Okay, I admit it, I’m an over-achiever. One of my goals for this year was to eat out at a restaurant once a week. I have far exceeded that goal. At home in Winnipeg, Jim and I once actually made a new year’s resolution to eat out at a restaurant once a month, then failed. It’s not that I don’t appreciate Winnipeg restaurants (Bistro 7 ¼, Fusion, etc.), it’s just that when it comes down to it, we just prefer cooking at home.
And I do love cooking here in our apartment in Aix-en-Provence. The kitchen is better equipped, more elegant and more spacious than what I have at home in Winnipeg. Not to mention the summer kitchen outdoors.
But here’s what happens: we’re walking home from French class. Along the way we stop to look at a dozen menus. If we choose a slightly different route home, we have yet another dozen menus to check out. So the other day, we noticed the plat du jour at Le Grillon, a small bistro on the Cours Mirabeau, not noted in any restaurant guides. It featured two choices of omelettes, one with girolles (what we call chanterelles at home) and trompettes de la mort (black mushrooms). It was too much to resist for my mushroom-loving husband. Within minutes, we had a street-side table, a little pichet of rosé wine and one each of the omelettes on offer with a little salad beside. The omelettes were perfect – generously filled with mushrooms, garlic and parsley, tender on the outside and creamy inside – “baveuse” (runny) is the term they use.
We also enjoyed our first gastronomic experience with our friends Paul and Qi, who visited us just a few days after our arrival. The restaurant Le Formal is named after the chef, not the mode of decorum. It’s built into a cave with lots of exposed stone, so it’s cosy, yet smattered with sleek modern touches. The feeling is quite relaxed and friendly.
We opted for the seven-course meal. It is my firm belief that anyone visiting France, even on a budget, should try the seven-course meal once (or even five or four-course meal). In a restaurant such as this, portions are small so that you can really enjoy each morsel and then leave without having burst the buttons of your new French outfit.
I don’t normally opt for the luxe ingredients, but there they were: salad with summer truffles to start. Then fois gras “sandwich”, with the lobe of duck liver creatively skewered between two crisp croutons, accompanied by rhubarb sauce and fig ice cream flavoured with ginger. We were instructed to eat all of the ingredients together, which proved a bit of a challenge for Paul who prefers to eat each ingredient on his plate one after the other. He rose to the occasion, however, and enjoyed every bite. Next came a cellophane bag which contained scallops, coral attached, with barely cooked fois gras and a jus of arugula. The server unwrapped our packages for us, unleashing a heady aroma. After that Paul and I enjoyed lamb encased in filo pastry, which melted in our mouths. Jim opted for sweetbreads and Chi chose the pigeon with a huge shrimp alongside. Our cheese “ball” was breaded and fried and served as a lollipop. Clos Sainte Magdeleine wine from Cassis matched much of our meal. As for dessert, check out the photo.
While Paul and Qi were here we also climbed a mountain together (not with Jim, who has a bum knee) and we cooked at home. We made salade nicoise, magret de canard and grilled rouget (lovely little red fish). I’ll share all of the recipes along the way. For now here’s one:
INGREDIENT OF THE WEEK: HARICOTS VERTS
For twenty years I have searched for seeds for the delicate green beans that are so common here in France, without success. Personally, I am partial to any sort of green bean, but, I must say, the slender ones I find here at the markets are just so perfect.
RECIPE OF THE WEEK: SALADE NIÇOISE
Some people say an authentic salade niçoise contains no cooked vegetables. But mine always includes green beans (haricots verts) and baby potatoes, therefore some cooking is required (but not much). My salad never includes lettuce. And I always dress all of the ingredients separately, then arrange them in separate piles on a huge platter with the tuna in the middle. This proved to be a huge relief to Paul, who could then choose to eat each ingredient in order. The boiled eggs, olives, and anchovies, however, are scattered around. As it happened, though, the night Paul and Qi arrived, I forgot to add the anchovies.
First I make a vinaigrette for everything: some minced shallot, a big tablespoon of mustard and a few tablespoons of red wine vinegar, along with a generous amount of salt and pepper, then a few more tablespoons of good olive oil. Here in France I can add a big spoonful of pistou, because it is readily available, otherwise, feel free to throw in some chopped basil.
Then I start on the vegetables. First steam (or boil) a big handful of baby potatoes (ratte potatoes are my choice here, very petite and oddly shaped), then mix them with some vinaigrette as soon as they are tender and still warm. Steam the green beans next, which take just a few minutes, then plunge them in ice water to cool, then they mix them with a spoonful of vinaigrette. Then consider: chopped tomatoes, julienned carrots, sliced beets (one can find them already cooked in the market here – more on that another time!). Again, I dress each vegetable separately and pile each one in a circle on a platter. Open 2 cans of tuna for 4 or 6 people, oil-packed if you want the great flavour, water-packed if you’re watching your waistline. Mix the tuna with more vinaigrette, and plop it into the middle of your platter. Surround everything with halves of boiled eggs, olives, capers if you wish, and drape over the anchovies. Serve with rosé wine.
People often rush down the street nibbling on a croissant or a piece of pizza, always folded over, wrapped in a piece of paper. But they would never dream of walking down the street drinking coffee. I don’t think take-out coffee exists here.
A la prochaine,