who were reputedly encouraged to eat a mush of boiled grains for breakfast, as prescribed by Dioclès, a doctor who practiced in 400 B.C.
At the turn of the 20th century another doctor, Oskar Bircher-Benner, tasted a mixture of cooked grains and grated apple at a shepherd’s hut in his native Swiss mountains, and returned to the sanitorium where he worked, filled with enthusiasm for this dish which he baptized “muesli”. He found it so restorative that he prescribed it for his patients as a nighttime meal. The dish took hold in Switzerland with the name birchermuesli, the spiritual – and European – grandparent of granola.
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As we all know, an idea had in one part of the world is often had throughout the world. This is called multiple discovery, and it occured iwth granola. Thus, slightly before Dr. Bircher-Benner’s discovery, American health reformer James Caleb Jackson created a mixture of grains that he called “granula,” and promised anyone who ate it that it would prepare them for the Second Coming. Just a few years later, Mr. John Kellog introduced “granula” to patients at his sanitorium, under the name of “granola”. He too felt it had certain holy attributes.
Cornflakes Trumped Granola
Mr. Kellogg didn’t commercialize the mix, preferring to focus on cornflakes instead, but the name stuck to a mixture of grains which, over time, has come to mean many things to many people.
Perhaps because of its colorful history, granola is a very plastic dish, and can be made with so many different ingredients. It can be rich with nuts and dried fruits, or simply a mix of grains that are usually toasted, to which things are added in the bowl as the eater sees fit.
My Recipe Goes Anywhere
I offer you my recipe for granola, which is always present in my home for the unexpected visitor, myself in the mornings, a foundation for a fruit crumble, a mixture to sprinkle atop a cake or mix into a cookie dough. I find it an essential in my pantry, so easy to make, so easy to use. I hope you will do the same!
And yes, granola has hit the French table. Here, it is sold for astronomical prices in pretty little cellophane bags or served at anglo-inspired cafes and tea salons where it is considered a foreign specialty. It’s pronunciation? Grah-no-laaa!
It all began with Pope Clement VII in the 16th century. He was a seed collector, it seems, and he gave some bean seeds to an Italian humanist, Valeriano, who had links with the Medicis family while they were in Florence. Valeriano shared the seeds with Clement’s niece Catherine de Medicis who, as we know, brought everything culinary that she had when she came to France at the age of fourteen in the 16th century to marry King Henry.
France Number One
And is that why France is Europe’s premier green bean producer, and why when a French person says “vegetable accompaniment” it can almost be assumed this will be green beans? Possibly. Or maybe it’s just the neat and tidy look of the green bean on a plate, its gorgeous color, its flavor which is somewhere between a sweet asparagus and a shell bean. Whatever it is, the green bean is omnipresent on the French plate from July to September when it is mounded in market stands, fresh from the soil.
Image Vs. Flavor
Our image of the haricot vert is that slim, perfectly straight green vegetable that one can purchase in a little box, covered with plastic, perfectly aligned. This version of the haricot vert is often grown, inspected, trimmed, sized, and packed in Kenya where the green bean business is huge. The other day at the market there was a giant pile of fresh-from-the-soil green beans with a few packages of the perfectly straight and trimmed version alongside. The lady ahead of me in line chose a package saying, “I’m lazy, I don’t like to prepare the beans.”
Flavor in Favor
What she didn’t know when she made her choice is that she sacrificed both flavor and texture in favor of ease. But to each her own and I could see the plates she would serve to her family – tidy mounds of green beans next to…grilled steak, fish, or chicken.
All Shapes and Sizes
I choose from the farm, naturally, though I sacrifice visual perfection in favor of flavor and the local farm family. The haricots verts I get aren’t calibrated. In fact, they’re all over the map in terms of bent, curled, fat, slim, bright to pale green. They are sweet, crunchy and juicy when raw, and just that wonderful side of grassy when cooked. I love them during the season, serving them at all times during a meal, garnished with all manner of things and sometimes just plain, steamed then garnished with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of salt and pepper.
Here, though, I refer to my Norman roots to make them “à la Normande” which implies a bit of cream, some butter, shallot and air-cured ham. This is a dish in and of itself and one I like to serve as a first course, though in Normandy you’ll find it as a side dish. And because it’s Norman, the main course is likely to be a steak (from the Norman cow), one of the region’s fine versions of poultry or a filet of fish fresh from the boat, prepared simply, no doubt with a dash of cream and a touch of butter too.
Do as the Normans do, or do as you like and enjoy this little visit to the lushness of Normandy, the richness of its cuisine!
- 4 cups (about 320g) rolled oats or mixture of different grains, raw
- ¼ cup (35g) untoasted sesame seeds
- ¼ cup (40g) untoasted sunflower seeds
- ½ cup pumpkin seeds
- ½ cup (75g) untoasted almonds, coarsely chopped
- ½ cup (42g) unsweetened coconut
- ¼ to ½ cup (60 to 125ml ) maple syrup
- ½ to 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Preheat the oven to 350F (180C).
- Mix the grains, the nuts, and the coconut in a large bowl.
- In a small bowl, mix together the maple syrup, the vanilla extract and the salt. Pour this over the grains as you mix them, then toss well(ideally with your hands), gently rubbing the mixture into the grains and seeds until they are moistened with the syrup mixture.
- Turn the mixture into a baking pan, and toast in the oven until the oats are the color you like them; a deep gold is ideal for all concerned.
- Remove from the oven and cool before storing (or eating!).