French Onion Soup is perhaps the most iconic and well-traveled of all French dishes. Worldwide it has seduced more stomachs than even our beloved New England clam chowder, which incidentally, is another French export. Onion soup is, as author Robert Courtine suggests, “a daughter of the streets… In her presence, all castes dissolve. Rich and Poor are equal in appetite.” Her simplicity seduces all….
‘Stew’, from Middle French haricot, a deverbal derivation of Old French harigoter (“to shred, slice up, slice into pieces”), from Frankish *hariōn (“to ruin, lay waste, ravage, plunder, destroy”), from Proto-Germanic *harjōną (“to plunder, lay waste, harry”).
In the sense ‘bean’, etymology uncertain. Influenced in form by the ‘stew’ word, if not originally identical to it; in that case possibly from Mexican Spanish ayacotli, ayacote, or possibly from Calicut. – Wikitionary
I have been eagerly awaiting my 1950’s cassolle to arrive from Toulouse so I can bust out an old school French cassoulet before the cold snap permanently leaves us. Cassoulet is decidedly a cold weather dish, almost an antithesis to Spring’s light dishes punctuated by fresh morels and tender young artichokes. Over the past few days I have been pouring over several old books comparing cassoulets from different eras. Thirteen cookbooks later and I am left with almost as many questions of what constitutes an authentic cassoulet as the hapless person researching “real” bouillabaisse recipes in Marseille. …
Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas.
– Calvin Coolidge
Of all the culinary treats that grace the French Christmas table, nothing inspires more child-like joy than a rich, chocolate Bûche de Noël. Real yule logs, the kind from living trees, have had symbolic significance to the French for centuries. Until the late 1800s, it was a widespread custom for extended families to gather under one roof and burn a sacramental log. In the soft glow of the embers, the family would drink vin cue, cooked wine and sing Christmas carols before attending midnight mass.
My family has been giving homemade Bûche de Noel’s to friends, families and our local community since I was a small child. This holiday season, I am sharing my favorite recipe so that you may start your own family tradition.
François, Beau, and Lisa
Mères Lyonnaises: The Female Superstar Chefs
I have written and rewritten this post so many times I am starting to see cross eyed. What started a simple post celebrating a classic French dish, Volaille Demi Deuil, or Chicken in Half Mourning has become an ever expanding education into an important and often untold chapter in the annals of great cooking.
This post is dedicated to all the great women Chefs and cooks, especially my mother, that I have been fortunate to share the ranges with. This story belongs to them, it’s their story….
Two eggs, side by each, both facing the sun with an orange glass of juice
A Cautionary Fairy Tale of a Life Dedicated to Overindulgence and Excess
There comes a time in all our lives where we need to come to grips and embrace who we are and what we’ve become. Some are forged out of experiencing life changing traumatic events while others reluctantly accept the path they were born into. A bird is a bird and eventually it must fly, to deny the bird flight is is to deny it’s very existence. After 50 years of life on this planet I finally am coming to grips with whom I was born….
I love Barlata. I am not sure exactly what tickles my fancy about the place. I have eaten better tapas, had better service and seen better decor but yet something still pulls me to the place. The last time I was there was a few short
hours after gorging at Cotogna. I decided on Barlata as I can sit outside with my dog and my two year old son can run around without offending any serious diners. Lisa and I were meeting dear old friend Jim Laffer and hopefully Cindi and Jackson. We were the first there and immediately commenced ordering food and two bottles of Spanish wine. We plowed through the menu of familiar dishes and laughed with Jim. I love going to Barlata because it feels like putting on an old comfortable well worn shoe. No surprises – you know exactly what to expect. A perfect place to enjoy being.
One of my favorite category of dishes there are their Latas. They use old tin cans as serving dishes. It is a novel concept in our country where everything is disposable and we certainly dispose of it.After stuffing ourselves for a second time we headed to our car completely sated… I chuckled at the Beer is Good sign and thought of all my beer making buddies who would raise a pint at such a sentiment!
Barlata is located at 4901 Telegraph in Oakland. Reservations can be made at: 510.450.o678 and you can see their menu at: http://www.barlata.com/index.html
Tarte Tatin has been popular worldwide ever since its inception in the late 1800s. Jean Tatin opened his hotel, l’Hotel Tatin, in the 1800s. In 1888, his two daughters Caroline and Stéphanie took over when he passed away. Caroline managed the books while Stéphanie cooked. From morning to night, Stéphanie worked in her kitchen. She was a great and gifted cook but not the brightest of people. Her specialty was an apple tart, served perfectly crusty, caramelized and which melted in the mouth….
The True History of French Cooking
The Italian Myth of Catherine de Médicis Debunked
Catherine de Médicis was born in 1519 to a French mother, Madeleine de la Tour d’Auvergne, and Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino, in Florence, Italy. She was fourteen (1533) at the time she arrived in the French court of Francis I to marry Henry II, future King of France. Twelve ladies in waiting, also her age, numerous cooks, servants and the like accompanied her. The cooks and servants took care of the large group on the ship over to Marseilles and the overland trip to the Francis I court. As Esther B. Aresty states in her lovely book entitled The Exquisite Table – a History of French Cuisine, “But as far as installing cooks at the court of Francis I to serve her own needs – that would have been bringing coals to Newcastle, and unthinkable in any case with a monarch like Francis I. At that time his court was far more elegant than any court in Italy.” Historian Jean Heritier describes his court as “The foremost court in Europe.” There is no doubt that the Italian Renaissance had an effect on France. “… a French Renaissance had been in stride since the fifteenth century. True, the seeds had wafted over from Italy into France, as they had in other countries, but wherever the Renaissance took root, what matured from the semination emerged differently in each country – on canvases, in books, and in architecture.” Francis I brought great Italian artists like Da Vinci to work for him. “Francis adopted the pose of a chivalric King, the first gentleman of his kingdom, although his autocratic statecraft was imbued with a shrewd realism. His patronage of the arts was intended to augment the splendor of his court. He brought Leonardo da Vinci and other great Italian artists to France to design and ornament his châteaux. He employed Guillaume Budé in creating a royal library and in founding professorships of Greek, Latin and Hebrew, which formed the nucleus of the later Collège de France.” When Catherine arrived she was described as being unassuming and undemanding, even the Venetian ambassador labeled her as molto obediente.
