Les Fêtes in France (long)
- Leslie Brenner
Just returned from a week outside of Bordeaux (Lacanau-Océan) and a week in Paris. The Bordeaux part of our trip was so family/holiday oriented that we ate in for every meal. It was the first time I experienced Christmas in France, and loved all the Révillon festivities.
For Christmas, the tradition is to have a festive dinner on Christmas eve--Révillon. My in-laws opted for a pared-down version, since the extended family was coming, uncharacteristically, for lunch on Christmas day. Anyway, Xmas eve was oysters with Sancerre, then tiny little shrimp from Arcachon, served in their shells. You tear off their heads, then eat them shell and all. Sweet and succulent. Smoked salmon. Boudin blanc. Cheese, bien sur, and fruit. (Earlier that afternoon we had a "gouté" of cannelés and Champagne).
Christmas Day lunch: Foie gras, with an outstanding 1983 Ch. Lafaurie-Peyraguey (Sauternes). Then a "second entree" of an artichoke crown topped with a slice of tomato, cuke, canned asparagus, etc., w/ vinaigrette. Then an overcooked leg of lamb (I was the guilty party, being unaccustomed to the weird electric ovens there...I felt terrible, as the quality of the lamb was fantastic), accompanied by chestnuts, and beautiful haricots verts, half of which I cooked normally (you could still tell they were string beans) and half of which I cooked until they were dead (for my mother- and father-in-law). Wines: a 1964 Chasse-Spleen (over the hill) and a 1989 Beychevelle (amazing). Then cheese: A nice Muenster, a great Rocquefort (unbelievably great with the "goutiche" of Sauternes still left in my glass), Chaorce, a couple of different chevres, and a Brebis from Pays Basque. For dessert: a buche de Noel in classic chocolate, served with Champagne.
Also had a close brush with a rabbit stew that my mother in law made and left in a pot on the countertop two days. We all ate it without ill effect (how's that for bravery?), though I managed to avoid giving it to my four-year-old.
Then to Paris, and a fantastic cous-cous dinner at L'Oriental, which I found through the Leeds Guide to Good Value dining in Paris (a great resource--I looked for cous-cous in the 18th, and came up with this wonderful place!). Three of us opted for spit-roasted rack-of-lamb cous-cous that was out of this world. So deeply flavorful. Another had the mixed grill cous-cous. Both were served with the same broth w/vegs, excellent if a little salty. On the side were chick peas and juicy white raisins. The couscous itself was marvellous. The fifth in our party had a wonderful tagine of chicken, preserved lemon and olives. All washed down with a Moroccan rosé from Meknès. The restaurant was small and cozy, great atmosphere, very friendly service.
We spent New Year's Eve (also called Révillon) with friends, six of us, plus three kids. We had a hell of a time coming up with a menu, since a couple people didn't eat foie gras, a couple didn't like oysters, one didn't like any shellfish, two didn't like snails, etc. However, there was an excellent Monbazillac to open, so we went with the following: We started with Champagne and smoked salmon, but served at the same time with foie gras--a great one we bought in a small shop near Les Halles, on a street that has four or five foie gras purveyors. Wonderful with the Monbazillac. Then a "Grand Aïoli"--the pungently garlicky mayonnaise as a centerpiece, served with morue (cod), lightly steamed poivrade artichokes (the small purply ones), haricots verts, potatoes, turnips, carrots, zucchini, etc. Festive and fun! (And memorable--the garlic stayed with us!) Wine was a Gigondas. Some great cheeses, served with a 1973 St. Emilion, then a fruit salad, and a flourless chocolate cake beautifully prepared by our hostess.
The next night we were invited to dinner by my husband's boss, a Parisian chowhound originally from Dax. Knowing that we had reservations for lunch the next day at Arpège, he "kept it light." He served a wonderful late-harvest Sancerre as an apéro. Dinner was a lightly grilled sardine, surrounded by large white Spanish beans, drizzled with a bouillabaise-type sauce (reduction of fish with a little tomato) and a great olive oil. Sprinkled with fleur de sel. Served with a dry Jurançon. Then a poulet fermier -- chicken from the farm -- that he brought with him from his Xmas in Dax. Roasted simply, simply delicious. So flavorful you wondered how we can call our chickens chickens! Served with gnocchi with a spicy red sauce and a Vosne-Romanée that was usurped by the gnocchi. The cheese appeared, looking like a small, soft mattress. When I asked what it was called, our host said it was also from Dax, and just called "fromage de vache." (Cow's milk cheese). What a cheese! Runny, pungent, delectable, complex. Didn't really work with the wine. For dessert, a "tarte tatin" ice cream cake from Berthillon.
The punch line: after two weeks of feasting, we couldn't possibly entertain the idea of a six course menu at Arpège the next day, and had to cancel. Ah, well...
All in all, the meals we ate in people's home were a million times better than the quick bites we grabbed on the run in little restaurants we didn't know. I had the sense of some continuing decline in the level of food in general.
By the 3rd, our departure day, we had recovered sufficiently for a mild adventure. Our kid started his "I'm hungry" whining at 11:30 a.m., when we happened to be right outside the Jardins Luxembourg. My husband remembered a little cafe he used to frequent--Au Petit Suisse--and we stumbled in. It's the kind of place with guys with big faces drinking red wine and smoking cigarettes "au zinc" at 11 in the morning. I had a fantastic "Planche du Terroir"--a large wooden board that held two fat slices of tête du porc persillé--delicious questionable cuts of pork suspended in a marvellous parsley aspic, a few slices of saussiçon, a slice of jambonneau (kind of a fatty chunk of tasty rustic ham), sauteed potatoes with caramelized onions and superflous quartered tomatoes, and a plain green salad. Heaven! Washed down with the most generic Chinon. I was so happy I barely noticed what my husband and son had.
Just thought I'd get that off my chest. Thanks for listening.
Happy New Year!