Cleaning Out the Basement–Gourmet’s France

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Gourmet’s France

Gourmets dig their graves with their teeth.

–French proverb

When I was a graduate student (also known as The Years of Ramen and Peanut Butter) I’d take a break from papers and presentations by finding a comfy chair near a window in the university library and escape into Gourmet magazine.

The tone of these pre-Reichel-ized issues was consistent–confident of their place in the world (usually the glossy capitals and charming villages of Europe) and calmly partaking of its pleasures (rich foods, lush wines, luxe hotels, expensive shopping–with those preceding adjectives interchangeable).

It was a perfect escape from grim, grad life but even my fantasy had limits. I remember laughing out loud at one passage that segued gluttonously from dinner to breakfast to a luncheon road trip with barely a paragraph breath in between.

So it was with acidulated anticipation that I cracked open this basement find, dated 1978. I started–as all good Americans do–with Paris, and there it all was–the literate references to Talleyrand, Gertrude Stein, and Careme; the focus on gilded classics like La Tour D’Argent and Le Grand Vefour, and the tiptoe slumming into small bistrots.

Bonjour Paris!

Bonjour Paris!

Though in this case, the small bistrots include Le Bernardin, run by brother and sister Guy and Maguy Le Coze–the children of Breton fisherman, 2:30 am forays to the wholesale market, a little butter blended with the natural juices, “the honesty of Brittany transplanted to Paris.” They have since upscaled their honesty to New York City, but it’s fun to read the backstory here.

Reading this book alongside the internet is an irresistible scavenger hunt. Chez Les Anges has survived in the same location, but looks to have updated its menu from Burgundian-style dishes to almost sushi-like assemblages. Au Quai D’Orsay seems to have moved on, replaced by the restaurant in the Musee D’Orsay, a chic alternative to the sandwich stand in the museum courtyard.

Gone are Au Cochon d’Or’s “grilled juicy steaks as thick as paving stones,” Restaurant de la Coquille’s soufflé de pralin de noisettes, and Pierre-Traiteur’s “good, bourgeois cooking.”

But the book’s recipes will help you capture temps perdu. Gourmet, as always, offers absolutely reliable recipes for Tapenade, Court Bouillon, Gateau Basque, Tourte aux Herbes, Lapereau a la Chasseur, and many more.

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Pierre Gagnaire, 175 Home recipes with a Twist, Flammarion 2012, $34.95 hardback, 248 pages

A more updated approach to French cuisine is offered by Pierre Gagnaire. In fact, he’s actually designed these 175 recipes for home cooks, but of the most sophisticated kind. The chef-approach is evident not in recipes that require sous chefs and a batterie de cuisine, but in the distillations to the very essence of flavors. I was charmed by spiced syrup that makes an intense drink out of what seems to be scraps–cinnamon stick, a whack of ginger, a strip of lemon peel and a few lime leaves.

No matter the era or approach, French cooking is always a revelation.




About Appetite for Books

read, cook, eat, repeat
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