From 1547 – 1559, Catherine reigned as Queen of France. To paraphrase “The Exquisite Table”, it is the misunderstanding of a quote attributed to Michel de Montaigne (1533-92), French essayist and philosopher, which has led some scholars astray. Montaigne was a prominent figure at the court late in Catherine’s reign as Queen. He is often quoted as praising Italian cooks at her court. “One encounter with such a cook, “late in the kitchen of Cardinal Caraffia,” and spoke of that cook’s “magisterial gravity” when discussing his art, “the weighty and important considerations… (in) lofty, magnificent words, the very same we use when we discourse upon the government of an Empire.” In fact he was joking and furthermore it didn’t take place at the court but actually when he was interviewing the cook as a perspective employee. To quote Mrs. Aresty “The conversation struck Montaigne as so hilarious that he was inspired to write an essay on “how to make little things appear big.” He called it On the Vanity of Words. In 1570, when Montaigne traveled to Italy he said, “Provisions are not half so plentiful… and not near so well (prepared).”
“French cuisine had been growing in its own national direction long before Catherine de Medici came to France, and was as fully formed by 1533 as cookery and dining then allowed. At best, all national cuisines were still medieval. Forks were not in general use. Spoon and finger foods were the rule: hashes, stews, potages and meats sliced thin enough to be speared on the point of a knife to be eaten by hand, or laid on a slice of bread and swallowed in a few gulps.” To understand the style of food in vogue in the Aristocratic courts one has to look back at how it came to be. For French references we need to look at the early works of Guillaume Tirel, a.k.a. Taillevent, master Chef to Charles V (1337 – 1380). The earliest known copies of Taillevent’s book date back to 1392. The recipes were organized by ingredients and methods. Le Viander is divided into sections on meat, entrements, fish, sauces, etc. His recipe for Civé de Veau could be considered a very early version of Blanquette de Veau. In the recipe he tells his audience to roast the veal on a spit or grill without overcooking. Then cut up the pieces and cook in fat with onions, mix with stale bread boiled in beef broth and wine, add the normal range of medieval spices that were infused in verjus. Also important to note are two other French books of the same period; Menagier de Paris written for the amateur cook and Chiquart’s masterwork, Du fait de Cuisine, which is considered by scholars as “Europe’s first true cookbook”. All three of these French books were written 100 years before Catherine’s birth. All three books had influences that directly led to the development of modern French cookery. Without trying to sound too corny I have always envisioned the progress of French cooking to be like a torch being passed from one kitchen to another, throughout the generations. Each Chef adding his or her particular spin and dimension to the culinary body. French food did not make gigantic leaps from Carême to Escoffier to Bocuse to today’s crop of great Chefs. There were many small steps in between that history has overlooked.
By the time of the 1600’s, the difference in the cuisine of Italy and France was very pronounced as evident by the two major works of that period, Le Vrai Cuisinier François by François Pierre La Varenne (1615 – 1678) and Opera di M. Bartolomeo Scappi, cuoco secreto di papa Pio Quinto by Bartolomeo Scappi (1540 – 1570) published I believe in 1570 but was still considered the benchmark of Italian cuisine. La Varenne warned his audience “to cook just long enough” while Scappi advocated overcooking. “Scappi presented the noble Maccaronis of Italian cooking in great variety; there were no macaronis in Le Vrai Cuisinier Francois, though present in fifteenth century English cookbooks. The Italian influence was in fact felt more strongly in England, where macaroni (macrow to the English) and spicy forcemeats called “Balles of Italy” appear…” In La Varenne’s works, he classifies preparations considered basic to French cuisine, bouillons, liaisons, roux, farces, etc.
In conclusion, I think it would be foolish to argue which cuisine is better than the other; first and foremost it is a matter of opinion and secondly they both are wonderful, vibrant and different. It is equally foolish to believe that two countries so close didn’t have culinary influences on each other. Both were conquered and occupied by similar peoples. Lastly, I think it is also foolish to believe that one single event defined a countries palate. A palate is a work in progress. Both nations had an established cuisine well before Catherine arrived on the scene.
Important Culinary Books
in the history of French Gastronomy 1373 to 1651
“Gourmandise is an enormous book, always open to whoever knows how to read it, and whose pages offer a series of moving tableaux, whose horizon spreads as far as the eye can see.”
~ Grimod de la Reynière
It has been suggested that French cuisine was unsophisticated prior to Catherine de Médicis. I suggest that there was a sophisticated national cuisine prior to Catherine that kept with the palate of the times and that while the Italian Renaissance did effect French cooking, it started with Platine in 1505, twenty-eight years prior to Catherine’s arrival in France. Catherine may have brought something with her, but most of what she is accredited in contributing has appeared in writing prior to her existence.
The Grand Masters of French Cuisine starts with the oldest French cookbook written in 1290 entitled Traité où l’on enseigne à faire et appereiller tous boires commes vin, clairet, mouré et autres, ainsi qu’a appareiller et assaisoner toutes viands selon divers usages de divers pays or “Treatise where one is taught to make and dress all drinks such as wine, claret, Mouré and others, as well as how to dress and season all meats according to the diverse countries”. Although other books were probably written, the second oldest French book comes 100 years later, in 1380 entitled Le Grand Cuisinier de toute cuisine, “The Great Cookbook of All Kinds of Cooking”. This book has come to be known as Viandier written by Guillaume Tirel whose nickname was Taillevent. In this cookbook, Taillevent gives us wonderful recipes such as Civé de Veel (an early version of Blanquette de Veau), Poached Mullets with sauce Cameline (a sort of relish), Grilled Mullets, Hochepot de Poullaille (Chicken Casserole), Sutil Brouet d’Engleterre (Chestnut Purée from England), Oeufs rôtis à la broche (spit roast eggs), Pâté d’anguilles (eel pate), and Cretonnée de Pois Nouveaux (Green Pea Puree with Chicken) among others.
