French Feast: Provence, Burgundy and Alsace
French food isn't all crêpes and snails, as Jennifer discovered on a trip to the land of berets, from her column "Good Food" from Taconic Press.
When it comes to food, I usually prefer regional, authentic dishes with long histories over the inventions of chefs. So I was recently very pleased to have the opportunity to try some classic dishes of France. At their source.
As I wrote in a recent column, not long ago I went to a family reunion in Languedoc, in the southern part of the country. During the parts of our trip that involved driving from Basel, Switzerland, where we landed, to Languedoc and back, we got to see a little of Provence, Burgundy and Alsace, and taste each region's specialties.
Wherever we went we sniffed out good restaurants, judging mainly by the scent of what wafted out through the door. When we travel, we no longer rely on tourist guides to tell us where to eat, not because they're wrong, but because we love the adventure of wandering around the cobbled streets of a strange city, using our noses and instincts to find that perfect meal.
We don't hunt for the fancy places with stars or crossed knives and forks, although I'm sure they're very good. We seek out simple bistros that aren't too expensive, where Maman waits tables and Papa's in the kitchen or vice versa, and the atmosphere is romantic and relaxing.
Our journey began in Alsace, that northwest region that the French reclaimed from Germany. Although we were exhausted from our sleepless flight, we headed to Colmar, a sweet town of half-timbered buildings and flowers overflowing from windows onto its cobbled streets.
We wanted to taste the region's most famous classic dish, choucroûte garnie, which translates as "garnished sauerkraut." We found a fine one at La Pergola, where a life-size fat chef statue greets visitors to the cozy bistro.
The sauerkraut blew away any I've ever had here, with a tangy, complex taste. What we get here is processed and lacks the depth and flavor of the homemade stuff that they age in crocks. This one had as its "garnish" thick slices of hearty bacon, smoked pork loin and two types of wurst.
We also had another regional specialty, roesti, a casserole of grated potatoes that comes in seemingly endless variations. In our version the chef mixed the potato with hollandaise sauce and chunks of bacon, then topped it with Muenster cheese (which comes from the area and has much more character than ours). At table, the waiter flamed the whole lovely mess with marc de gewürztraminer (a brandy made from a local wine). It was probably the richest thing I've ever eaten, a heart-attack special, but heavenly. As beverage, we washed it all down with draughts of a mild fresh local wine called Edelzwicker served in the local green-stemmed glasses.
The next region we visited was Languedoc, which I wrote about in this space last month. Then we spent a few days in Provence: St. Remy, Arles, Aix-en-Provence. The region has had much made of it, with the wildness and boldness of its landscape: scrubby rosemary bush studded fields and stark rocky limestone hills. The food is simpler than that of other parts of the country, but just as divine: full of olive oil emulsions bursting with the vibrant tastes of garlic or olives, seafood only minutes from the sea, and dishes based on fresh tomatoes, sweet peppers or whatever's in season.
My favorites are the fish soups like bouillabaisse and its relatives, hearty tureens rich with the souls of several varieties of ugly but tasty creatures, and no stinginess with the saffron.
We tried tapenade, a deadly winy olive paste to spread on bread. We devoured a feuillété de brandade de morue, a creamy salt cod puree encased in puff pastry. There was the soupe au pistou, bursting with sweet vegetables ripened in the Mediterranean sun, and enlivened with a kind of Provençal pesto.
There were roast lamb with garlic cream and a roast duck with lavender honey; there was a lamb stew, a rabbit stew, and snails stewed with tomatoes, peppers, leeks, and pine nuts.
There was a pear tart with crumbly crust, not too sweet, and a pear sorbet with raspberry coulis. There were various versions of crème brulée and a pistachio mousse cake with a red fruit glaze. Ah, Provence! The sun, the wind, the food!
The next region we explored was Burgundy. Although it's in the relatively cool North, other things add psychological warmth, like the dark carved woods that line its rooms and the warm rich sauces infused with onion and copious amounts of wine that cover the cozy, hearty dishes of the region.
Burgundy is home to Dijon, an elegant rococo city that pays homage to mustard with a store that is more like a museum, full of lovely ancient ceramic mustard crocks. Their spicy version of the condiment is too good to export; they keep it all to themselves.
What I loved best about Burgundy were the snails. What fun to pull the stubborn things out of their garlic butter-bathed shells. We had them abundantly and often. A whole dozen to yourself as an appetizer is de rigeur. They use fresh snails and cook them in a savory broth before baking, so they'd be flavorful even without that decadent parsley butter.
Another local appetizer is eggs en meurette, poached eggs bathed in a silky dark wine sauce, chunky with bacon and mushrooms and pearl onions.
We had boeuf bourguignon and coq au vin, two ancient dishes cooked in a similar sauce, redolent with the region's famous wine. The French have been making them for centuries, and they've got it down. There's something exquisite about eating a dish that's imbued with not only seasonings but also history, long history, hundreds of years longer than our own.
Tender beef tongue with sauce piquante (capers and cornichons) was another exceptional dish that we enjoyed at Bistrot Bourguignone, a cozy jazz-laced wine bar, walls covered with old art deco wine posters, in Beaune, just south of Dijon.
A wonderful local cheese is époisses, whose orange rind is washed with the local brandy, and whose inside is soft and runny with a delightfully complex flavor.
Other cheeses of note that we enjoyed on our trip were Brillat-Savarin, a soft Brie-like cheese with nuances of bleu, and St. Marcellin, a creamy flavorful cheese with the texture of cheesecake. The most memorable dessert was one that was intense with one of my favorite flavors: a black currant sorbet drizzled with cassis.
We enjoyed a delightful Louis Jadot Couvent de Jacobins in Burgundy as well as cheap serviceable Cotes-du-Rhone, great for a picnic. The picnics were wonderful, whether in a rest area with stray kittens begging for scraps or in the middle of a rosemary-scented grassy patch by the side of a Provençal road. There was the chunky pâté de campagne, homemade and hearty, with that spicy mustard to spread on it and fluffy crispy-skinned baguettes to cradle it. There were tangy vegetable salads with carrots or cabbage. There was marinated fish and olives that were not just cured or brined, but steeped in warm spice. We devoured fine fat fruits like buttery pears, sweet figs, big black grapes.
We brought home donkey sausage from Arles (with "très peu" donkey, according to the butcher). We brought home lavender honey, a little brandy and cassis, and jars and jars of flavored mustards, hoping to keep our taste buds alive with the memories of French flavors as long as we can.