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The American Winner of the 2012 GOURMAND World Cookbook Award: A celebration and critique of the French culinary landscape and a gastronomical excursion across the French countryside in search of the unsung cooks who are still doing it right.A culinary memoir that brings to life some of the most fascinating, glamorous food years in France and reveals gastronomical treasures from gifted artisans of the French countryside.Dryansky’s stories are the stuff of legend—evenings with Coco Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent, ...
The American Winner of the 2012 GOURMAND World Cookbook Award: A celebration and critique of the French culinary landscape and a gastronomical excursion across the French countryside in search of the unsung cooks who are still doing it right.A culinary memoir that brings to life some of the most fascinating, glamorous food years in France and reveals gastronomical treasures from gifted artisans of the French countryside.Dryansky’s stories are the stuff of legend—evenings with Coco Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent, historic wine auctions and memorable banquets—but Coquilles, Calva, and Créme is more than memories. These same memories prompt a journey across modern-day France, through kitchens, farms, and vineyards, offering a savory experience that can be duplicated by the reader afterward with numerous recipes, most of which have never before been recorded.In the world of today’s professional cooking, publicity-chasing and performance has overshadowed the importance of dining and the food itself. Too often the modern restaurant is a mixture of bizarre novelty and paradoxical clichés. Truly great dining happens when you’re fully engaged in the moment, acknowledging the range of associations that emerge, as Proust wrote, from sensory experiences. From small cafés in Paris to Normandy, Alsace, the Basque country, and beyond, Dryansky takes us on a sweeping sensory journey, with a voice as thoughtful as Kingsolver, as entertaining as Bourdain, and as cogent and critical as Pollan.
Joanne and I were heading to a village called Orvilliers to begin this book with the accomplishments of a twenty-six-year-old chef, who was cooking and catering out of a tiny country restaurant. Not long ago, he had revived, with both admiration and inspiration, his mother's cooking, which had become legendary in the region, the acme of exceptional cuisine bourgeoise.
We took the train, careful not to drive, after what we suspected would be a well-irrigated lunch, but we'd motored this way many times before. Less than an hour southwest of Paris, after the highway climbs out of the bowl in which the bright city lies, and quickly past the edges of suburbia, you're in another, green country. The meadows roll, dotted by little forests.
You pass the discreet roads that lead to the secondary homes of what, in the pecking order of French class identification, are still sometimes called la grande bourgeoisie and the second-tier bonne bourgeoisie. In the first tier, for example, a gaggle of Guerlain perfume heirs have houses here. The designer Philippe Starck, as attached as he is to the cutting edge of present mores, had an old house in Montfort l'Amaury that belonged to his father, a noted airplane manufacturer. Celebrities have also lived here. Montfort is where the composer Maurice Ravel had his retreat. Edith Piaf, who was once a street waif in the slums of Paris, realized a dream manor nearby, and Colette, who lived in a cozy little apartment overlooking the Place du Palais Royal, aired out her life retreating to the green, in the regional village of Méré, which may have recalled her country childhood....
The structure of French society, happily, is much more permeable these days, the rungs on the ladder not so perilously distant between the grande, the bonne, and the petite bourgeoisie, and all others who are simply the people or la noblesse, with those names as long as dresser drawers, as the French like to say. I'm in no way nostalgic about the meticulously divisive system that prevailed, in the French Republic, well into the twentieth century and that still hangs on here and there. It was never my realm. But this privileged and lovely little pastoral region near Paris still exists, and travelers who are drawn to get in touch with the particularity of places, in a physical world getting more and more homogenized, could do worse than take a leisurely drive through Montfort l'Amaury, Les Mesnuls, on to Orvilliers ... and on the back roads toward Houdan.