On first look the food appears to be ancient compared to what we eat now. As a student of gastronomy I can tell you that Blanquette de Veau is still being prepared, as are grilled Mullet, Chicken Casserole, Chestnut Puree, Eel Pate and pureed Green Peas. One could say that the generous uses of what I term medieval spices are no longer in use today. I agree, but that was the fashion of the time. Spices had a great value and only wealthy people could afford them. Spices did not have the luxury of modern vacuum packing and transportation. Therefore spices lost much of their potency through inefficient packing and lengthy travel times from point of origin to the kitchen in France and Italy. I will admit I am not a scholar on early Italian works; some could even argue I am not a scholar on early French works. Perhaps Riccardo, Rogov, or someone else could help us with what the Italians cooked in the mid to late 1300’s. I am certain the cuisine would be similar.
The next book of note to appear on the scene is Le Ménagier de Paris (The Goodman of Paris), written between June of 1392 and September of 1394. Among the recipes, suckling pig stuffed with egg yolks, sausage, chestnuts, cheese, saffron and ginger; Chicken liver and gizzard stew, and eel stew stand out. The middle-aged author wrote the book for the benefit of his 15 year old bride, whom he felt could only give him “petit et ignorant service” without it. Apparently she had begged him to forgive her for her youth and the slight and imperfect service she could render. He wrote the book to quickly educate her on domestic science. The recipes, for the large part, are borrowed from Viandier, but a few new ones did appear.
In 1420, Chiquart Amiczo a book entitled Du Fait de Cuisine (On the Matter of Cookery). He was the Chef to the Duke of Savoy. His book dealt with food preparation as well as planning and arranging enormous feasts that lasted for several days. To quote Early French Cookery, “…staggering logistics involved in preparing for such a feast, even only two days’ duration. In order to allow for something like 57 dishes to be served, the cook must ensure the availability of 100 heads of cattle- to be slaughtered on the spot – along with 130 sheep, 120 pigs, 200 piglets, 200 lambs, 100 calves, 2,000 hens and 12,000 eggs to say nothing of the incredible quantities of wild game and fish, spices, herbs, fruit, sugar, wines, candles, firewood, filter cloth and so forth.” Du Fait de Cuisine gives us valuable information on the royal cuisine of the time.
Maestro Martino whose recipes appeared in the mid 1400’s in “De honesta voluptate et valetudine” (Of Honest Indulgence and Good Health) by Baptiste Platine de Crémone, did have dishes that appear to be more familiar with what we would label as Italian cooking today. In his book he lists dishes like Riso con brood di carne (a forerunner to Risotto Milanese), Ravioli in tempo di carne (ravioli for meat days), and Zucche Fritte (zucchini salad). But upon inspection, I see that medieval spices such as saffron, cinnamon and ginger figure prominently in these preparations. It is interesting to note that Riso con brood di carne is of Arabic origins. But, unlike Risotto Milanese, this dish uses eggs instead of grated cheese. The use of rice is also mentioned in Taillevent’s book. Platine, as the work was commonly known as, first appeared in print in France in 1505 under the name Platine en françois très utile et necessaire pour le corps humain, que traicte de honest volupté et de toutes viands et choses que l’ome mange, quelles vertus ont, et en quoy nuysent ou proffitent au corps humain, et comment se doyvent apprester ou appreiller, et de fair à chascune dicelles viands soit chair ou poysson sa proper saulce et des propriétés et vertus que ont les dites viands. Et du lieu et place convenable à l’ome pour abiter et de plusieurs gentillesses par quoy l’ome se peut maintenir en prospérité et santé sans avoir grant indigence d’avoir aultre médecin sil est homme de rayson or Platine in French, Very useful and necessary for the human body, which treats of honest pleasures and of all meats and things that men eat, what their virtues are, and how they hurt or help the human body, and how they should be prepared and dressed, and how to make for each one of these meats, either flesh or fish, its own sauce, and the properties and virtues that which he can maintain his prosperity and health, with no need to have any doctor, if he be a man of reason. One hell of a title to retype! Platine became very popular in France was published repeatedly for 100 years. The book details all the things eaten in the sixteenth century. He mentions 15 different salad plants. He describes how whale blubber was the fat used by poor people; that porpoise was a noble fish and that one should let it age. That it is better roasted than boiled. And if you are to boil it, it is better in wine than water. He also describes Catalan cookery.
The Italian influence continued with Opera nuova intitolata Dificio de recette, printed in Venice in 1541. The book was translated into French the same year and appeared as Bastiment de recettes (Edifice of Recipes). In 1551, a Parisian bookseller published Manière de faire toutes confitures (Manner of Making all Sorts of Confectionery). There is dispute whether the author was French or an Italian living in Paris. In 1552, Nostradamus published a book, which is most likely the first French pastry book entitled Le Confiturier Français.
Olivier de Serres’s book “Théâtre de l’Agriculture et mesnage des Champs (Theater of Agriculture and Care of the Fields) was printed in 1600 and completely revolutionized agriculture in France. De Serres encouraged their use in cooking and experimented with varieties never grown in France before. He suggested planting rice in Camargue and was the first person to talk about the advantages of the potato as food. Yes, well before Antoine Augustin Parmentier promoted their use in the last quarter of the eighteenth century.
