Thursday, December 13, 2012

La Cuisine Française

French food has been the subject of many a book, article, movie, conversation.  When we think of haute cuisine, we think of French cooking—cream, fresh vegetables, fresh fish, farm-raised veal, rabbit, cassoulet, escargots, cuisse de grenouille (frog’s legs), innards of all kinds, fragrant and crunchy bread, fine wine, delicate herbs and spices, an unimaginable array of cheeses, and desserts that send the common man into fits of ecstasy and doctors of the common man into just plain fits. Cooking schools even use French words for much of their instruction, including cuts of vegetables and meat, tools, cooking methods; and even the word “chef is French.  Imagine our anticipation before arriving in France knowing what we would find in the way of nourishment. 

France does not disappoint.  We’ve had some memorable meals while here.  Several occurred in the southeast France.  In Nîmes, located in Languedoc-Roussillon, our entrée (first course) was a velouté de courgette (squash)—a thick and creamy soup made of winter squash, which was in season and very popular in the markets and on sale in the countryside, and cream, of course.  The rest of the meal was good, but the velouté was, as I said, memorable.  In Les Baux, in Provençe, we had another velouté, this time velouté des champignons (mushrooms)—always, it seems, in season.  Also in Les Baux, we were seated outside on the terrace with a view overlooking the valley below Les Baux, which sits atop a mountain of bauxite.  (Bauxite takes its name from the town.)  That made everything just a little more delectable.

In the Provençal town of Cereste, we had a wonderful lunch above street level in a restaurant called La Pastoral.  We sat at a table next to a window, the sill upon which slept a sweet cat we couldn’t resist petting.  Our entrées were lovely to look at and delicious on the palate.  One was chèvre (goat cheese) wrapped in paper thin strips of zucchini with the same paper thin strips threaded through the cheese.  Another was salade de caille (quail) with an always-lovely and creamy vinaigrette.  It was here that we first had physalis, a member of the deadly nightshade family, and sometimes called cape gooseberries or groundcherries.  It adds a lovely citrus-y flavor to both sweet and savory food and a certain stylish presentation with its beautiful orange-yellow color.  It’s the same size and shape as a cherry tomato and always comes accompanied by its leafy wrapping—much like a tomatillo husk. 

We stopped for lunch in Ascain, a Basque village between St. Jean de Luz (on the Atlantic coast) and La Rhune (the mountain that can be seen from as far away as Hossegor and that has a tram in the warmer months that takes you to the top sitting right on the border with Spain.  La Terrace was just that—a terrace.  The only part of the restaurant that was behind solid walls was the kitchen (a large galley kitchen) and the bathroom.   It was cold and windy outside, so we were grateful for the serious plastic covering that hung down on all sides and zipped up at the entrance along with the propane heater.  La formule (special menu for the day) offered two things:  l’agneau (lamb) and le merlu (barricuda).  Though I’m not much of a red meat eater, and don’t much like lamb anyway, when in France, I eat food that the French enjoy as I figure there’s a reason they eat it.  The entrée for this meal was salade de chevre and it did not disappoint.  This is a green salad, lightly dressed with vinaigrette topped with thin slices of toasted baguette topped with melted goat cheese.  An auspicious beginning, it was delicious.  The salad was followed by the lamb, which was cooked to perfection; and while I won’t make a habit of it, I’m glad I had it. 

In Cogolin, a small town between St. Tropez and the hilltop town of Grimaud, we stopped to look for a restaurant that had been recommended in one of the guide books only to find that the prices were far beyond our expectations.  We went in search of another and stumbled across a crowded restaurant facing the central plaza where the weekly market was being dismantled.  As we entered the restaurant, I had a hankering for pizza.  While waiting to order, we watched the wait staff pass by our table with plates of paella, which were difficult to ignore.  So when the waitress asked us what we wanted, it was a chorus of paella.  As it turned out, the paella was stupendous.  Lovely fat moules (mussels), huge crevettes (shrimp), perfectly cooked chicken and saffron-flavored rice with just the right consistency.  Lip smacking.

In the last few weeks, menus have offered brochettes de canard (duck kebabs), which include duck heart and liver and sometimes a piece of duck breast.  Another item I wouldn’t usually order, I applied the same rule as described above (If it’s offered, there must be something to it.).  And once again, in the Landes town of Capbreton, I was glad I did.  My only regret is that the farm raising geese and ducks that we pass daily has had a markedly dwindling supply of live critters and I hope one of them wasn’t threaded onto my skewer.  

And finally, on the savory side, I’ve enjoyed moules frites (mussels with fries) in at least three corners of France.  Mussels are standard on most menus for a reason—they’re wonderful—cooked in white wine with shallots and parsley.  I still remember my first moules frites in Arromanche on the Normandy coast many years ago.  I highly recommend it.

Un Paris-Brest
As to desserts, I can’t do them justice as there are so many and they are so varied according to the whims of each patissier (pastry chef).  My personal favorites are the humble tartalette aux framboises (raspberry tart), le tarte au citron (lemon tart) and le Paris-Brest named for the bicycle race whose route goes from Paris to Brest and return.  The raspberry tart needs little explanation but to say that the raspberries are always full of flavor and sitting atop a lovely crème patissière (pastry cream) and nestled in a round of delicious and simple pastry.  In France they are ubiquitous and I’m grateful for that.  I am of the opinion that anything made of lemon is tops, and le tarte au citron is right up there.  The Paris-Brest is a circle of pâte à choux (puff pastry) in the shape of a bicycle wheel cut in half and filled with crème mousseline pralinée that is garnished with almonds.  

I could go on, but I’ll spare you.  Now go eat your spinach.

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