Tag Archives: France

Re-reading and remembering times past

In general I don’t read a book twice. It doesn’t matter how great it was, how close I got to the characters, how much the experience gave me. The reason? There is simply too much good literature out there to dwell on what’s already been read. I am also too impatient.  With a new book in hand I always find myself checking how many pages there are in total, then figure out by which page I will be halfway through and finally try to get through the whole blasted tome as quickly as possible so I can start on a new one. The ever-greater pile of unread books looks down on me guiltily, so there simply is no way I would have time nor the interest to re-read.  Or so I thought.

There have always been a few exceptions. Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited I never get tired of re-reading, and now finally I have once again taken on the mammoth task of re-reading Marcel Proust’s À La Recherche du Temps Perdu. I read it, or them I guess would be more accurate coming to this seven-volume monster of a piece, the first time around when I was 19. I had fallen in love with France and it’s 19th century art scene many years earlier, and a small, battered study edition of my mother’s of Combray I-II had always been staring at me in the upper library of where I grew up. I had always had a deep urge to read it, but had never dared. Then, when I was going to Paris for the first time, I read it in an afternoon a few weeks before in my small dorm room at the university where I happened to be studying at the time. Lying on my back, skipping lectures because I was so taken aback with this new world of storytelling, I bought all of the eight volumes in hardback next time I came back home. It was an expensive investment for a young student at the time, but I haven’t regretted it for a second. And now I’m at it again. I saw the volumes when I was at The Rectory where I grew up a few weeks ago, and I couldn’t resist bringing the first volume with me on the plane back to Amsterdam. And for someone who in general doesn’t read a book twice, it has been a peculiar experience.

Since it is almost a decade ago I read À la Recherche last, in a rather Proustesque way I find the different volumes having like small, mental connotations not dissimilar to how the material items does set the storyteller in the books off on his long, winding sentences and reflections. Like I remember reading Combray I-II, I clearly remember how I read volume two and three while in Paris for a few weeks at my first summer break from university. So isn’t it strange then, that the strongest experience I now have re-reading Proust is remembering the feelings I had about life, the world and about this new literary experience ten years ago? I certainly get a lot out of reading it again, and once again finding the fascinating details the author has left for us to reflect upon, but the strongest feeling is to be brought back to 2001 all over again. The feeling of being a young student with his whole life ahead of him.

So maybe this is my equivalent to Proust’s moment with the Madeleine cake and the linden tea? Re-reading opens up doors to new parts of ones mind, not just in the literature. For me it has been a rather odd realisation, but maybe that’s the greatness of literature? Not just that it helps us exercise our imagination and broaden our horizons, but that it also stays with us longer than we thought. Maybe more of the actual experience of reading stays with us than we think? Fascinating.

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Filed under À la recherce du temps perdu, France, Literature, Marcel Proust, Paris

Is French Cuisine really dead?

Whenever I speak to friends, family or colleagues the question always comes, sooner rather than later: what’s so amazing about French cuisine? Fifty years ago they were amazing, fine, but what have they got to offer today? The reason they ask is obviously because they now how passionate I am about French cooking, but also because they know that I love having these discussions.  I will defend French chefs and French cuisine until Hell freezes over. It’s just that simple. But regardless of my fervent beliefs, even I have noticed that something is amiss in France. Not just the cuisine is falling behind the rest of the world, but that is after all my main concern.  The cuisine and wine, that is.

Have I got a Proust moment when it comes to French cuisine? You know, the madeleine and linden tea for Marcel Proust, the Sole Meuniere for Julia Child, that kind of thing? Yes and no. I have loved French cooking from when I was a child. So, when I finally went to France for the first time when I was a 19 year old chef-to-be, I sort of knew it all. Or so I thought. What overwhelmed me was the array of outstanding produce in a normal supermarket like Carrefour. How, and where, did they find it all? And more importantly, who bought it? It didn’t take long until I realized that normal families did. So the food was still important to the average Frenchman. I was relieved. When I visited Chateauneuf-du-Pape for the first time a year or so later and spent an entire day testing wine from different chateaux, I was sold for eternity. I swore to whomever “I will never give up on French cuisine if this is how it can be”. Sadly, it has all changed rapidly.