My own memories here bring to mind an unpretentious older couple, good friends to Joanne and me; we lived near each other in Paris. Pierre Schildge was the heir to a company renowned for making luxurious silk fabric. His wife, Liliane, was from a banking family, and they had a house in Les Mesnuls, near Orvilliers, forty minutes during off-hours from Paris, with a tenant farmer on the property and a couple of saddle horses. Pierre was mayor of Les Mesnuls, an honorary position, which required him to wear a red, white, and blue sash when he married people in the town hall before the many elegantly catered, country-estate wedding parties. When the champagne flowed and the cuisine was elegant too.
Like its class system, French cuisine has had its divisions, sharper, as I say, than they are now. The regional differences are obvious; the social differences were equally marked off: la grande cuisine, la cuisine bourgeoise, and the no less delicious, when deft, economical dishes of the most humble, that are still unabashedly called—with the ingrained class snobbery that has also been a characteristic of France—les plats canailles. Food for the rogues, with a great presence of cheap cuts and entrails that become, with canny treatment, memorably good.
La grande cuisine was once the purview of a handful of master cuisiniers who turned banquets into dramatic experiences for the summit of society. La cuisine bourgeoise has been the traditional fare of the well-off. It's the food that used to be prepared by the cooks who were part of every prosperous household.
The savory, full effluvia coming out of a concierge's Parisian lodgings that you passed at mealtimes announced the presence of les plats canailles....
In Orvilliers, near Liliane and Pierre's house in Les Mesnuls, there was a place we loved to go to with them. The luxury or perhaps the perceived ostentation of having resident cooks was already gone from even the grandest households among those country houses. Liliane cooked herself, quite simply, with the exception of an occasional imaginative dish out of Elle magazine. La cuisine bourgeoise at its high end of finesse was all the same kept alive locally for those for whom it was a fading heritage, by a corpulent couple in a tiny place on the road to Houdan. They were surrogate cooks to all the great houses, through a bustling catering business. They also had a restaurant called La Table d'Hôte with a few tables. The wife did most of the cooking. The husband, who'd been successful in an antiburglary equipment business, and who had turned exclusively to his interest in food usually did the serving. Their cuisine bourgeoise was at its most refined level and of the highest quality we've known.
Their son is at it again.
Pierre Petit has retired, but his wife, Christine, still keeps a hand in the place, where Sébastien, their son, reigns over the stove with a sure and resourceful hand.
A chauffeur-driven Mercedes had come and gone, Sébastien said, before we arrived. Out of it had stepped four bejeweled, leggy, blonde Russian women, who'd also come to eat. They wanted breaded shrimp with French fries, and Sébastien gently told them they'd come to the wrong spot. No doubt their directions, if not their taste, were right. Sébastien's place, now known as Le Relais Gourmand, was probably recommended to them by someone with the right Parisian friends, also staying at the Ritz. The guidebooks haven't shown attention to this place, but the wealthy are a kind of cosmopolitan fraternity, and members have houses out here. Nothing, however, about Sébastien's Relais Gourmand—with its two gazebos sheltering tables and chairs on the lawn, a dining room with white and floral fabric and prints on the walls—speaks of opulence or ostentation.
Serendipity brought the Petits to this spot in 1987, after the police had called Pierre to repair an ATM machine that had been burglarized in nearby Houdan. On his way, he saw the house at the end of the lawn here for sale, a stone house with a roof of ancient tiles, built by hand by the owner selling it. Pierre was fifty years old, and when Christine jumped at the idea, he decided to give up his antiburglary business to begin a new life here in the country, centered around their former avocation: cooking pedigreed French cuisine in its most delectable state of refinement.
At the end of the lawn near the road, there was an outbuilding in disrepair and covered with bramble. They restored it and made it into their kitchen and restaurant. Once it had been the servant quarters of the man whose ancient house was across the narrow road. He lived there in the early sixties with his Croatian mistress, far from the excited life he'd led elsewhere in the world. His name was Orson Welles.
