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Posts from the ‘Food’ Category

Roger Vergé and la cuisine du soleil

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As you may or may not know, I am back in school this fall. I am 9 weeks into a 40-week French culinary program in Boulder, Colorado. I am going through a particularly rough patch at the moment—trying to figure out if this is the right school for me or if this is the time to reevaluated my situation and look for a school with better facilities and more dedicated, serious students. It has been an exhilarating, challenging, terrifying and frustrating 2 months.

Yesterday I stormed out of class early so completely frustrated with our tiny under-stocked and overcrowded kitchen and my unmotivated classmates. I couldn’t bring myself to go back today. The class has worn me down. I needed to take a day to breathe and get my bearings back.

I spent the day cooking things I wanted to cook: healthy vegetarian food—no clarified butter, heavy cream or “mother sauces”. Nothing deep-fried, shallow-fried, pan-fried, or even sautéed. No flourless chocolate cakes, crème brûlées, Swiss buttercreams, or chocolate ganache. I needed to remember why I like cooking and re-convince myself that I am actually good at it.

This program has shaken me to the core and made me question my culinary abilities. It has also made me ponder my “Francophilia” and frazzled my faith in this young, up-and-coming generation…but those are story for another day…

To compliment my day of healthy cooking and remind myself why I chose to turn my life upside down and attend a French culinary school, I decided to do a little research on one famous French chef: Roger Vergé—the chef who was brave enough to distance himself from the traditional cuisine classique and introduced the world to cuisine du soleil, a variation of Provençal cuisine favoring fresh, local ingredients and unpretentious preparation and presentation.

Vergé explained his nouvelle cuisine as “a lighthearted, healthy and natural way of cooking which combines the products of the earth like a bouquet of wild flowers from the garden.” Also know as cuisine heureuse’, Vergé saw his culinary style as the “antithesis of cooking to impress”. His “happy cooking” transformed French gastronomy, and changed and the way generations of French chefs have approached food and fine dining since.

Born in 1930, Vergé grew up in Commentry in the center of France. Perched on a “small wooden bench”, he learned to cook from his aunt Célestine and was inspired by his father, a blacksmith by day and farmer by night, who “in the evenings…tilled God’s earth and brought his mother flavorful, aromatic vegetable for the table.” At 17, he apprenticed to a local chef at Restaurant le Bourbonnais and then moved on to trained at several Michelin-starred restaurants including Tour d’Argent in Paris. He spent time in Morocco, Algeria and Kenya learning and working in the kitchen of the Mansour de Casablanca and L’Oasis which undoubtedly inspired and informed his cuisine of the sun. Upon returning to France he worked in the restaurants Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo and Le Club de Cavaliere in Le Lavandou where he was exposed to the bright colors and fresh flavors of southern French food.

In 1969, Vergé opened his famous Michelin 3-star restaurant Moulin de Mougins near Cannes. Although French cuisine was still characterized by its heavy use of animal fat —butter, cream, and lard, Vergé’s cuisine of the sun — Mediterranean fare enhanced with vegetable essences and fruit reductions — elevated and celebrated lighter and healthier food, and quickly changed the landscape of French cookery.

He prided himself in serving Provençal dishes highlighted by the flavors of his travels and Moulin de Mougins quickly became one of France’s most well known restaurants. A kind and sincere man, the master chef was eager to share his knowledge with future generations of chefs. “He was one of the few chefs of that era who saw that sharing his skill set would benefit the cooking world as a whole.” To that end, Vergé trained up many of today’s great French chefs including Alain Ducasse, Jacques Maximin, Jacques Chibois, David Bouley and Daniel Boulud. Vergé once said, “the more knowledge we share, the more the cuisine is enriched; we succeed if we make what we love popular.”

By 1974, Moulin de Mougins had won three Michelin stars. A second restaurant, L’Amandier de Mougins, earned another two stars. By the mid-1970s, Vergé held the most number of Michelin stars of any single chef in France. To promote his cooking style, he founded l’École de Cuisine du Soleil Roger Vergé in Mougins. He was the collaborator and head of several other restaurants throughout France and in the US, and he also wrote dozens of cookbooks in both French and English making his ideas and cuisine accessible to home cooks.

Roger Vergé died this past June at his home in Mougins at the age of 85. Thankfully his legacy lives on.

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So…as I contemplate my future journey from home cook to a trained professional cook, and the extreme ups and downs of culinary school, I am encouraged by the wisdom of Caroline Conran in her buoyant preface to the adaptation of Vergé’s Cuisine of the Sun:

“Roger Vergé never lost sight of the fact that cooking should be a pleasure – a celebration of wonderful ingredients, cooked in a simple and practical way that will not overtax the cook and leave her (or him) too exhausted to enjoy the meal.”

…and that is the goal of this whole “happy cooking” thing, isn’t it? Good ingredients, good food, good times…enjoying the process and to never forgetting to taste, smell and see that “bouquet of wild flowers from the garden.”