Michael Steinberger’s brilliant book Au Revoir to all that: the rise and fall of French cuisine came out on Bloomsbury in 2009. It deals with exactly the questions food and travel journalists have asked themselves for over a decade. Why have the French cuisine all of a sudden ended up in the backwater compared to Great Britain, Spain, Japan and the United States? Is it due to lack of talent? Is it due to bad finances? Bad training and no inspiring culinary role models perhaps? Well, it seems like it’s a little bit of all the above. Steinberger brings up the issue with France being the second most profitable market in the world for McDonalds. How could that happen? And the weird reality of the quality of AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée – i.e. wine typical of its origin. Up until a decade ago that meant very good, high quality wine) wines being more and more, well, crap to be honest. Steinberger tells us the story about how in 2005 one hundred million liters of unsold AOC wine had to be distilled into – ethanol! It certainly makes you wonder…

What makes the book so interesting and almost impossible to put down is Steinberger’s passion for the subject. As a fully-fledged Francophile, wine columnist for Slate and long time contributor to Financial Times among other high quality newspaper dailies and weeklies he has learned to write impeccable prose beautifully combined with exact figures and facts. The book is loosely based around interviews with some of the biggest names in French cuisine over the last fifty odd years like Ducasse, Bocuse and Gagnaire. We also have the opportunity to meet Pascal Barbot (of  Astrance) and Jean-André Charial (of  Oustau de Baumanière) among many others, who have equally fascinating stories to tell about being a one, two or three star chef in France in the early 21st century. It doesn’t matter how much you know about the French restaurant world today, this book will have a new angle and excellent analysis on many an issue facing the French and their in my view still unsurpassed cuisine and wines.

I haven’t been to Paris for 18 months and miss it every day. I miss the smell, the snotty attitude and the enormous culinary tradition that oozes out of the restaurants and patisseries along the boulevards. I miss being able to go to some of the best wine merchants in the world. I miss the beauty of the city. Nowhere else in the world is the architecture, art and culinary tradition married to such perfection as in France. In Paris in particular. Dreaming of my next visit to an upmarket bistro in Paris is one of my favourite pastimes. Until next time, Michael Steinberger’s book has served me well in nurturing my love to the Country, the people and their food and wine. May it all survive and flourish again, let it develop and bloom into another era of culinary perfection born to inspire.

 

This post is dedicated to the memory of my mother Britt Bergh (16 September 1952 – 4 November 2010), a big enthusiast of France, Her art, cuisine and literature. Without her I would never have read Proust, Balzac or Julia Child before my 21st birthday. She was a steadfast supporter and immensely encouraging about this blog and always  eagerly awaiting the next post. The book reviews in particular.  I will miss her enthusiasm enormously, and is sad she will never be able to read this post.

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Filed under Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Food and Drink, France, Paris, Rhône, Wine

The perfect Sunday Roast

AFTER MY LAST POST ON THE INCREDIBLE JULIA CHILD I THOUGHT I’D SHARE A FAVOURITE RECIPE OF MINE; POULET AUX QUARANTE GOUSSES D’AIL, or CHICKEN WITH FORTY CLOVES OF GARLIC.

 

The first time I had this dish must have been when I lived in France for some time and God it was incredible. Both the dish and my time there, that is. The amount of garlic might sound a bit heavy but since they’re roasted, or cooked rather, together with the chicken, wine, herbs and vegetables in the oven they get this nutty sweet and really mild taste which complements the chicken and creates a beautiful base for the sauce. After having tried my way forward with different recipes and my own inventions I think this is as good as it gets.

I decided to illustrate the recipe with a fair amount of pictures and I’ve tried to keep it as simple as possible. So here we go, and bonne chance!