In 1604, Lancelot de Casteau’s Ouverture de cuisine appeared, written in French outside of France by a non-Frenchman. It is one of the first books to list an international collection of recipes for both savory and sweets. Lancelot de Casteau described himself as a native of Mons, near Liège. Lancelot describes the menu of a banquet in 1557 where he served turkey, multi colored gelatins, medieval favorites such as roast swan, peacock pies and bustards. Further in the book he describes Italian specialties: raviolis, Bologna sausage and Parmesan cheese.
The next major work was that of Joseph Du Chesne. Le Pourtraict de la Santé (Portrait of Good Health) was published in 1606. In it he advises that nothing will restore “beaten health” like a leg of lamb with fresh breadcrumbs and lemon juice. He continues by telling us that sardines are best fried in butter and served with lemon juice. My favorite advice has to be that after dinner “everyone should stay at the table, without moving, for a good half hour, chatting agreeably with each other.” AMEN.
In 1607, a book entitled “Thrésor de santé ou mesnage de la vie humaine” (Treasures of Good Health or the Care of Human Life) was published. It is the first book to discuss regional favorite such as Saucisson de Lyon and Andouillettes de Troyes.
And finally, this brings us to “Le Cuisinier François” written in 1651 by Pierre de la Varenne. La Varenne was the founder of classical French cuisine. Dishes like: pumpkin pie, Boeuf a la mode, Oeufs a la neige, omelettes, beignets appear. Dishes like stuffed mushrooms, Chicken casserole with green peas, eel pate en croute, asparagus in cream sauce, and Ragout of rabbit are also included. He went on to write a pastry book as well.
In conclusion, I would like to see specifically how Catherine de Médicis, herself, affected French cuisine. For every chronicle of her feasts I can provide chronicles of feasts with similar lavish presentations. There is no doubt of an Italian effect on French cuisine, but it started before her, in 1505. I haven’t been able to find a book with a reference to her exactly, other than ones written in very recent history. I haven’t seen or heard of a book written by her Chef. I have however, listed many notable books from the French and Italians alike who wrote the books that the influenced the cooks of the time.
“No rule exists for such compositions;
they are at the mercy of the artist’s genius.”
Grimod de le Reynière
- 1 small Watermelon, peeled and sliced ½ inch thick, cut into circles
- 1 each Yellow Tomatoes, peeled, sliced ½ inch thick, cut into circles
- 1 each Red Tomatoes, peeled, sliced ½ inch thick, cut into circles
- 1 each Green or Black Tomatoes, sliced ½ inch thick, cut into circles
- 2 T. fruity Olive Oil
- 1 T. Balsamic Vinegar
- 1 c. Reggiano Parmesan, finely grated
- [br]Piquillo Sorbet
- 1 T. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- 4 each Shallots, rough sliced
- 28 oz. can Piquillo Peppers
- 1 cup Simple Syrup
- 1 t. Fleur de Sel
- 1 T. Aleppo Pepper, or Espelette Pepper
- 1 each Lemon, juiced and zested
- 1 T. fresh Thyme, chopped
- Sauté shallots in olive oil.
- Mix shallots, Piquillo peppers, simple syrup, fleur de sel, Aleppo pepper, lemon juice and fresh thyme and puree in a blender.
- Freeze in your ice cream machine according to manufacturer’s instructions. Reserve.
- Put small mounds of parmesan on a sil baking sheet and bake till melted, bubbly and lightly brown. Let cool for a few seconds, then pick up and lay over a wine bottle. Allow to cool fully retaining a rounded tile shape.
- Cut watermelon and tomatoes.
- Arrange tomato and watermelon circles on chilled plates.
- Cover with plastic wrap and chill till you are ready to eat.
- [br]At Dinner Time:
- Drizzle with fruity olive oil, balsamic vinegar and season with fleur de sel and black pepper. Put a scoop of pipérade sorbet in the center and top with a parmesan tuile.
- 2 oz. Olive Oil
- 2 medium Carrots, peeled, sliced
- 1 each Leek, cleaned, diced
- 1 rib Celery, peeled, diced
- 2 cloves Garlic, mashed
- Pinch Saffron
- 2 t. fresh Thyme Leaves
- 1 T. Flour
- 1 c. White Wine
- 4 cups Fish Stock
- 1 each Tomato, diced
- ½ c. Tomato Sauce
- Four – 4 oz. pieces Wild Salmon
- 24 each Mussels
- 12 each Shrimp
- 4 sliced Crostini
- 1 T. chopped Parsley
- [br]Mise en Place (before your party)
- Sauté carrots, leeks and celery in olive oil for about five minutes, or until tender.
- Add garlic and saffron and continue cooking till the aroma permeates the air and causes you to drool.
- Sprinkle flour and thyme and stir into vegetables.
- Deglaze with white wine and fish stock. Bring to a boil and let simmer.
- Add tomatoes and tomato sauce. Check seasoning. Chill. Reserve.
- [br]Fire (when your guests are seated)
- Bring Gauzzetto to a boil. Add seafood. Cook about five minutes, or until seafood is cooked. Spoon into four warmed bowls, garnish with chopped parsley and a crostini then enjoy!
- [br]Pistachio Cake:
- 50 grams fine Polenta
- 200 grams ground Pistachios
- 50 grams Flour
- 1 t. Baking Powder
- 125 ml. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- 100 grams Butter, melted and cooled
- 3 each Eggs
- 200 grams Sugar
- 1 each Lemon, zested
- 1 each Orange, juiced
- [br]Silk Road Cherries
- 250 grams Cherries, pitted
- 25 grams Butter
- 75 grams Sugar
- 25 grams Pistachios, ground
- 1 stick Cinnamon
- Pinch Nutmeg
- 1each Vanilla Bean, split and scraped
- [br]Mise en Place (before your party)
- Mix polenta, pistachio flour, flour and baking powder together.
- Mix extra virgin olive oil and melted butter.
- Beat eggs and sugar till pale.
- Mix eggs into olive oil.
- Add wet to dry.