Happy Cooking

Fontevraud le Restaurant

Fontevraud l'Abbeye

While flipping through my Food & Wine magazine in Colorado, I came across an article entitled The Ten Best New Restaurants in France. Much to my delight, one of the restaurants happened to be situated directly on our planned cycling route. Too good to be true, I knew it was meant to be. I decided to splurge and booked a table for two at Fontevraud le Restaurant, in the Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud not far from Saumur.

Located in the cloister, and one time prison, of Europe’s largest abbey, young chef, Thibaut Ruggeri, (only 34-years-old), and winner of the 2013 Bocuse d’Or (an international gastronomic competition), serves up extremely stunning haute cuisine in an intimate and peaceful setting. The tables surround a courtyard filled with fresh and colorful herbs where the very kind and attentive wait staff trim and pick fresh ingredients for each course.

Fontevraud-Le-Restaurant

No doubt about it, Chef Ruggeri is an artist. Visually his plates are exquisite. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such beautiful and creative plating. Our dinner was like an edible trip to a fine modern art museum. In addition to the freshly picked herbs, the chef uses local ingredients, like honey from the abbey’s bees and mushrooms grown in the limestone caves surrounding the abbey. While not every plate was a homerun on the palate and flavor sometime took a back seat to art, it was an unforgettable evening.

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Fontevraud le Restaurant

Fontevraud le Restaurant

Fontevraud le Restaurant

Fontevraud le Restaurant

Fontevraud le Restaurant

Fontevraud le Restaurant

Fontevraud le Restaurant

Fontevraud le Restaurant

Fontevraud le Restaurant

Fontevraud le Restaurant

Fontevraud le Restaurant

MENU ABEILLES \ 20€

Layers of fresh goat cheese

Chicken with mashed potatoes and lemon

Chocolate and nuts

MENU MENU \ 58€

Including wines in keeping with the meal \83€

A springtime revolution

Pollock, and pots herbs

Chicken from Racan, Swiss chard end goat’s cheese

Goat cheese and basil

A symphony of lemon and black olives

GRAND MENU \ 95€

Including wines in keeping with the meal \ 130€

The Paris mushroom at Fontevraud

Fario trout marinated, pinewood

Poached monkfish with shellfish and striped with squid and squid ink with a braised fennel bulb and a dill and red wine sauce.

A pigeon fillet with almonds and covered with a cognac marzipan, honeyed carrots and giblets with 4 spices.

Cheeses from the length and breadth of the Loire

A little sweetness without butter or cream

A symphony of lemon and black olives

Another Distributeur…Crossing the Line, Encore…

What the heck? First the DAB, and now this? France you’re killin’ me! S’il vous plaît, stick to your artisans. They make France so wonderfully French.

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Distributeur Automatique de Baguette

baguette_dispenser_automatique_distributeur_de_pain_paris_1.jpgThe French are know for some pretty innovative breakthroughs: hot air balloon and hairdryers, pasteurization and pencil, mayonnaise and the metric system, and bicycles, Braille and bras. The Gauls gave us the guillotine and are also accountable for the Etch-a-Sketch. But the jury is still out on the recent brainchild of French baker, inventor and entrepreneur, Jean-Louis Hecht, the 2014 winner of the Concours Lépine—the French invention challenge held each spring at the Foire de Paris.

His invention? Le Distributeur Automatique de Baguette (DAB) or what I like to call the Baguette ATM.

When this contraption popped up in my Facebook newsfeed a few weeks ago, I was stunned. Zut alors! A baguette vending machine in the land of artisanal bakers? Sacrilege! I knew I had to see this with my own eyes to believe it.

A quick Google search yielded two addresses: one in the 19eme arrondissement and one in the 15eme. The automatic boulangerie in the 15eme turned out to be a short walk from my Pilates studio, so I grabbed my good friend Rachel and we made the trek.

When we arrived at La Panamette, 32 rue Paul Barruel, we found two dispensers filled with partially baked baguettes—one ready and willing to dispense. We drop our €1 coin, and after 10 seconds, it dropped our baton. I was expecting something more dramatic, and certainly more aromatic, unfortunately it was rather anticlimactic. The machines, swathed in bright pictures of a beret-clad lad wielding his wand among the wheat, were not much different than the chip and candy dispensers from home.

While online reviews promise “crisp and steaming” or “warm and crusty” bread, ours was warm(ish) and chewy, on the verge of being crisp, a super marché quality baguette.

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That said, I understand the concept. It addresses a real need. While I wasn’t won over by the taste and texture of this bread, these round-the-clock boulangeries do allow people who work evenings or early mornings to enjoy fresh, warm bread when their friendly bakers lock up shop. In fact, his closed bakery doors are what inspired Hecht, a baker of 57 years, to design the DAB in the first place. Living over his boulangerie, in Hombourg-Haut, he was often disturbed by desperate customers knocking on his door after hours demanding bread. Wanting to spend uninterrupted time with his family and not wanting to worry about closing up for vacation, the idea was born. In addition to more sleep and quality family time, Hecht also hopes that his machines will shorten the queues for buying bread and reclaim the towns of France where the baker has disappeared.