POULET AUX QUARANTE GOUSSES D’AIL

Serves four

You need:
2 sprigs of rosemary
5 sprigs of thyme
5 sprigs of flat-leaf parsley
2 celery stalks, one with the leaves left
1 whole chicken of about 1 ½ kg.
40 unpeeled garlic cloves
olive oil
1 carrot
1 smallish onion
2 ½ dl. dry white wine
2/3 dl. double cream
salt, black pepper, white pepper

sprigs of herbs for garnish
Start with preheating the oven to 200°C (400°F / Gas mark 6).

Chop the carrot and celery stalk roughly. Peel and cut the onion in four wedges. Put aside the carrot, onion and half of the celery for the moment.

Fill the chicken cavity with half the chopped celery (the bit with the leaves), the rosemary, half of the thyme, half of the parsley and six of the garlic cloves. Tie the legs together and tuck the wing tips under so they don’t burn.

Now brush the chicken all over with a royal splash of olive oil. Season well with salt and freshly ground pepper. I personally prefer a combination of black and white pepper.

Scatter the base of a large casserole dish with twelve garlic cloves together with the remaining sprigs of herbs, the chopped carrot, chopped celery and the onion wedges.

Put the chicken on top of the herbs and vegetables. Throw the remaining cloves of garlic around the chicken. Finally add a tablespoon olive oil and the white wine. Cover with a heavy lid and bake in the oven for 80 minutes or until the chicken juices run clear when you pierce a thigh with a thin skewer.

When the chicken is ready, lift it out of the casserole dish and put it aside. Keep the chicken warm on a plate by covering it with aluminium foil.

Strain the juices from the casserole dish into a saucepan, pressing the last bit of goodiness out of the vegetables with a spoon. Pick the garlic cloves out of the sieve with a tong and put aside for later. Spoon off the fat from the juices and discard the fat. Boil the juices for five minutes to reduce and thicken slightly. Add the cream, season and taste the sauce. Boil for two more minutes.

If you want a slightly thicker sauce, make a roux using one tablespoon white flour and almost equal amount soft butter. You need just slightly less butter than flour. Stir until you get a smooth paste.Add a third of the roux to the sauce and bring to the boil slowly, whisking carefully all the time. If you find it doesn’t thicken enough add another third of the roux. Repeat the process until you’re satisfied with the thickness of the sauce.

Uncover the chicken and cut it into serving portions. You can either serve it on plates directly or on a large serving dish. Either way, drizzle a little of the sauce over the chicken and scatter the garlic cloves, still in their peel, around the chicken. Garnish with sprigs of herbs.

Serve with steamed haricots verts and/or freshly baked bread.

Bon appétit chers amis!

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How she mastered the Art of French Cooking

When I grew up there was always a weighty tome, a two volume cookbook that stood in the bottom cupboard in the service room among other cookbooks and foodie magazines. It was always consulted on special occasions, but more often than not it was put away again because of the vast, expansive, almost encyclopaedic length of the recipes. But when there was time and effort put in and one of the recipes were used, we could be sure of the astounding result of the meal that awaited us. Those of you who have any knowledge of French cooking, and cookbooks on French cuisine bourgeois in particular, know exactly what I’m talking about by now. And, more importantly, whom I talk about. This is a tribute to the marvellous Julia Child and her little gem of a book My life in France.

I guess I really should write about Julia Child’s cookbooks, and in particular Mastering the Art of French Cooking. However, so much needs to go into a post like that that I simply don’t have the time right now. Maybe another day, but not today. If you’re a serious foodie I’m sure you know enough on the subject anyway.

My life in France is a sweet little gem of a book co-written with her husband Paul’s nephew Alex Prud’homme in 2004/2005. It was finished in the year after her death with the help of all the letters she and Paul had written from the 1940s through to his death in the early 1990s, and hours of taped and written down conversations between Alex Prud’homme and Julia in her house in Montecito, California. What’s so wonderful about the book is the honesty to life and the serious love of food and France she manages to convey between the carefully handled lines written by Alex Prud’homme. If you saw the movie Julie & Julia earlier this year you will recognise a lot of the content since this is the book that is the background to the biographical parts of the film where Meryl Streep plays Julia Child. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth watching the movie for her unsurpassed characterisation alone.