- Add lemon zest and orange juice.
- Butter and paper four – 4 ounce ramekins.
- Pour batter in and bake at 300 degrees till done, about ten minutes. Reserve.
- Melt sugar and butter together. Cook to light caramel.
- Add spices, vanilla, pistachio and cherries. Cook till liquid again. Reserve.
- [br]Fire (when your guests are seated)
- Unmold a pistachio cake unto a ten inch plate. Top with cherries, drizzle sauce around and garnish with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Today we headed out to Moustiers Sainte Marie for sightseeing and dining at Alain Ducasse’s low key Provencal concept Bastides de Moustiers. Moustiers is a small village clinging to the cliffs in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. It lies at the western entrance of the Gorges du Verdon, France’s version of the Grand Canyon. The village has been a center for beautiful hand painted faïence pottery for centuries.
Above the town, a gold star hangs on a 670 foot long chain suspended between two cliffs. According to the legend, during the Crusades the knight Bozon de Blacas was held prisoner by the Saracens and vowed to hang a star over the village on his return. The legend was popularized by Provençal poet Frédéric Mistral.
The town is another one of those amazingly beautiful Provencal towns you wish you could just take home with you. The steep narrow streets are home to several artisans and restaurants. We were lucky to come on a market day which added even more character to an already colorful town. Beaumont, as usual, ran to every single fountain in town and to all the amazing views of 50 foot waterfalls that run thru the town center.
The town is surrounded by super fertile farmland where every single amazing lavender shot you see of Provence is taken. Since it was early for lavender I took the obligatory beautiful sheep picture instead. Beau was in heaven as his favorite toy is a stuffed sheep named bah bah. Poor Beau sounded like he had Tourette syndrome with the repeated bah bahs.
The absolute highlight of the day and by far the best dining experience of the trip was at Michelin superstar Alain Ducasse’s Bastide du Moustiers. I have eaten at two other Ducasse restaurants, Louis XV in Monte Carlo and Alain Ducasse in Paris and been wowed. I expected no less here.
Dining in a proper French restaurant is a quasi-religious experience. It really starts before you eat, even long before you sit down at your table. The experience starts as you pull into the property. I think the single thing we miss the most in most of our restaurants that appreciation of the food/wine experience has as much to do with the mood you are in as it does the actual food/wine. If you are in a terrible mood no food on Earth will taste good to you. If you are incredibly happy even a mediocre meal can bring ecstatic joy. Part of upscale dining is creating that mood early and reinforcing it throughout. The drive onto your property, the landscaping, the genuine reception you receive as you encounter employees along the way, the décor of the restaurant, the restaurant setting, a pleasing menu, a few simple bites of food to nosh over while drinking a glass of champagne to the actual food. I might even argue the experience begins at home when we read about the restaurants and drool over pictures and menus.
The meal started with glasses of Alain Ducasse’s signature Champagne, a selection of crunchy flat breads and just picked French radishes with herbed Fromages Blanc. It may not sound so exquisite but it set the tone for what the concept is. While nibbling and drinking Champagne we chose the menu and ordered a bottle of 1999 Chateau Rayas Blanc, a straw colored wine that was poetry in a glass. It absolutely sang with our first and second courses.
The first course was a super flavorful puree of Asparagus with Goat Cheese Raviolis and shaved Asparagus. They set the perfectly heated bowl down with three raviolis and three thin slices of asparagus and poured the puree over.
The second course was Salted Codfish with Fennel and Olives. There was pureed fennel, roasted fennel and raw fennel slices. The Chateau Rayas sang with both courses amazingly well, for different reasons. For the main course and cheese we switched to the best wine of the trip which was a Domaine de Trévallon from 2001. The nose was ungodly good and the flavor was sublime.
The roasted Veal Chop was presented whole on a silver platter then carved into thick slices and served on Swiss Chard stems with veal stock. Swiss Chard leaves were blanched and tossed with a fruity olive oil. Simple, uncomplicated flavors showcasing quality ingredients. Simple appearing food is much harder to pull off than plates with 20 ingredients on. The real art is not how much you can put on BUT how much you can take off. The veal was so tender and flavorful.
Astute followers of my diatribes probably guessed that cheese was coming next. The cheeses were all local and served with two condiments, a sweet pepper jam and a caramelized onion and black pepper jam. The onion jam was crazy.
Dessert was just picked sweet as candy strawberries with a fromage blanc sorbet served with a 50 cl bottle of Domaine Allemand ~ Goutte de Soleil from 2010 that absolutely married the dessert. Not on the menu was the first of a series of surprises starting with a rhubarb tart, also just picked from the garden.
Next was an unexpected plate of handmade white chocolate flavored lightly with lemon; hazelnut biscotti and strawberry gelee. The meal finished with homemade limoncello poured from a gigantic bottle. We were reminded by the Monty Python routine where the waiter tries to get a guest to eat just one more thin wafers. Just one more thin wafer. It was spectacular. We ended with a tour of the kitchen, pastry kitchen and purchases on a Ducasse book.
Wow and Goodnight!
Definition of EPIGRAM
1: A concise poem dealing pointedly and often satirically with a single thought or event and often ending with an ingenious turn of thought
Benjamin Franklin’s famous epigram, “Remember that time is money”
– Merriam Webster Dictionary
Definition of EPIGRAM, in food terms
1: A French dish consisting of two slices of lamb, usually a slice from the breast and a chop, cook then breaded and fried.
Phileas Gilbert (1857 – 1942), famous Chef who collaborated with Escoffier on le Guide Culinaire relates the origins of the culinary dish ‘Epigrammes’:
“It was towards the middle of the 18th century. One day a young marquise overheard one of her guests at the table remark that when he was dining the previous evening with the Comte de Vaudreuil, he was charmingly received and, furthermore, had had a feast of excellent epigrams. The marquise, though pretty and elegant, was somewhat ignorant of the meaning of the words. She later summoned Michelet, her Chef. ‘Michelet,’ she said to him, ‘tomorrow, I shall require a dish of Epigrammes.’
