Feasting in France is memorable wherever you go – quaint countryside, chic cities or areas famous for great wines or cheese. So, when I recently went on a quick five-day spin, with a view to looking at gourmet food products coming into India, I was both excited and aghast at the vast itinerary and at the impending pounds I was bound to put on. However, I emerged no heavier (thankfully) except for luggage laden with consumable goodies. In France, the expression bien manger (eating well) refers to quality and satisfaction not volume. And I certainly did justice to that expression – from tastings of Valrhona chocolate and Paul Jaboulet Ainé wines to spectacular lunches and dinners.
Apart from being probably the most famous and oldest cookery school in the world for serious chefs in the making, you can, as a visitor, enroll for daily classes at Le Cordon Bleu, our first stop. The school is still considered the best for classical French cuisine including basic cooking skills and techniques. It is also the perfect place to understand how to work with and taste famous French produce like foie gras (goose or duck liver), truffles, meats, vegetables, herbs and cheeses. We went through recipes including foie gras (fresh goose liver) in a creamy broth on a dish of white haricot beans, fillet of beef in a cep (porcini) mushroom crust with a red wine sauce and a frothy caramel made with sea salt from Guérande placed over a coffee and cognac cream.
A quick lunch at the charming corner bistro, Le Belisaire, proved well worthwhile. I discovered a reasonably priced, superb little champagne called Ayala, now taken over by Bollinger. The place seats about 25 people and looks straight out of a French movie. Mathieu Garel, the chef owner, is passionate about what he offers – solid French cooking, both traditional and with some international flavours like ‘tagine” style vegetables. I especially liked the idea of his beef filet served with a huge bone with marrow inside, something I hadn’t seen for many years.
That evening, we dined at La Victoire Supreme du Coeur, situated in the heart of one of my favourite parts of the city, the Marais, an area full of quaint shops, designer boutiques, art galleries and a wealth of history. The restaurant was cool, hip and trendy serving healthy vegetarian cuisine. I had asked my hosts specifically to book something vegetarian to get an idea of how the French are coping with this phenomenon. But, this is not the kind of place most Indian vegetarians I know would be happy with. They would rather indulge in a French onion soup and a gratin in a local café or bistro. But for people looking for a creative, lighter, healthier option while travelling, this is perfect. The next morning, we took the TGV to Valence in southeast France. Not usually on the ‘gourmand’ map, this is actually home to many fine French things. Anne-Sophie Pic, the only woman in France to have three Michelin stars is here as is the home of some of the finest chocolate in the world, Valrhona and the vineyards of Paul Jaboulet, the producer of some of the best wines from the Northern Rhône.
Lyon is the nearest city in the area and we stayed at the most unusual boutique hotel, La Cour des Loges which is an experiment fusing contemporary comfort in a 16th century building. It is also in the heart of old Lyon, a beautiful city and the capital of French gastronomy. The famous products to taste and buy here are their air-dried salami (rosette), poultry from the town of Bresse and regional cheeses like the blue from Bresse, tomme from Savoie, reblochon, saint marcellin and creamy vacherin. Lyon is also known for tradition so be prepared for French classical cooking where chefs are not shy of using obscene amounts of cream, butter and foie gras! A good way to try Lyon specialties would be at the main market named after Paul Bocuse, the famous French chef who comes from Lyon.
A few steps from La Cour des Loges, along the narrow cobbled street, is an amazing wine shop. The Georges Five (named after the owner) stocks wines from around the world – rare in France where stores usually keep French wines and in many cases, only from the region. A few doors down, he presides over his tasting room and wine bar which specialises in French and Spanish wine and cold cuts. A maverick in jeans, he is quite capable of opening 30 bottles of one of the most expensive wines in the world, La Chapelle, as he is of opening a 1978 Saint Julien from Chateau Talbot, for us. Wines to buy from this area are the whites from the Marsanne grape while good reds at correct prices are the Paul Jaboulet Crozes Thalabert and Saint Joseph from Chapoutier and Paul Jaboulet.
From the Rhône Alps region, filled with picture postcard Christmas trees and knee deep snow, we moved to Nantes on the west coast of the country. We stayed at the Abbaye de Villeneuve, an early 13th century abbey that has been totally restored and is now a hotel particulier which basically means a private mansion. It is part of a group called Savry who specialise in restoration and running of small chateaux and exclusive mansions, where you feel more like a personal guest of the family than a hotel client. This is what the French do best and it is worth considering as an option to your run-of-the-mill, nameless, faceless hotel chains. The next morning we visited Guérande where the most famous sea salt in France is produced. Sel de Guérande is an international gourmet staple and renowned chefs can’t seem to do without its ‘extra virgin’ equivalent, fleur de sel (flower of the salt), the topmost layer of salt from the salt flats, hand harvested and with a peculiar tangy, almost effervescent fresh flavour.
Lastly, we visited what looked like an ordinary family restaurant in the area, La Mare aux Oiseaux (bird’s pond), named after the nearby lakes and marshes. It was Christmas season and so the young chef, Eric Guérin, decided to decorate the place with his collection of bears in all sizes, mostly teddies. I found this more bizarre than festive but all personal opinions were put aside when the food appeared. Using local and international ingredients, eclectic presentation with oriental touches and a mix of styles and techniques, this was undoubtedly ‘the meal’ of the trip. The filet of local pike perch with winter root vegetables in a broth flavoured with kumquats, bay leaves and juniper berries; the pigeon, duck foie gras and white beans cooked in white miso paste and to finish, the completely perfect lemon tart with a kalamansi lime ice cream, all blew me away. Almost 25 years of food reviewing makes the patience short and the pen, unforgiving. This experience renewed my faith in restaurant cooking. This was Michelin star food with no strings attached – no fancy prices nor pompous surroundings. Certainly a fitting end to a fulfilling week of culinary bliss.
Height of Great Taste
Specialties to look out for…
Truffles: I am always confused about whether ‘truffle’ refers to that black, ugly, sexy smelling tuber or a chocolate. The chocolate actually took its name from the tuber because it had the same shape and colour. The original truffle is the underground fungus of a tuber, prized by gastronomes of several millennia for its ineffable perfume and its supposed aphrodisiac qualities. In France, you will most likely find the Perigord truffle, often used to flavour eggs or steak.
Foie gras: Most people will have tasted paté de foie gras, which is a paste made from goose or duck liver, often flavoured with truffles and eaten on little toasts or served on top of steak (Tournedos Rossini). The real McCoy is the entire liver, pan fried, leaving the middle a little underdone. Foie gras anywhere on a menu usually denotes high price, luxury and decadence. The product that originates in France is distinctly part of the French fine dining experience.
Monin: I have been using Monin syrups for several years. The company is family owned and over a 100 years old. These are natural syrups using extracts, not artificial essences. I especially like the flavours they have developed for the East like green tea, coconut, rose and jasmine.