Something else that is striking about the book is that it isn’t just on Julia Child and her way to greatness. It is more concerned with telling the story about how she and her husband Paul enjoyed, discovered and loved in their adopted new home country, how they struggled finding decent places to live in Paris and around France just after the Second World War. How it was damp, cold, hard to find anywhere that was insulated enough, had working gas heaters, running water inside etc. Paul Child’s photos describe this beautifully. He was a truly talented artist with an avid interest in photography. Not just pictures of Julia and her cookery-bookery (as she called it) life is included, there are also a fair amount of beautiful pictures from Paris, Marseille and the trips they did together around La Belle France. One is also taken on the journey of the struggles she and her colleagues Simone Beck (affectionately called Simca after a cheap, tiny and not very reliable Renault car she drove) and Louisette Bertholle had with getting their masterpiece of a cookbook published at all. Numerous publishers said no and others wanted it to be shortened and abbreviated into virtual nothingness. Luckily for us today they were proud and said no to silly suggestions like that and waited until they found someone who wanted to publish it in its entirety.  If they hadn’t carried on with their quest to educate the American housewife in cooking proper food, we would have lost an all-important link to the greatest food tradition in Europe, if not in the World.

The courses Julia Child took at Le Cordon Bleu in the 1950s’ might not haven been worth much, but the chefs she met there, and who recognised her enthusiasm and took her under their culinary wings, was the last living links to the great tradition of the French cuisine bourgeois. The chapters where she describes how chef Max Bugnard takes her to his favourite butchers, fish mongers and vegetable stalls in Les Halles and teaches her to recognise this, that and the other are just amazingly inspiring! They also make me furious that I will never be able to visit Les Halles, this mysterious, today unreachable food Mecca with its weird personalities and fascinating stall holders. And most importantly, what wouldn’t I give to have had the opportunity to taste the famous soupe a l’oignon first hand.

Maybe, though, this is part of the mystery and beauty that surrounds the French cuisine and its reputation that makes it so alluring. The lost connection with the chefs and the now partly lost tradition of manual cooking and how to recognize good produce thanks to the enormous supermarkets that have turned the village markets into a novelty too expensive to be frequented by anyone else than tourists. Would it be better to be back to how it was? Probably not. I’m a romantic born and bred, but even I can see the advantages of a society that have advanced from privies, no running water inside and rats in the kitchen. Still, if you want a touch of La Vieille France, Julia Child’s book is a must. If you’re a serious French foodie, you can’t live without having read it.

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Filed under Food and Drink, France, Uncategorized, Wine

In Vino Veritas

Wine. I have loved wine for a long time. Not just any cheap bottle of red, but really nice wine. Nothing can compare to a proper bottle of high quality wine. I struggle a bit with becoming friends with wines from the New World but I guess it will come with time.  When they start producing wines that can be kept in the cave for longer than five years I will start buying them. Maybe.

I will always remember the day I first tasted a wine that opened doors to a second universe. In fact, there are two moments a couple of years apart. The first was when I was working as a waiter for a big state dinner around year 2000. There was a Spanish delegation and therefore the theme for the wine was, predictably, Spain. The highlight was a red wine from the producer Miguel Torres bottled 1973. I can’t remember much (nothing to do with heavy drinking. I promise) about it, but what I remember is the sensation. Never had I tasted a wine so perfectly balanced, so mature and so amazingly well composed. That a human could put something like that together was for me up until then unknown. That nature could, with perhaps a little help, produce what’s needed to manufacture something like that was a revelation. I thought I’d never experience anything like it ever again. Until I went to France to work a couple of years later. A boiling day in late July, me and two friends went for a drive to Chateauneuf-du-Pape. We parked at the end of a not very long street which runs through the little village that gathers by the foot of the hill where the old Papal Palace still looks out over the Rhône Valley. Or at least a part of a high wall still looks out over the valley. Not much remains of the old palace. This was the first time I ever went for a proper tasting tour of a famous wine making district, and what a place to start. I could not believe my palate.
The hours flew past and when we finally reached the end of a rather jolly day we realized that the cave that was closed when we had arrived, situated just by the car park was now open. We climbed down rather treacherous steps into a cool, slightly damp basement that seemed to spread for miles. We were immediately jumped by two rather flamboyant but very friendly gentlemen who helped guiding us through the forest of vintages stored. And what wines. Had I only been richer at the time… I bought two measly bottles of one of the best wines I had ever tasted. They were bottled 2000 (I couldn’t afford any older vintages) and I drank them the other year. What bliss! Had I not been religious before I tasted them, I would immediately have turned to a higher power to say praise.  I can still taste the cherry, the warm sun and the dark colours in those bottles.