The Chef withdrew, pondering the problem. He looked up old recipes, but found no reference to anything of the kind. None of his colleagues had ever heard of the dish. But no French master Chef is ever at a loss. Since he could discover nothing about the dish he set about inventing one. Next day, inspiration came and he created a most delicate dish.
At dinner, the guests fell into ecstasies over the dish before them and, after complimenting the lady of the house, desired to know its name. The Chef was called. With perfect composure he replied, “Epigrammes of Lamb a la Michelet.
Everyone laughed. The marquise was triumphant, though she could not understand the amusement of her guests. From that moment, the culinary repertoire of France was enriched by a name still used to this day.”
Epigramme of Fillet of Trout, from Charles Elme Francatelli’s book entitled “Francatelli’s Modern Cook” (1886 edition):
“Trim the fillets as above (cut to resemble pear shaped fowl breasts), bread crumb one half, in the ordinary manner, and place these into a saute pan, with clarified butter; put the remainder into another saute pan, with clarified butter, without being bread crumbed, and season with pepper and salt. Fry the fillets, drain and dish them up in a close circle, placing one of each kind alternately; fill the center with some scollops of fillet of soles, tossed in a spoonful of Bechamel sauce, and some chopped and par boiled parsley; pour some Aurora sauce over the plain fillets (taking care not to smear those that are bread crumbed), pour some of it round the base, and serve.”
Charles Elme Francatelli was a pupil of Careme and maitre d’hotel and chief cook to the Queen.
Have a glass of Pastis, watch a Marcel Pagnol movie or look at Paul Cezanne’s paintings and get yourself into the mood. Today is all about Marseilles and real Bouillabaisse. We had a passionate discussion over dinner, and I am still convinced there is no other city in the world that argues more about its specialty than Marseilles. Sure, New Yorkers think those crappy pizzas that are synonymous with their city are good (what else would a Chicago boy say?) and are vocal about it. Chicagoans are fervent of their beautiful deep dish pizzas. But the level of enthusiasm pales in comparison to that of Bouillabaisse. In Marseilles, family members cease to be family members, neighbors’ houses razed while they are on vacation and gardens gnomes gone swimming with the fish Godfather style over the correct Bouillabaisse fish. Marseilles even has a charter that TELLS you, rather than guide you as to which fish may swim into the Bouillabaisse and which cannot.
We started the day early with croissant and pain au chocolat from a Boulangerie in Cheval Blanc then braced ourselves for an exhilarating ride through Marseilles morning traffic. A few times I was obligated to play chicken with a Gauloise smoking truck driver as we fought for lane domination. If you ever find yourself lacking colorful adjectives for that play you are writing just take a ride through Marseilles rush hour. We finally docked the Renault near the Vieux Port and took to the streets by foot.
The first stop was a store that specializes in all things Provence. I am always nervous when Lisa goes in here. It is much like when I slip into a bookstore and come out 16 cookbooks fatter trying to pretend like nothing happened. Lisa bought several gifts for family and friends back home.
For the next few hours we wondered thru the streets of Old Marseilles dodging dog turds, photographing cool looking doorways and drinking Pastis. One has to work up an appetite for Bouillabaisse. Marseilles is the second largest city in France and the largest port in Europe. The earliest human evidence, dating back 30,000 years, have been found in the underwater caves near Cosquer and depict two Frenchmen fighting over what are the correct bouillabaisse fish. Marseilles was founded in 600 BC by Greeks from Phocaea as a trading port under the name Massalia. It transferred to Roman control, was conquered by the Moors and now us. The streets are so narrow and small that you are amazed your car fits let alone the one racing towards you at a cool 137 kilometers per hour.
Simone looking at Beau like he is nuts
for suggesting that shellfish are part of a true bouillabaisse
After a delicious pastis in old Marseilles we returned to our cars and drove to l’Epuisette for an epic lunch. L’Epuisette is somewhere you should go to at least ten times before you die. The bouillabaisse needs to be ordered 24 hours earlier.
I present our epic meal at l’Epuisette in pictures as words will fail to adequately describe it.
Auguste, my cousin Catherine and Roland’s amazing child, gave Beaumont Sophie le Giraffe
Amuse Bouche number one: three mousses Bouillabaisse, Asparagus and Mushroom
Amuse Bouche number Two Scallop larded with Bacon in a Cream Sauce
Aioli, Gruyere and Rouille With Garlic Crouton for the first course
Bouillabaise: an Act in two courses Bouillabaisse is ALWAYS served in two courses. First the broth the whole fish were cooked in is served with croutons smeared with rouille and covered in gruyere.
The broth is wonderful and perfumed with pastis, saffron and garlic.
After first and possibly second helpings of broth are served the whole fish are presented as to show ‘Mais Oui, we know the correct fish’
The congel eels, chapon, grendin, rascasse and st. pierre are lined up fileted on your plate waiting a few ladle fulls of broth to be spooned over
Note the correct silver utensils for eating fish. Every piece of silverware is correctly sized and fitted for proper surgery on the course in front of you. I would have licked my plate but people were watching.
Bouillabaisse is a religion. After decades of street battles and disappeared garden gnomes the Chefs of Marseilles created the Bouillabaisse Charter of 1980 to codify the ingredients and still the guns of war. 11 restaurants signed on and the war rages.
The Best Cheese I have ever Eaten, bar none The cheeses were served with an unbelievable fig bread
Following desserts was trio of mignardises Lemon Tart, Raspberry Macaroons & Chocolate Bombes
“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.”
― Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
The French have the good sense NOT to serve coffee till you are finished with your sweets. I never understood why someone would want to hide the flavors of an apple tart with the overpowering flavors of coffee. If you think about it, it simply makes no sense. A good meal is to be lingered over and enjoyed. No rushed and hurried experience that promotes indigestion.
