Chef Peter Travels France
The final days in France
Written by Peter Woolsey Sunday, 28 August 2011 11:59
As I type these words I should be touching down in Philadelphia, or standing by the baggage claim. Irene delayed my return by two days. While I am thankful to have a bit more time here, I was not a fan of 12 hours on hold with American Express, Delta France, Delta, and Air France. Already I can break a phone anytime I call Verizon. There may or may night be a leak in my house we have yet to see. In the mean time there is nothing but blue skies and temperate winds across the plateaus that surround Sardieu.
We've been staying close to home for the last couple of days. Christophe and Cedrine came to see us. They live a couple towns over in a little village next to Voiron. Like Peggy and I, Christophe is a cook and Cedrine a photographer. Peggy and Cedrine both went to the same school for photography in Lyon. Four years ago Christophe came to the US with Cedrine for two months. We cooked for a month straight. That was the beginning of the menu for Bistrot la Minette. I still have the binder of our notes. There are successes and some dishes that really fell short of the mark. Too bad that there are some great things in there that I am not sure Americans would be big fans of. I've got to start bringing them on as specials for the more adventurous.
Nicolas bought a duck and two chickens from a farmer. The traces of feathers were still on them. We roasted the duck whole and I taught Nicolas how to make a quick stock from the neck. We reduced it and added it to a bit of a sweet and sour sauce (Nicolas' request) and I cut the duck liver real fine and whisked it into the sauce right at the end. Without a grill, we put slices of potatoes under the duck so it wouldn't be swimming in its own fat. The potatoes soaked up the duck fat and turned golden. Cerine and Christophe brought an apple tart, raspberry tart and this was on top of a box of little pastries my mother in law brought as well. We finished lunch around five o'clock.
The next day was spent on the phone as I mentioned above. Twice I had someone on the phone and was cut off minutes later. Peggy called a Delta phone line that in France costs 50 cents a minute. Right as they were confirming my flight change, the operator hung up on her. To add insult to injury, we all ate at McDonald's that night. Ironically the only time Peggy and I eat fast food is in France. I am not anti fast food. I kind of like it. The thing is, is that it never occurs to me to go and eat it. You can get a burger anywhere in the city, and McDonald's has yet to serve beer. Add a bar to McDonald's and you might get my business. I still doubt they would have the atmosphere I go for.
Today I have been anxiously looking at Facebook to see if my neighbors could tell me if my South Philly home was standing up to Irene. In order to forget the condition of my roof and to celebrate my last couple of days, I went to the supermarket and bought the most expensive wines on their shelves. You don't have to be rich. Wine starts at around a euro a bottle and peaks (in the supermarket) at sixteen euros. Tonight are going to drown our sorrows in Cote Rotie and Montagny while devouring a large pot of Fondue Savoyarde. We'll take tomorrow easy and leave on Tuesday. Wednesday and Thursday will be Bistrot la Minette's third anniversary dinner. I almost missed it due to a hurricane and so I will be very thankful to be there.
So what have I learned here in France in my last two weeks? French men wear purses, Nicolas keeps calling it something else but I know for a fact it's a purse. Three weeks in France can do wonders for a three year old's comprehension and pronunciation of French. Don't leave a car parked on a small Lyon street overnight. Be ready to eat at any moment and pace yourself. Travel with an electric fan. The list goes on. But what did I learn about food? My lips are sealed for now. Come in and eat in the next couple of months and find out.
I've enjoyed writing this blog, much more than I ever thought I would. Last time I had to write anything of length was in culinary school. You can imagine they were pretty lenient about our prose. I just might keep it up. Thanks for reading, and I will see you all very soon at Bistrot la Minette!
Written by Peter Woolsey Friday, 26 August 2011 04:17
The other night one of the most shocking things happened in the eight years since my wife and I have been together. She grabbed a piece of bread, leaned over my plate and stole a piece of foie gras terrine and ate it! For anyone who knows her and is reading this blog would be shocked as well. She has been a vegetarian since around the time she was seven or eight. It is not a political stance. She just doesn't like the idea of chewing on meat in any form. Since we've been together, I have seen her eat mussels, a Mcfilet o fish, and dip her bread into beef bourguignon sauce from to time. Foie gras, never.
Earlier that day we had left Sardieu, grabbed my mother in law's Renault Clio and drove north to Lyon. It is the average everyday story of any married couple with a child that find themselves alone for a rare moment. We felt giddy and relaxed first coming into the labyrinth of highways surrounding Lyon. Lyon is large. It is france's second largest city. In many ways there can be a comparison made that Lyon is to Paris as Philly is to New York. It has many Parisian qualities. There is a periphique (like DC's Beltway), it is similarly organized into arrondissments, it has Haussman style architecture and even a metro with several lines. We got a hotel centrally located in the third arrondissment and while looking for the hotel in the Clio, barreled down the sides of both the Rhone and Saone rivers which cut the city into thirds as the rivers would in Philly, if east Philly (Camden) were actually part of the city. Peggy lived here from 97' to 99' when she was attending photography school in the center of the city.She couldn't help with directions driving as she can only relate to the city through the Metro stops or walking distances from one of her old apartments.
