Haute gastronomie

Presentation on a plate

France is known for its gastronomy and one cannot live here without indulging from time to time in ‘un bon gueuleton’ – a familiar French expression for a feast or a bit of a blowout.

While I love to eat, I am not a foodie. I don’t follow the latest culinary trends or keep a bucket list of famous chefs whose cuisine I simply must sample before I die. Still, over the years we have celebrated various occasions with something a little special. Having tried a few Michelin star restaurants of the ‘haute gastronomie’ variety, I must confess that most of these establishments fall short of their promise.

Back in the day when ‘nouvelle cuisine’ was still relatively new, I remember my Belle-mère making a comment along the lines of: “Ça coute la peau des fesses* et tu n’as rien dans l’assiette!” (It costs a fortune and there’s hardly anything in your plate!)

Haute gastronomie

It is certainly true that when it comes to la haute gastronomie, the size of the portion tends to diminish in reverse proportion to the prices on the menu.

That said, I am fine with small portions of very good food, as the mere number of courses and accompanying wines means that you cannot leave the table without feeling full. If not entirely satisfied.

Our latest venture into one of these temples of grande cuisine was last week on holiday in Porto, where there are a number of Michelin-starred chefs. Why Portugal produces so many culinary stars is often explained by the quality of fresh produce, especially from the sea, the variety and richness of their wines and a longstanding tradition of fine food.

It begins with a bit of a show. The room with its perfectly toned-down décor, the greeting and introduction by the maitre d’hôtel, the prolific wait staff wearing black gloves. There is no menu, just a choice of 8 or 12 courses. You balk at this prodigy and go for the modest menu, then realize that the thimble-sized servings are really not going to go a long way towards filling you up.

I chose the menu with wine pairings and regretted it. Each course came with a different vino, and by the time I’d imbibed various glasses of sparkling, port, white and red wines, my palate if not my head was spinning. And while the food was very good, I would have preferred a bit more of one or two things, but overall fewer courses of many tastes and tidbits.

Porto wine porto

What it comes down to for me is a preference for real food cooked with flair and a dash of originality, not so much the molecular gastronomy with its emulsions and foams of intense flavours. Just simple, hearty food of excellent quality cooked with loving care.

Presentation matters to me and the French do it very well. You eat with your eyes as well as your senses of taste and smell. But when the show upstages the food, when the presence of servers overly intrudes upon the experience, and when the final bill is several times what you would have paid for just a very good restaurant meal…perhaps I’ve had my fill.

How about you? Do you enjoy ‘haute’ gastronomy?

*Why ‘la peau des fesses’ or the skin of one’s rear end should represent a large amount of money is a mystery that perhaps our friend Phildange can explain?

Raconter des salades

salades_marche

Lies, lies, lies. Half truths, tall tales and outright fibs. Every time you turn around these days it seems a new one is revealed, from Russian hijinks to politicians (not) paying their taxes.

The French language is filled with colourful expressions and ‘raconter des salades’ is a delightful example. Why one would tell salad tales to spin a yarn is not immediately obvious. Yet by gathering different ingredients and marinating them in a sauce, seasoning them with half-truths and jokes and then serving them up as fresh and healthy…it begins to make sense.

When you think about the meaning of the word ‘salade’ it becomes even clearer. Whereas in English a salad is a dish, in French it is also a lettuce or any of the various leaves that compose such dishes. What duplicity!

‘Salade’ the leaves are many indeed. Growing up in Canada in the ice age of the 1960s, iceberg was the only lettuce we knew. Along came the 70s and we discovered romaine (Hail, Caesar!) and in the 80s the advent of the spinach salad. (Raw spinach? In a salad!?!)

Arriving in France I was amazed by the number and varieties of lettuce and other leaves that people ate raw or dressed with different types of vinaigrette. From mesclun to watercress, frisée to lola rossa…the sheer variety was extraordinary. This image gives you an idea. (How did I never realize that dandelions are literally dents-de-lion, lion’s teeth?)raconter-une-salade

Perhaps most amazingly, there were salads served in restaurants that contained few or no leaves at all: salade de crudités with a variety of raw veg; salade Niçoise, with green beans, potatoes and tuna; salade Grecque with its chunks of feta, tomato and olives. When we moved to Lyon I discovered the salade Lyonnaise with its lovely runny egg and smoky lardons. The frisée lettuce served with this one can make it challenging to consume politely, without splattering vinaigrette or wending one’s knife.

I love salads, and not just because they are good for you. There are lemony carottes rapées (that’s grated, not raped because, let’s face it, if anyone is going to do the raping it is the carrot) and betterave (Better ‘ave ‘em? Beets me!) with lovely mâche and walnuts. As I shared in a previous post, the secret is in la sauce vinaigrette.

Pardon my use of so many silly puns, but is that not in keeping with the telling of salads?

What’s your favourite kind of salad?

Dans la joie et la bonne humeur

Foie gras - don't tell my daughter!
Foie gras – don’t tell my daughter!

Something strange happened when I hit the supermarché last week. The store was busy with shoppers but they seemed oddly unhurried. By the entrance the homeless fellow selling his ‘Sans Abri’ newspaper seemed rather upbeat. I may have glimpsed smiles on people’s lips as they flitted about the aisles, loading bottles and nibbles into their baskets. Une animatrice talked a joyful patter while selling off seafood at half-price as shoppers milled about. I believe I even heard Bing Crosby crooning out a seasonal melody over the sound system.

Qu’est-ce qui se passe? I wondered, filling up my cart as usual (after all these years I’ve never lost my North American habit of stocking up). Christmas is past and the sales haven’t started so what is everyone so happy about?