Servers won’t even bring your bill till you ask for it. I have gotten into so many arguments over the years about the French relationship to eating versus the American. Maybe like an infant, we are just a young nation and haven’t learned proper conduct at the table.
Outsanding View from the Dining Room
Beaumont and Auguste play on the glass floor in the dining room Ocean waves crashed below creating an unparalleled experience
The three cousins! Catherine, Francois et Andre avec Auguste
We arrived back in Epernay with the same foreboding feeling my friend and Vietnam vet buddy Jim Groeger must have felt when returning to the scene of a horrendous battle a few days later only to retake the same hill again. I imagined the streets littered with empty bottles from yesterday’s excesses. Thank god the ghosts of bottles drank were gone and the streets clear. Whew!
Looking at road signs in a wine region is a bit like reading a great wine list. Every direction offers great possibilities. Which way to turn, towards Bollinger or Rene Geoffrey? Today we headed to one of the best small producers in the region at the behest of my friend Peter Zitz who works for America’s foremost distributor, Michael Skurnik.
Rene Geoffrey is one of the superstars in this neck of the woods, and one of the few who does no malo fermentation and actually makes rose champagne the way rose champagne ought to be made. Trivia tidbit, only two percent of rose Champagne is made saignée. In short, saignée is one of the methods of making rosé wines, along with blending white and red wine. It is simply macerating (allowing contact with skins to leech out color and flavor) the wine with the skins for a short period of time. 98% of rose Champagne is made by adding red wine.
Jean Baptiste Geoffroy started making Champagne closer to his vineyards with part of the production occurring at his, his father’s and his grandmother’s houses. Life was chaotic and confusing and spread out. Luckily he found a building an old cooperative had operated that he modified with an ingenious gravity fed wine making system and moved his production there. The size of the building allowed grapes to be trucked to a higher street where his two huge wine presses are located.
The grapes are pressed and the juice passes through a series of pipes that go down one level, deeper into the caves. Using gravity rather than pumps is gentler on the wine and therefore preferred. Everyday each and every bottle is given either an 1/8 or 1/4 turn. Every one of his 10,000 bottles he makes each year. Some of this is mechanically done and some by hand.
After the tour we tasted three different Champagnes and a rustic still wine he makes using solely Pinot Meunier grapes. We were excited because we had never tried one. Look at the crazy stairs between levels of his cave.
After the tasting and a prix fixe lunch at a non-descript brasserie we headed back to the Chateau with high hopes of napping. Eating and drinking takes its toll on your body. Please, no tears for our excesses. Upon arrival, Beaumont decided he would torture us by carting him around the property for a survey of the fountains and moat. That boy is single minded…
The Chateau was originally built in the 12th and 13th century and received many notable members of the French royalty including both Louis the XIII and Louis the XVI (obviously before he and his head became separated during the revolution). Parts of the castle crumbled with time and some, such as the original bridge, crumbled under the weight of royal carriages. Parts were added throughout the centuries and parts faded into memories. Beaumont is related to the Louis line through my father’s side of the family.
Dinner brought us back to the city of Epernay and onto what seems to be the only street we drink and eat on. We arrived promptly on time for our 7:30 reservation at Caves du Champagne for a bit of local cuisine and more Champagne. The tiny storefront restaurant was packed and the guests looked decidedly unhappy to see a 15 month old boy enter. Thank god Beau did not let the crowd down with a rare performance that hurls this tiny gourmand into the annals of terror with his ear splitting screaming and chucking of water glasses. Times like this make me want to crawl under the table and curl up in fetal position sobbing incoherently. As a parent you quickly realize who has had children and who hasn’t. Other parents look at you with sympathy, kindness and understanding. Non parents shoot visual death daggers at you. We ate three delicious courses and drank Champagne quicker than you can say “ah”. Lisa started with a terrine of foie gras with Ratafina Gelee, a local sweet aperitif while I inhaled six oysters gratinee. I ate them so quickly I didn’t notice they scorched my throat till later. For our main courses, Lisa had a wonderful Magret of Duckling with Green Grapes and I sautéed Sweetbreads with Girolle Mushrooms. Beaumont paused his tantrum long enough to eat most of my sweetbreads. As a parent, you learn to give whatever petit Satan wants just to quiet him long enough to recoup. Both courses were very very good and complimented the champagne well. I must admit the small amount of sweetbreads Beaumont let me eat really brought out the apple flavors of our R. Pouillon Cuvee de Reserve. Slight reprieve before Beaumont’s act two began. Somewhere during dessert Lisa fled under the table and tossed Beau at me. Everything was hunky dory till he grabbed a small water glass and doused me with holy water as if to exorcise the demons from within. This actually brought the Chef owner out who clearly was not a parent. With Lisa now trying to speak French and pretend neither Beau nor me was related I fled the dining and escaped to the technological world of our über modern Peugeot. In retrospect I think the dining room was too small and crowded and offered too much stimulation for Beau. One day we will return, though I probably will wear a fake set of glasses with a plastic nose… For those keeping score I believe it is Christians 0, Lions 1…
bon soir and bon nuits and tomorrow brings Burgundy in all her splendor!
“Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy;
they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”
― Marcel Proust
I want to express thanks to all the people in my life that helped get me to this point, even if kicking and screaming was involved on my part. I would be remiss if I did not thank my beautiful wife and partner in life, Lisa, who has been the sun nurturing my soul with her wisdom and encouragement. With her I have shared some of the best moments of my life and hope to share in many, many more. My little son Beaumont who’s inquisitiveness and true joy of life has retaught lessons that I have long forgotten or buried beneath the dust and cobwebs of being an adult. He has shown me that children are often more wise than their elders. I thank my mother and father for not only the obvious of bringing me into this world, but for sharing their passion for culture and gastronomy. It because of who they were that I am what I am. The picture below sits on my desk and fills my heart with untold happiness to see my folks at a very happy moment of their lives.