We had come to Lyon for two express reasons. Firstly, to take a break from family child and to live in an imaginary world where hotels, dinners out and shopping are all feasible. The second reason was to eat at Daniel et Denise, a Lyon Bouchon.
Paris remains the center of French life. It is like Chicago, DC, Hollywood and New York all rolled up into one. Lyon has one great thing to hold over Paris. It is the center of French cuisine. Much of what we think of as French cuisine can be attributed to Lyon. The use of butter, cream, velvety sauces, strange parts of the animal are all Lyonnaise qualities. Even their classic salad is filled with eggs, bacon and fried potatoes, add some frisee, vinaigrette and Voila! you've got a salad Lyonnasie. The Nouvelle Cuisine movement from the 60's was headed by a chef from Lyon, Paul Bocuse. Ask any chef and they'll tell you, he's the man. The Bocuse d'Or, possibly the greatest culinary competition in the world, takes place in Lyon. But att the center of Lyon's restaurant scene is the Lyonnaise bistro or as it is called in Lyon, a Bouchon.
A bouchon's tell tale signs are plates made from veal kidney's, stomach, livers and even brains. There is generous use of crayfish and foie gras. Every single bouchon features a version of quenelles, a dumpling made with pike from the local rivers. Most of the bouchons are tourist traps serving frozen pre-made food. If you want to eat in a good bistro, you've got to do some research first, and also make sure you have a reservation. We had settled on Daniel et Denise, because already I knew the chef quite well.
Last April the Kimmel Center hosted PIFA, an arts festival that was so comprehensive that they even involved the culinary arts. I find it bizarre as I see what I do more as a craft, but that's a whole other can of worms. PIFA paired chefs from France, the majority of who were from Lyon with local restaurants that had a French flair. At the first meeting I immediately asked to host Joseph Viola, owner and chef of Daniel et Denise. Speaking fluent French I thought it would be nice to grab one of the chefs that did not speak English. Also besides being an M.O.F., he owned a restaurant that we at Bistrot La Minette aspire to be.
M.O.F. stands for Meilleur Ouvrier de France, which translates to greatest craftsman of France. All crafts have this title but none more prestigious than that for cooking and pastry. In 2004 when Joseph won his title 800 people were excepted to compete, sixteen made it to the finals but only four of them passed. If you have netflix and want to see how bad-ass these guys are, check out the documentary Kings of Pastry, it will give you an idea of the rigors of the competition. When you win you get bragging rights, the ability to where red white and blue collars on your chef coat, and a restaurant full to the brim of people who know they are going to get a great meal.
Having Joseph for the five days in April was exciting. I learned a lot and I promised that I would come to see him when I was in France. Peggy and I were lucky enough to be there his first week open after the restaurant closed for its one month summer break.
Daniel et Denise, is on a road in part of the city that promises the smallest amount of foot traffic. The walls are warm with aged wood paneling, the tables are set with classic red and white checkerboard tablecloths, and the floor is a patchwork of tile that goes from large to small in no discernible pattern. The Bar welcomes you when you come in with a small but well thought out selection of aperitifs and digestifs. The staff was well dressed with white shirts, ties, and leather aprons. The service was perfect. I have an eye, and usually to the detriment of my enjoyment, for both the service and the food. So many of the restaurants I've been to this trip in France have had shockingly sub par service. Joseph's staff was spot on perfect. I relaxed and was really able to enjoy myself. It helped that Peggy and I started to drink heavier than usual since for a night, we were childless and within walking distance of our hotel.
I had an omelette stuffed with crayfish meat, and covered, even swimming in, nantua sauce, a creamy sauce made with the bodies of the crayfish. Next up was a salad with more crayfish tails, foie gras, potatoes, haricots verts, and lettuces. The steak was served classically in au poivre sauce. All the sides for the main dish were served in shared thick iron gratin dishes for both Peggy and I to serve ourselves. I finished with a trio of cassis sorbet in different preparations dowsed in Marc de Bourgogne, which is equivalent to Italian grappa. There were faults, but none worth mentioning. With the aperitif, bottle of wine, digestif and a Marc soaked dessert, we weaved our way to a wine bar and then to our hotel.