When Joanne and I first came here with Liliane and Pierre, anxious to taste, in particular, Christine Petit's incomparable hollandaise sauce, Welles's former house had been squatted in and vandalized. Not long before Sébastien took over, a similar fate had struck the restaurant. Tired after a few years, the Petits had sold the place to someone who ran it into the ground and ran up bills. With the help of local artisans and some of the guys he'd grown up with, Sébastien restored the restaurant. They worked on Sundays when everyone was off work elsewhere, and his friends' reward at the end of the day was whatever was in the larder. It was, as our lunch would confirm, no small reward.
Sébastien had promised his grandmother he'd follow in his parents' footsteps in their devotion to their consummate cuisine bourgeoise that had been renowned throughout the region. He'd been cooking in hotels and restaurants since the age of sixteen, had cooked his first omelet at home at the age of six, and reproduced Christine's extraordinary hollandaise at fourteen.
He had been up since five in the morning the day we arrived, so as to prepare a seven-hour leg of lamb for people coming to taste it that evening for a party he was to cater. A seven-hour leg of lamb is a classic of French cuisine bourgeoise. The lamb, which Sébastien first marinates, is roasted at the low temperature of 185 degrees Fahrenheit for seven hours. It remains pink inside, with no flavor lost.
Sébastien explained that he was accustomed to fifteen-hour workdays, since there is no one else with him in the kitchen. After nights when diners linger until one in the morning, he is up a few hours later to select his ingredients for the day. He drives to Metro, located in a suburb of Paris quite different from Rungis, where the Les Halles market has relocated.
I raised an eyebrow. All I knew about Metro was that it was a professionals-only supermarket where today's run-of-the mill bistros and cafés get industrial food to reheat in their micro-ovens and serve as plats maisons. Ever smell cooking in these places these days?
No, Sébastien assured me. Metro is a huge place whose wares cover the whole range of restaurant food, from the most luxurious, with its freshest produce, fish, and meat stands, to its rows of packaged food. (His take on the place was confirmed to me some time later, when the newspaper Le Monde pointed out that Metro, part of a German-owned conglomerate, had four hundred Michelin-starred restaurants among its customers.) "The advantage of Metro over Rungis," he said, "is that you can get there at 6:00 A.M. and everything has arrived. At Rungis, the things come in one truck at a time, different things at different times, and you have to hang out all morning to fill your needs."
Because his staff is composed of only himself and his mother, with only him in the kitchen, compared to the squad of twenty-odd in a restaurant such as, say, Joël Robuchon's, he can afford to fill his larder at the sections in Metro where the luxurious restaurant people shop.
"I would rather be unemployed," he said, "than make my living by opening cans and packages."
With that Sébastien brought the apéritif maison, the beginning of what would be our exceptionally irrigated, exceptional lunch. We rarely drink anything alcoholic at lunchtime, and we didn't need an apéritif to make us hungry, but the very look of that drink was alluring. Rich ruby red, I said to Joanne, who recognized the color of the velvet in Napoléon Trois décor. The association was not off the mark. The apéritif, an accoutrement of fine dining for centuries, was becoming an antique.
For a long time, the apéritif was an alibi in an alcohol-bibbing culture that had ravaged many a French liver. The big distilleries in the nineteenth century even used to advertise it shamelessly as an aid to your health, enabling your digestive juices to get going, aided, after the meal, by another of their nostrums, the digéstif. Amer Picon, Suze, several vermouths, various versions of pastis, the folkloric beverage of the languorous south, which had replaced absinthe.... There was an apéritif that boasted of the digestive virtues of artichoke present in it, and another that even claimed to be full of oxygen. Nowadays, the French are less alcohol oriented. In an everyday restaurant you'll see more Coca-Cola bottles on the tables of young people than bottles of wine. Just as you see young and old sucking plastic bottles of Coke, once commonly reviled as "le Beaujolais de Texas," in the métro or on the bus. The change has helped out the health insurance system, which was much devoted to dealing with cirrhosis, and also put an important part of the traditional economy, winemaking, in a state of worry. The apéritif makers spend a lot of money on advertising these days, proclaiming ways that their potions, mixed with other beverages, are the new chic. Nobody seems convinced.