I personally love the anticipation of lining up at my local boulangerie and inspecting the visual and scented edible art, but maybe that’s just an expat experience. To me the DAB is purely a novelty in this land that does bread so well. I’ll wait in line and stick to the real deal.

…lining up for a baguette...

…lining up for a baguette…

Meanwhile, I’m keeping my eyes peeled for the machines dispensing Dom Pérignon in juice boxes.

Chocolat Chaud

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As a child growing up in a Catholic family, I often chose to give up chocolate for Lent. Looking back it wasn’t a huge sacrifice because, one, I came from a very modest background and chocolate was already a rare treat, and two, the only chocolate we ever had either came in the form of a large block HERSHEY’S bar or Nesquik, the chocolate flavored drink mix which promised to “make milk fun” and enhance your muscle mass.

I imagine that for a child growing up in this Catholic land of artisan chocolatiers, with so many cold and dreary days leading up to Easter, the thought of snuggling up with a warm cup of herbal tea for 40 days rather than a lavish, velvety mug of hot chocolate must be daunting.

The origins of this dreamy, creamy drink are exotic for sure.

mamie_gateaux_hot_chocolate_paris.jpgMontezuma’s Aztecs were the first to brew this delectable drink, which they called Xocolatl. Sipped singularly by the ancient elite, life was grand in Aztec-land. That is until Hernan Cortez dropped by in 1517 and was mistakenly offered a nip of their elixir. Impressed and obsessed with the luxury beverage, he conquered their entire kingdom.

Recipe in hand and cocoa beans in the bag, Cortez returned to Spain and brewed up a batch for Charles V. Initially the Spanish royals were less than thrilled with the dark, bitter liquid, but with the addition of sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla beans, they soon were smitten.

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The chocolate tonic hit the French court following the marriage of King Louis XIII to the Spanish Princess Anne of Austria in 1615; and when the Spanish Princess Maria Theresa (the original chocolate addict) was betrothed to Louis XIV of France, chocolate became the drink of choice for the Sun King at Versailles.

Nowadays, hot chocolate is obviously accessible to the masses, but that doesn’t mean the French have to suffer through mass-produced hot chocolate. Like so many things in France, chocolat chaud has been elevated to an artisan level.

Enjoy this visual sample of the best cups I’ve savored over the last 4 weeks.

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Please check back next week for my carnet d’adresses.

Vocabulaire:

carnet d’adresses: address book

chocolat chaud: hot chocolate

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Citron Pressé and a Colorado Day

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Oh, the weather gods are making it even harder for me to leave Paris and head back to Colorado in a few short days. If there is one thing that Colorado will always win out in over Paris, it is the weather. There is no contest. The weather in Colorado is fantastic. Three hundred days of sunshine a year is pretty hard to beat.

On the other hand Paris in February averages 2 hours and 54 minutes of sunshine a day, in March it jumps to a little over 5 hours per day (which also happens to be the annual average for daily sunshine in Paris—given that November, December and January each average less than 2 hours of sunshine a day).

But the last few days in Paris have been crisp and blue and beaming with sun. It is Paris at its Colorado best.

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I probably jumped the gun today. But it was so warm and sunny and bright. I temporarily took a break from the difficult work of trying to find the city’s best hot chocolate (stay tuned), to instead sun myself at a café and indulge in a citron pressé.

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C’est parfait!

Rue des Boulangers, or Paris I Love You, but You’re Making Me Fat

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I am happily installed in the same cozy, shabby chic apartment on rue des Boulangers that I stayed in during my fall visit to Paris. I am thankful that it was available again, as it feels even more like a homecoming, and I am finding out I adore this part of the 5eme arrondissement. It is easy to escape the crowds by slipping through the huge blue door leading to my cobbled courtyard surrounded by trees. I am always amazed by these get-away-from-it-all shared gardens you find in Paris, these tranquil hidden gems.

In 1844 this short horseshoe lane cloaked with bakeries became known as rue des Boulangers. I imagine the clay chimney pipes blistering with the hungry smells of freshly baked bread and golden croissants. It must have been a happy rue as a French friend recently told me that the aroma of fresh-baked bread not only makes your mouth water, but has also been proven to make you a kinder more contented person.

Nowadays there is only one boulangerie at the bottom of the horseshoe lane, possibly explaining my cranky next-door neighbor.

Still, there are at least five fabulous boulangeries within a 5-minute walk of my flat. Maybe it is the distance and time away in the States, or the processed, over-baked carbohydrate batons they sell in my small town; certainly it’s the lack of creamy French butter added to the mix, and the plastic-like crescents sold in flimsy plastic boxes, but I honestly have no desire to eat bread back home. The shadow of bread, the ghosts of Paris past, it has no appeal at all.

Mais, here is the land of artisanal bakers, the still enforced Napoleonic decrees requiring specific ingredients, quality control for flour milling and dough kneading, and the perfectly established shape and sizes for baguettes and croissants, make it impossible for me to say, “No!” I am far less satisfied with taking pictures of their edible art this time around, and much more eager to take one (or two) masterpieces along with me on a grey-skied stroll through my lovely Par-ee.

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