Saturday, October 24, 2009

Using only the best in France

(This was first published in the Durham Herald-Sun on November 5, 2008.)

Food is sacred in France.  Many of the conversations I have heard since my arrival in June have revolved around the subject of food.  One evening, how to make the best soupe au pistou, a vegetable soup with pesto, was the subject.  Another evening, two men were discussing the best way to make pâté au foie gras, goose liver paté.  That discussion lasted for over an hour.  Even Chef Vedel's six year old son is a connoisseur of crêpes and, at the age of four, taught his American au pair how to make them.  Leo, who is eleven, recently announced that his dad makes the best pizza in the whole world and could easily get a job making pizzas for President Sarkozy in Paris! 
We recently took at client to Châteauneuf-du-Pape for a wine tasting at the Cave du Verger.  Jean-Baptiste, who was working in the tasting room that day, led us through an amazing tasting, but the tasting of wine led directly to a discussion of what to eat with each wine.  He told a story about hitting a deer on his way home late one night when he lived in New Jersey, throwing it in the back of his truck and taking it home.  He said a Frenchman would never waste fresh meat.  Only after serving it at a dinner party did he let his guests in on the fact that they were eating road kill.  Needless to say, Jean-Baptiste's English is very good and he is an excellent salesman.
I have come to believe that the secret of good food lies in the freshness of the ingredients used to prepare it.  Here in Arles, we use only fruits and vegetables that are in season.  We buy amazing cuts of lamb and beef from an Arab butcher nearby.  At the open-air market, M. Perez sells the best pork sausages I've ever tasted. (I even saw a lady buying pig's ears one day, but didn't ask her what she planned to do with them.)  Our seafood and fish are brought in off the boat as it returns from the Mediterranean on Tuesday and Friday evenings.  Chickens are sold at the market with their heads still on, a few feathers intact or the feet still attached to prove how fresh they are.  We go to a farm in Tarascon to buy milk and eggs as often as possible.  We get our flour from an organic mill.  When I am particularly pleased with the way my latest brioche or batch of brownies has turned out, Chef Vedel reminds me that I am using the best ingredients possible.  They hay that the cows are fed is top notch.  Hay, as well as wine, olive oil and cheese, has its own AOC or appellation d'origine contôlée.  The AOC system was initiated for wine in 1935 in France to protect the more quality conscious winemaker and consumers.  It is only given to products that meet strict standards for the region in which they are produced.

I was inspired to share the following recipe after visiting the farm this week for milk and photographing the chickens running loose.  I leave you with a recipe for Roman chicken that gets its name from Apicius, reputedly quite a gourmet who lived in the first century AD.

Poulet Apicius - Honey Chicken Roman-style

Serves 6
Prep time:  20 minutes; cooking time:  45 minutes

Preheat oven to 400 F.


One good quality chicken, organic, if possible

For the sauce:

1/2 tsp cumin grains
1/2 tsp caraway seeds
1/2 tsp anise seeds
Seeds of 2 pods of cardamom
2 tsp Dijon-style mustard with seeds
4 tsp honey
2 tsp fish sauce
3 tsp chopped celery leaf
2 tsp wine vinegar
2 Tbsp olive oil
Water for the baking dish

Either break up the chicken into parts or split it down the middle lengthwise and spread it out in the baking dish.  This will reduce baking time.

With a mortar and pestle, grind the cumin and caraway seeds until they form a rough powder; add the mustard, honey, fish sauce, celery leaf and vinegar; mis well.  Drizzle the olive oil in the bottom of the pan.  Place the chicken in the baking dish.  With a spoon and a brush, cover the chicken with the sauce.  Pour about a cup of water in the bottom of the dish and place in the oven to bake for 45 minutes.  If you wish, add small new potatoes, carrots, onions and garlic to the baking dish before placing it in the oven.

Bon appétit!  Cocorico!

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