Journey of a Kiwi, her Cook-Book and the 88,000 Donated SMS in Montpellier

While Kiwis flourish abundantly in Corse and Aquitaine there’s a special nez to this Kiwi’s recipes nurtured in local terroir then harvested by Montpellier university academic and long-time New Zealand expat, Rachel Panckhurst.

Rachel Panckhurst, Maître de conférences and Kiwi recipe book author

Rachel Panckhurst, Maître de conférences and Kiwi recipe book author

Thirty-five years ago Kiwi-born-and-bred Rachel set out from Wellington for an intensive summer course in French at Montpellier University (Hérault). She’s still there today (after a trek — eleven years long at one stage — around several other parts of the country and the continent plus an academic sojourn in Montreal). Presently she divides her time between harvesting recipes — along with associated life stories on the one hand — and, in her day job on the other, SMS messages — some 88,000 of these!

The now-fluently-French writer holds dual nationality and since 1992 has been maître de conferences (senior lecturer/assistant professor) in computational linguistics at the same university which first unlocked the secrets of the French language to her.

Her recipe book, five years in the gathering and writing is she says, both a personal diary and a culinary voyage — a récit de vie and a voyage culinaire. She has included more than 100 recipes from friends, family and colleagues, together with her own. “All are simple, delicious, quotidien or day-to-day recipes” she says, designed to be fait maison — homemade — meals, seasoned with the saveurs of France and especially the Mediterranean”.

Writing “Fait Maison – Recipes from a Kiwi in France” in stages and self-publishing means she deployed a few Charles Dickens-like tricks, releasing a couple of chapters at a time with an offer of free future updates to all who bought it in its early and incomplete stages. That, she says “is one of the advantages of the platform I used”.

Kiwis grow as well in southern France as they do in Wellington NZ (Credit Wikipedia)

Kiwis grow as well in southern France as they do in Wellington NZ (Credit Wikipedia)

Her text or SMS message collection on the other hand – also published but in different circumstances explained below – is a dish of an altogether different genre.

Explaining the SMS project Dr Panckhurst (she holds a PhD in computational linguistics from Université Blaise-Pascal 2 in Clermont-Ferrand) and is senior lecturer/associate professor at Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier and a member of the Praxiling research lab), tells French News Online: “basically our research team wanted to analyse the impact of SMS messaging on today’s use of written French and generate a (socio-)linguistic and computational analysis of the language practices that have emerged as a result of the now widespread use of handheld devices”.

Educationalists and worried parents (heavy, constant SMS use tends to be a generational thing) have long voiced concern at falling standards in written and spoken language and blamed the assumed decline on the texting features of mobile phones and other hand-held devices.

But Rachel Panckhurst believes the concerns are unfounded.

Although the analysis is as yet incomplete, initial findings from the corpus of SMS messages we analysed, she says: “suggest highly creative uses of language, clever word play with abbreviations and evidence of considerable creativity and ingenuity in concepts, thoughts and usage of French”.

The outcome she says seems to suggest that the prophets of literary doom may be wrong about the communication skills of today’s generation of French youngsters.

The research project is called Sud4science while the corpus was baptised 88milSMS because that is the number of highly personal SMS messages the team finally ended up with after persuading French mobile phone users (ranging in age from 11 to 65) to “donate an SMS for research”, a play on the French campaign for organ donors.

At a time of unprecedented and ongoing outrage in many countries, including France, over comprehensive Internet and mobile phone snooping by US and other intelligence agencies, how did she manage to thread her way through the daunting minefield of privacy and European data protection issues surrounding personal information such as text messages?

“Donate” was the key term she said. “We set up a website asking volunteers to enrol and fill out a legal consent form before donating their own text messages to a mobile phone set up for the purpose. We did it all absolutely legally and worked closely with the university’s CIL (correspondant informatique et libertés) legal advisors to ensure the way we collected, anonymised, processed and handled the data was fully compliant with existing provisions in France and the EU. The campaign is called Faites don de vos SMS à la science and for our research we accepted donor messages only from those who had legally consented. We also anonymised the texts via a complex system of specially-designed software and filters. Lastly we had research students on the team read every single message to ensure donors and third-parties could not be identified,” she said. “The readers had for instance, to keep an eye open for such issues as pierre, which in French is both a male first name and a stone, something which, in the context, our software filters would not have picked up”, she added.

"Donate an SMS for science" was the campaign slogan and the team received some 90,000 responses.

“Donate an SMS for science” was the campaign slogan and the team received some 90,000 responses.

Rachel Panckhurst and her team of linguists and computer scientists at Praxiling UMR 5267 CNRS & Université Paul-Valéry, Tetis-Cirad, Lirmm, Lidilem and Viseo (Montpellier and Grenoble universities and research partners), is part of a global project to collect and analyse hundreds of thousands of personal text messages donated by mobile phone users world wide with the aim of reaching conclusions about the impact these new forms of communication are having on traditional language forms and linguistic standards.

Rachel added: “Our immense SMS corpus — 88milSMS — of authentic text messages in French will be downloadable within the next few months. We are also hoping to have long-term archiving of the corpus so that in a century or two people will be able to see what it was like to exchange text messages in 2011. Our corpus will be uploaded to Huma-Num a national and European platform. We would like it to be officially archived by Huma-Num with  CINES Montpellier.