I want to thank my step father Karl Fritz, sister Anne, Joan and Gary Verne all for different reasons. I thank all the sous chefs I have ever been blessed to work with; Jason and Doug for many crazy times in New York living the dream. I thank Dave “the Animal” in PEI for an unbridled joy, fire and an intensity he brings to the kitchen elevating everyone and everything around him. I seriously walk in the kitchen every single day trying just to be a bit like him. I thank Beau Mac for looking long and hard and finding me in my witness relocation program far from the ranges, hiding among 10,000 gallon fermenting tanks at Bob and Claudia’s amazing winery in Northern California. His passion has relight the fire that glows white hot in my heart today. Pay it forward… Pay it back… I should probably thank all my mentors who’s love for cooking and kicking my ass on a daily basis got me to stand before the stage on which I am faced. There were many, but most notably, Michel Leborgne, Michel Martinez, Louis Szathmary and Franklin Biggs. These guys were legends in my my formative years and still hold a special place in my heart. In adding to them I must thank Joel Robuchon who let me do a short stage while on vacation in 1996. It is amazing how much one’s life can be upended in such a short amount of time. Going further down the culinary road I must be thankful to all the great Chefs who have lived before… They carried the torch, le feu sacre, forward throughout history and defined our culture and what distinguishes us from other animals. Without the greats like Careme, Garlin, Dubois, Nignon, Escoffier, Point… where would we be today?
So on this beautifully warm February day, I am thankful for so much. A special thanks to Lee Morcus for putting together a wild collection of characters who will people Figue, the latest greatest Mediterranean restaurant. It will be one hell of a ride!
“The Mediterranean cuisine is one of the most colorful and vibrant in the world, providing sensual dishes flavored with wild herbs gathered from the hillsides; lamb and chicken are often roasted whole over coals; vegetables are abundant and used in a wide variety of soups, bakes and salads.”
The menu of Figue is the story of the Mediterranean. The history of food and culture is one of conquerors, immigrants and trade. Each wave brought far off ingredients and cooking techniques and a melding of the peoples. For example, Provence has a long history of being colonized by foreigners. Early Ligurian and Celt tribes intermarried with the local people. Phoenician galleys brought Greek traders and eventually founded a trade post in Massalia, the future city of Marseille. The Greeks gave Provence olives and grapes. The expansion of olive groves and civilization went hand and hand with the expansion of the Greeks and Phoenicians. It has been said that the Mediterranean ends where olives cease to grow. The Romans came to help protect the besieged Greeks. Eventually claiming the region as theirs and forming ‘Provincia’, the first Roman Provence outside of Italy. The Romans built some of their greatest cities, Nîmes, Arles and Orange. Anchoïade, the sauce made from Anchovies, Garlic and Olive Oil is a close cousin to the famed Roman sauce Garum. Salt cod came from the Romans. The Moors at one point controlled 3/4 of the Mediterranean. Only the Roman Empire reached further. The invading Moors brought the habit of serving many small vegetable appetizers as well as a preference of saffron flavored rice to potatoes. They introduced lamb, eggplant and almonds. Many of Marseille’s residents are descendants of immigrants from Italy, Spain, and North Africa. Marseille was also a major resettlement point for former colonists who returned to Europe when Algeria became independent in 1962.
The cuisine and culture of the people continued to be influenced by galleys that sailed to distant outposts in the Far East and North Africa. Marseilles and other Mediterranean ports were major points on the trade route. Trade route brought exotic ingredients like saffron, olives, tomatoes, salt cod, eggplants, peppers and many other staples to Provence. Immigrants and ship crews brought different techniques and recipes. Salted codfish from the New World was being eaten in France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece and other nations. Tomatoes from the Americas became an important part of the diet. Arab traders brought various fruits and vegetables. Each culture left their own unique imprint on the people, culture and gastronomy of the Mediterranean.
The countries surrounding the Sea share the blue azure waters, temperate climates with hot summers and mild winters. Each country grows and raises products loyal to the seasons, artichokes, squash, fennel and a bounty of wild mushrooms in the Fall; lemons, oranges and other citrus fruits in the Winter; asparagus, radishes, lettuces in Springs; and the bounty of tomatoes, eggplants, onions, garlic in the Summer.
The menu at Figue will capture the spirit and sensibilities in an American way. Less locked into the cultural dogmas and more focused on the vibrancy of the experience…
Chef Francois de Melogue
Below is my charcuterie card that will be on each table and in the bar area…
I always say that I don’t believe I’m a chef. I try to be a storyteller. – Jose Andres
Sguazabarbuz, or beard splasher, is an Italian pasta and bean soup from Ferrara. The story starts on May 29, 1503 when Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of Pope Alexander VI, came to Ferrara to marry Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. A steward of the Palace, taking inspiration from her golden locks, created this special pasta and bean soup in her honor. The pasta was cut into irregular strips that resembled her hair.
The sauce for Oysters Rockefeller is made by previously preparing parsley, spinach, celery and onion tops and other greens, in a meat grinder; the greens must be ground very fine; to this add the juice of lemon and melted butter. One tablespoonful of this sauce is poured over each oyster when being taken from the shells, and just before serving.
Recently I had the great pleasure of working with father and son restaurateurs Kaiser and Lee Morcus in reinventing their steakhouse menu at ‘Chop House’, located on Highway 111 in Palm Desert. If you are a bar habitué you may have noticed a lot of mixologists have sections for retro and classic cocktails alongside modern and sometimes very innovative creations. I have sampled forgotten classics like Corpse Reviver (late 19th century) and Police Gazette Cocktail (1901) next to modern takes on Bellini’s and Mai Tai’s to inspired combinations like the Snap Pea Southside. I always thought the same approach would be well suited for restaurants, particularly steakhouses where food expectations are more classically rooted….