Then the cashier wished me a ‘bon réveillon’, leaving me scrambling to reply in kind. That was it! New Year’s Eve, the one day of the year you can be sure the French will be smiling.

As I posted way back when I first started this blog, I’ve never quite understood why the French are quite so enamoured with New Year’s. Beyond the big blowout on the 31st, there is real sentiment in France around the fresh start in January, and a feeling that our good wishes must be shared with all those we love.

Having neither party nor family to attend to that evening, we booked a table at a restaurant in town – our go-to solution for le réveillon. The few restaurants that are open on New Year’s Eve near us all offer un menu spécial – a fixed price, multiple-course affair with a glass of bubbly to start. After all the cooking and fussing over Christmas, I was happy to ring out the old year with someone else doing the service.

Death becomes her
Ghost of New Year’s past
New year's dinner 2016
Who can resist such artful presentation?

Out of respect for our feathered friends, and our daughter, who is studying to become a vet and has become rather militant about cruelty to animals, we had decided to henceforth abstain from eating foie gras. But when the restaurant had already gone to so much trouble to prepare such a lovely plate (shown in feature photo above), graced with truffle and onion compote, it seemed too cruel not to do it justice.

There followed a dish of white fish floating in a lovely sauce, then medallions of beef filet with a few veg for good measure and two desserts. By the time we got to the end I was feeling silly and playing with the table decorations.

Baubles from the table

How’s that for a bit of bling?

It was a fitting conclusion to a month of over-indulgence. The smiles are still on the faces of the people I pass on the street, probably at least until the end of this week. After a few more wishes of good health, and a slice of galette des rois, quite possibly accompanied by a few more glasses of champagne, it will be time enough to get back to normal.

‘Dans la joie et la bonne humeur’ is an expression that means, quite literally, ‘with joy and good humour’. I’ve often heard it used with a degree of sarcasm, however, referring to the need to pick up the plough and carry on with a smile. New year’s oblige.

Bonne année à tous!

Caractère de cochon

Caractere de cochonWe walked by this place several times on our recent trip to Paris. I was intrigued, not least by the name. Beyond the clever play on words, it reminded me of how often I had confused the false friends caractère and character when I first learned French.

How upset I was when then-to-be husband told me I had a ‘mauvais caractère’. When I realized this meant a bad temper and not a bad character, I had to admit he had a point.

I’m grateful he didn’t go whole hog as it were and say I had a caractère de cochon, which means the same thing only sounds worse. Why the poor pig is blamed for bad temper is beyond me. Dogs are also lumped in with the ill-tempered boar, with the variant on the expression being caractère de chien.

The fact is I do have a terrible temper and am prone to lose it more often than I should. The wall in the living room of my family’s old house bore the stigmata of that time I kicked my clog (those babies had wooden soles and packed a punch) at my brother and it hit the wall instead. “Don’t irk me!” was my battle cry.

Yoga breathing and mindful meditation, along with (purely medicinal, of course) doses of wine, beer and cognac, have helped me to curb my ill-tempered outbursts in recent years. Despite the ready availability of alcohol I must say that living in France hasn’t helped me learn to keep my temper in check. Niceness just isn’t inbred here the way it is in other cultures.

As for the place, I deeply regretted not having gone in for a bite when I read this review by food blogger David Lebovitz. That sandwich! Le jambon!

CARACTEREDECOCHON_3293
Photo credit: http://www.luckymiam.com/en/caractere-de-cochon/

I could just kick myself.

What kind of caractère are you?

 

 

 

Avec ou sans gaz?

Mineral WaterWine is often thought of as the national beverage in France but mineral water is a close contender. You will find it on the tables of every restaurant and most homes. Every region has its own local mineral water. The supermarket has an entire aisle devoted to l’eau minérale in all its varieties: flat, sparkling, flavored, high in magnesium salt to aid digestion.

The first thing a non-native needs to know is that there are essentially two kinds of mineral water on offer in French restaurants. I was somewhat surprised the first time I ordered ‘eau minérale’ to be asked: “Avec ou sans gaz?”

‘Gaz’ sounds a little too close to reality to be polite. Can’t they say bubbles?

“Avec gaz,” I replied, deciding to go for the gusto. When you sit down for a meal in France, there will be gas at some point.

Now the French have adopted a similar term for sparkling water: ‘eau pétillante’. (Maybe they realized that ‘gassy’ just didn’t do it?)

When I first came to France I only knew of one kind of sparkling water: Perrier. In fact, I used the brand name as a generic short form for sparkling water. Until I discovered that whenever I asked for Perrier, I actually got Perrier. In all its intensely carbonated glory. All very well as a drink on its own but there are so many finer, more delicate tasting mineral waters to accompany food.

Over the years I became somewhat addicted to sparkling water. I can give up wine, if forced, but please don’t ask me to go bubble-free. Most French people in my experience will prefer flat mineral water like Evian or Volvic. A few will insist upon tap water, a carafe of which must be offered for free by law in restaurants. But there is a general misgiving about drinking tap water in France, perhaps a holdover from bygone days when the water filtration system was less sanitary.

For years, Badoit held pride of place on our table. It tends to lose its sparkle just after opening, though, which is probably why they introduced a more intense version, Badoit Rouge, a few years ago. Now my house sparkling water is St. Pellegrino, which has just the right bubble for me. Yes, it’s Italian and many French people hate that. But hey, they’re all owned by Nestlé or Danone anyway.

OrezzaWhen on holiday, I love to try the local waters. This one from Corsica was beautifully refreshing.

The French are not the only ones with a predilection sparkling mineral water. In Germany I have often found it to be offered along with flat water in business meetings, with a choice of small, medium or large bubble. Some people drink it all day long, which even for me is a bit much gaz.

How about you? Flat, sparkling or non, merci?