Having experienced some of my most complete culinary moments with wines like that it is with a heavy heart I follow the big scandal in the wine world at the moment. Or rather the world of wine collectors. I can’t say that I collect myself. I buy to drink in five, ten, maybe twenty years time. I don’t buy to sell later in life. We haven’t, in my opinion, been given enough time on this earth for that kind of squirrelish behaviour. However, those collectors who have chosen to collect wine are now shivering in the realization that some of their most valued (no pun intended) possessions might be fake. One of the more famous dealers and handlers of rare wine, Hardy Rodenstock, will hopefully be facing justice in the same court as dear old Bernie Madoff. Both Rodenstock and the world leading auction house Christie’s have been sued in New York by a furious billionaire. He, the billionaire William Koch, bought four bottles of wine reputedly from the Thomas Jefferson household for $500.000. And it isn’t any Thomas Jefferson. It was said to be bottles from the house in Paris where the president-to-be had had them hidden behind brick and mortar since around 1790. The bottles had 1787 engraved on them and since Jefferson was a famous wine collector it sounded possible. Until 2005 when curators at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts let experts from the Monticello Foundation, the absolute authority on Thomas Jefferson, have a look at the bottles and let Mr. Koch know that they doubted that they really were what they wanted you to believe. They found them to, most likely, be a fraud. Koch went furious and had ex-agents from FBI, Scotland Yard and MI-5 investigate the whole situation and they found that neither was Hardy Rodenstock who he said he was (his real name is Meinhard Görke, he was born in Poland and had been working as a music producer for touring dance groups) but they also found that the engraving on the Jefferson bottles must have been made with 20th century tools. They found people who had helped Rodenstock (or is it Görke?) engrave old bottles and other craftsmen who had helped him print old wine labels, in particular the Petrus 1921-, 1928 and 1929 vintages but more importantly the expensive Mouton Rothschild 1929. After these revelations Koch had his entire cave looked through and there experts found another 150 bottles of fake vintages from some of the most famous French chateaux.
This could never have reached collectors and the collectors market if it wasn’t for the help of the most important link in this puzzle: the auction houses. Since Christie’s were the ones selling the Jefferson bottles they have had a particularly hard time. And well deserved. Michael Broadbent is the person at Christie’s who is supposed to be the bad guy. Both him and Christie’s denies all allegations, as does Rodenstock, but it looks too incredible to be true. That one of the most important wine experts in the world, said to have made more than 90.000 notes during wine tasting over the years, would have been oblivious of what passed under his nose for years seems rather impossible I’d say. Koch is the one who pushes this case forward, and today it seems to be more because he wants people to know what is going on in the world of wine auctions with collectors being robbed when paying sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars for wine basically made tomorrow. If Christie’s really sold eight magnum bottles of Chateau Lafleur 1947, regardless of the known fact that only five was ever produced, will be up to the court in New York to decide. But if that is the case, it is important that it is brought into the light.

Whatever the verdict in this sad case I hope people will carry on and calmly enjoy a good wine. Because, honestly, how many of us can afford paying thousands of dollars for a bottle of wine? And if we did, would we keep it hidden in a vault somewhere? I know I wouldn’t. I’d drink it and say cheers to another amazing experience in the realm of the art of food and wine.

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Filed under American Presidents, Art, Auction Houses, Chateau Lafleur, Chateau Petrus, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Christie's, France, Mouton Rothschild, Rhône, Wine