The SMS project website is here.

The project has attracted considerable interest in the French media and some of the coverage can be found here. The original Belgian project, of which 88milSMS is part, can be found here.

There are a number of articles in academic publications here. The academic reference is: Panckhurst R., Détrie C., Lopez C., Moïse C., Roche M., Verine B. (à paraître en ligne, 2014), produit par l’Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier III et le CNRS, avec l’autorisation de l’Université catholique de Louvain, financé grâce au soutien de la MSH-M et du Ministère de la Culture (Délégation générale à la langue française et aux langues de France) et avec la participation de Praxiling, Lirmm, Lidilem, Tetis, Viseo.

Collecting the donated texts was, says Rachel, greatly helped by the generous loan of an iPhone and donation of an iPad and an iPod by a local IT company iTribu. During the donation period in 2011, “this iPhone contained some 90,000 messages, which of course we transferred to an external hard disk (disconnected from the Internet) on a regular basis but the thought that the fate of our entire project lay in the hands of this little mobile phone was rather daunting”, she confessed.

Harvesting the SMS corpus was a high-tech operation while collecting the recipes relied on far more rudimentary techniques. “I copied them down after dinner parties or asked friends to scribble them out for me, found them in local media or had friends kindly email them”, she said. Did she test each and every one in her own kitchen? “More than 90%,” she says, “ but I promise I’ll try the remaining ones when I get some time off my research”. She does regret not having included a burger recipe written in SMS-style however even though she hopes this is one recipe no self-respecting French person would ever consider.

Today of course recipe books are dime a dozen — less even thanks to the Internet — but Rachel set out to do hers differently. “This collection is a story book, weaving simple recipes around my encounters with people in France, my country of birth New Zealand and the cosmopolitans I’ve met while travelling over many years,” she told French News Online.

The 130 recipes inside “Fait Maison. Recipes from a Kiwi in France”, took some five years to collect and associate with the contextual tales.

The cover of Rachel's recipe book

The cover of Rachel’s recipe book

“Because in France cooking is such a huge part of daily life, a passion even, it is often quite scary for outsiders who seem to think everyone in France — the first country in the world to have its gastronomy classified as a Unesco “intangible cultural heritage of humanity”  — eats Michelin 3-star twice a day.

I set out to share simple day-to-day recipes to help dispel this myth. These I found in my neighbours’ and friends kitchens or heard about in conversations. So this is not another high-class French cook-book, this is much more a sort of cuisine au quotidien — daily, simple, sustaining and tasty fait maison food.

Regrettably today too much of this goodness is being replaced by fast food or deep frozen ready made. In France, food is still a way of life that crops up in conversation all the time; many people go to food markets and shop for fresh food on a day-to-day basis,” she said.

Pamesan biscuits is just one of the easy to bake recipes in the collection

Pamesan biscuits is just one of the easy to bake recipes in the collection

Here extracted from her book is a sample recipe and its associated tale:
Stuffed garden vegetables (Christophe and Augustine)

Courgettes/zucchini (or red peppers, or tomatoes) from the garden, cut in half lengthwise. Scoop out part of flesh from inside and save for stuffing.

Sausage meat
Stale bread
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
parsley, finely chopped
olive oil
salt and pepper, freshly ground
1 egg, beaten
dry thyme

Christophe’s grandmother, Augustine, used sausage meat from Lacaune (in the Tarn area). It is the best quality for this recipe.

Place sausage meat in a large bowl. Dip stale bread in milk and press. Add a drop of olive oil. Then one beaten egg and a little thyme, picked during a walk in the country.

Mix with a spoon or with clean hands (children like this part!). Augustine always sprinkled some breadcrumbs over the top and a drop of olive oil. Place in a baking dish and cook at 200°C for around 1 hour.

This stuffing is the traditional one for tomatoes. For zucchini, the finely chopped scooped-out flesh may be added. Other ideas, depending on what is at hand are: very ripe fresh figs, fresh coriander, pine-nuts, cubes of bacon. The trick is to make sure that one does not obtain a reconstituted sausage in zucchini which is what happens if too much meat is used. The quality and texture of the vegetables, the type of oven and the quality of the stuffing are all important aspects which mean the quantities of each ingredient vary. The vegetables should stay intact and fairly firm.

Christophe advises frequently checking the stuffed vegetables during the cooking and basting them with the juices. Foil can be used to cover them. Christophe’s stuffed garden vegetables should be served with a good bottle of wine, a green salad and some cheese, for a well-balanced meal, n’est-ce pas?

Once a year, usually a summer weekend in July or August, Saji (the author’s teenage son) and I go and visit Sabine and Christophe and their family in Villemagne l’Argentière (not far from Clermont l’Hérault), about 1½ hrs west of Montpellier. It’s just a small village — classé monument historique — a cultural heritage village with a 13th-century Abbey where Christophe grew up. We have a lazy weekend pottering around near the river, biking, testing out new recipes and picking vegetables from Christophe and his mother Ghislaine’s garden. This recipe is one of my favourites, because you can use zucchini, tomatoes or green and red peppers.

Visit her facebook page and buy a copy of the 340-page recipe book here

Story: Ken Pottinger

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