The next morning I woke up to find my mother-in-law's car completely ripped to shreds. Parked for the evening on a small street, someone, either drunk or with a car too large ripped a line down her door and knocked off the rearview mirror. This is the second time I have borrowed this car and returned it broken. The previous incident was hail the size of quarters that littered the car in dimples during July storm. That car and I don't have good luck.
Peggy spent the morning shopping and I walked around the old city checking out the architecture and golden interiors of cathedrals. We met at FNAC the French Tower Records. I bought more music for the restaurant and a couple of cook books. We finished the morning at a small bistro in the center of the city. For the second time in as many days, Peggy leaned over to my pike quenelles grabbed a forkful and tasted it. Shocking.
Dinner at Daniel et Denise:
Chef Joseph Viola and yours truly:
The stumble home in nighttime Lyon:
Written by Peter Woolsey Tuesday, 23 August 2011 04:37
Driving in France is a dream. People drive as if they have a purpose to get somewhere. The speed limits are high (nearly 85 on the highways) and all the roads are in great condition. People stay to the right and pass on the left, not like those jerk offs on I-76 doing 49 in the left hand lane. The rules are different so I have to keep my eyes open. Coming from Philly I am ready for anything, even people passing me on the right. Gas is expensive here. It is about 1.45 euros for a liter. With the exchange rate that translates to nearly double what we pay. Everyone drives diesel cars, though, which have much better mileage than unleaded but with half the acceleration. They need to stay to the right so passing is even possible.
I always end up as the default driver and have since I got my license at 16. It doesn't bother me as I have always liked to drive but being the leader of a caravan of cars in france is a bit ironic. Let's leave it to the American to find the way to where we are going in France! You have to reset your mind to their concept of directions. There is no north, south, east and west. All directions are given by following the direction of a city. My directions to get to Sardieru: Follow St. Etienne until you see signs for the auto route in the direction of Lyon. Follow that until you see signs for Vienne. Get off until in Vienne and drive through town until you see signs for the direction l'Isle d'Abeau. On that route you will eventually see signs for St. Jean Bournay which you will go through and the follow the direction Cote St. Andre. When you get to the circle outside of Cote st. Andre you will see signs for Sardieu. You can see how this might be confusing to an American who is used to being told take 90 east to 93 north. I habitually look at maps before I leave but am always dumbfounded that the fastest route often involves going north to head south. At least the signs are well marked (Philly could learn a lesson from this) and the system works even if I am not as used to it as in America.
Sardieu is a blip on the map. It is overlooked by people living right next to it. Delphine, Peggy's sister who is but a year and a half older, moved here 3 years ago with her husband Nicolas from Grenoble, one of France's larger cities. They have a beautiful house in this country village. It is peaceful with horses roaming in the field next door and the village church chiming out the time. Sardieu has one church, one bakery, one bar, and one stop sign. It is surrounded by fields of tobacco, corn and sunflowers all burning in the sun.
Delphine and Nicolas started dating when she was thirteen and he fifteen. He had bright red hair and listened to techno. I remind him of this often. By the time he was seventeen he practically lived with the family. Nicolas studied to be an electrician but ended up a fireman. He got a job working at Grenoble's largest firehouse and moved down there. Delphine followed soon after and they moved in together. They got married nine years ago and had two kids, Thomas (7) and Juliette (6). They got pregnant so quickly that Nicolas looked at me one night holding a finger behind his ear like it was a pencil or cigarette and told me he was just going to keep his penis there for the time being. He can be pretty funny.
Peggy and I get along with Delphine and Nicolas famously. During our whole trip, we look forward to seeing them the most. Strangely enough, Nicolas and I would not be friends if we weren't borthers-in-law. He is right wing, I am left. He still has techno cds in his car and I have yet to let my home stereo have the shame of playing it. He's funny and we tell the same jokes and we both love to eat. He tells me every year that he would have been a cook if he wasn't a fireman. I once stayed with them for three weeks after I was fired from a private chef position. I was happily collecting unemployment and Peggy was working for a restaurant as a server and taking classes in photoshop on the weekends. At the time they were living in a posh free apartment right above the firehouse. On Nicolas' 24 hour shifts he got to sleep in his own bed but there was an alarm when he had to get into his gear and rush to the firetruck. Every time the fire trucks would leave with their sirens blaring Peggy would slam the alarm clock with force, trying to shut it off. I would die laughing.
When we finally arrived in Sardieu after passing St Etienne, Vienne, St Jean Bournay and Cote St. Andre Delphine was waiting for us. We swam in their pool all afternoon until Nicolas came home. Hot from being in his uniform all day he changed into a speedo, went for a dip and then spent the rest of the night cooking and playing tarot (french game like hearts, spades or bridge) in his speedo, just like Peggy's father does.