For French ceremonial meals, however, beginning with an apéritif lives on. We were going to take the train back to Paris rather than driving with a buzz. It was a lovely summer afternoon under a gazebo. What the heck.... Joanne and I clicked our glasses of the house apéritif in a toast—another antique habit.
Apéritifs are generally distillations of various things, or combine wine with herbs and other flavors. They tend to be at the same time sweet, acid, and bitter. Often they are served mixed with a cold white wine. Think of the kir, a drink of white wine flavored with black currant liqueur, crème de cassis, which I first tasted at a dinner given by Canon Kir, the priest and mayor of Dijon, who invented that apéritif. (He was a great gourmet who ended the speech making at that formal event by shouting, "My pots are burning!")
The most upscale version of a white wine–based apéritif calls for champagne, but in point of fact champagne loses its personality to the strong flavor of the apéritif base, and it's a flashy waste served that way. Honest restaurateurs will give the drink the added pleasure of a fizz using any of a number of effervescent whites.
Sébastien's apéritif contained a crêmant, or bubbly, from Alsace, his mother's native home. The other ingredient was a ratafia.
Ask most Frenchmen today to define a ratafia and you'll draw a blank. This ancient beverage has become far more obscure in French fare than the apéritif in general. A ratafia is fermented rather than distilled, using mashed fruit or dried fruit pits. The ratafia glowing in our glasses, Sébastien explained, was created from the pits and pulp of cherries from the region; they were griottes, of the same bitter-sweet variety that made the cherries of Montmorency, forty-odd miles away, famous, when orchards stood where suburban houses do now. Sébastien adds barley grains to increase the fermentation.
Our long afternoon of gastronomy had begun. These drinks were quite delightful overtures, flashes of fanfare, and our apéritifs went down in time for the first course we'd ordered to arrive: for Joanne, pétoncles, which are tiny relatives of scallops, with sautéed large shrimp, in a sauce of cream and garlic, very slowly thickened. Sébastien would not dream, he said, of thickening his sauces with feculants. Foie gras was my starter, which Sébastien had made from scratch. For the traditional alcoholic maceration of the liver, he had done a mixture of white port, Armagnac, and Madeira, imparting a complex fruitiness that goes well with the taste of the foie, which includes an unctuous, faint bitterness.
Two pink slabs came out with a pear that had been poached in spicy syrup and a brioche with a bit of pistachio in it, a local baker's specialty. With it came a little glass of sweet white wine, naturally sweet, like Sauternes, from having its grapes harvested late, when the "noble rot" that colors them brownish gold imparts its complex sweetness. It was another Alsatian wine, a Gewürztraminer 2007, vendage tardive, from a little vintner named Pierre Sparr in the village of Sigolsheim. The sweet wine and sweet fruit are classic accompaniments to a foie gras appetizer, but I've never drunk a Gewürztraminer that way. This was a contribution of Christine Petit, née Kopp's heritage, a substitute for the Sauternes or say, the Jurançon or Barzac restaurateurs usually serve. This Alsatian wine had the quality of being especially fruity and flowery; it formed a clean fugue with the sweetness, a bright taste like rose petals and citrus.
We didn't regret not having to drive home, when the trou normand arrived shortly afterward. A trou normand is an alcohol-flavored ice that separates courses in a traditional French feast. The trou refers to the clearing of more room in your stomach brought on by the ice's cooling effect on the digestion. Normand speaks of the usual alcohol used, calvados from Normandy.
Excerpted from Coquilles, Calva, & Crème by G. Y. Dryansky, Joanne Dryansky. Copyright © 2012 Andara Films. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
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Posted April 4, 2014
Posted June 6, 2012
This is a compelling food lover's road journey through beautiful France, meeting fascinating people, eating mouthwatering food, lovingly detailed meal after meal. I did not find restaurants where whores congregate today and wonder if that might be another book? Believe me this book is well worth the trip. Barbara MacLaurinWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.