He grilled meat on his bbq and made raviole gratin. Raviole are smaller than a thumb nail raviolis that come from the Grenoble region. They are filled with garlic, beaufort, tomme fraiche, and tarragon. We make them at Bistrot la Minette by hand. Everyone I tell that to in France, including chefs, think we're crazy. He put them into individual crocks with garlic, zucchini, cream and comté cheese. They were cooked in the oven until the ravioles melted together into one creamy, garlic-y gratin. We then put the kids to bed and played cards late into the night.
The next day we spent at Lac Paladru, a lake nestled amongst rolling hills. Christophe, the guy who helped me develop the opening menu for Bistrot la Minette worked on this lake in a little restaurant for four years. I've been there before and I always take advantage of buying beer from the tap delivered to you on the beach. Funny enough down the road on the northern bank of the lake is a restaurant named Philadelphia. It even has liberty one and two on its sign. I've never eaten there because the menu looks terrible.
At night we went to Viraville a small village hosting a fete foreign. We ate at a restaurant that was full of 80's cliches like spices on the rim of the plate. I finished dinner wishing I had what Delphine ordered. Afterwards the Fete Foreign or foreign festival was in full swing. Every one I met remarked that I had probably never seen something like this before. In actuality, it should be named American-town-fair-that-happens-to-be-in-France. It was funny to see floats pulled by tractors blasting techno versions of John Denver's Country Road with French guys dressed as cowboys dancing their hearts away.
The kids got on rides of cars that went in circles to nowhere. Nicolas and I jumped on rides that threw us hundreds of feet in the air and all that was beneath us was a village of a couple hundred residents and farm fields. We left a little after midnight. Jules toughed it out until the end but ended up passing out in his car seat about 30 seconds after we strapped him in. And then we barreled down the back roads of France following village after village until we saw signs that said Sardieu.
Nicolas, in full firefighter garb and my son, Jules.
Nicolas's raviole gratins. The tomatoes and different colored dishes all signify slight changes per personal tastes.
Last day in Puy
Written by Peter Woolsey Tuesday, 23 August 2011 04:01
The beauty of Puy en Velay is shocking. Nestled amongst dormant volcanos the city dips and rolls with the country side. There is a chapel built on the peak of a volcano's impossibly tall chimney. The only way to get there is 356 steps up and over a little bridge that climbs up to the chapel. Any other accent would require climbing equipment and experience with long steep accents. Who thought of doing such a thing and how did they get all that stone up there to build a chapel? Even the Cathedral of Puy is situated at the top of the city. Even after you climb 300 vertical feet to its base there are steps that bring you up another seven stories into the belly of the church. We checked it out on Sunday looking at the architecture as the city had it's mass. I have no idea how some of the older parishioners who had trouble kneeling and then standing even got there.
For lunch we went for lunch at one of Puy's more gastronomic restaurants. Amuse bouches of cherry tomatoes dipped in crackling caramel and boiled quail's eggs on a bed of foie gras scented whipped cream were little tastes before we even opened the menus. Next was a round of chevre folded with with whipped cream so it was as light in your mouth as a cloud. I chose the summer menu highlighting mushrooms. First up, Golden scallops over seared porcinis with a fennel jus that was frothey around its base. Then came the delicate white flesh of turbot with langostine tails and summer truffles. For the main was beef and seared foie gras with chantrelles and jus. It was all finished with a melon and creme brulee pastry on a feulletine crust with watermelon sorbet. The best part about this place was not only were they tolerant of my son Jules who was consistently playing with Woody, Buzz Lightyear and Bull's Eye but also offered him a kids meal of pork terrine, braised pork cheeks with pommes anna and sorbet. He ate it. Not shocking to most but for anyone who knows my son getting him to eat well can be a bit of a fight. Nice to be in a restaurant that would compete with Philly's best and having a three year old not even be a question (he wasn't the only one on a Sunday afternoon). On a side note, since we've been in France Jules has tried rabbit and duck as well as the pork cheeks. I hope the trend continues when we get home.
The end of the day was spent drinking cold beers on the side of a volcanic lake that is so deep scientists have yet to measure its depth. My son threw the largest rocks he could carry to make large splashes and Blanche dived on the side of the lake looking for fish and salamanders. Everyone keeps talking about how hot it is here (it has gotten as hot as 95 degrees!). I laugh in their face as they suffer through some of the most comfortable dry heat imaginable. To me it is beautiful days that we rarely experience in June, just one right after another. It is difficult sleeping, though, and none of my in-laws own a fan let alone have air conditioning. I told them that each room of my house has a fan, and central air. Then I dared them all to come and visit me in July.
Also, check out the last post as I finally have been able to add pictures.
It's a Small World
Written by Peter Woolsey Saturday, 20 August 2011 17:27
Puy en Velay is a town of 20,000 inhabitants. it is a city classified as a classified as patrimoine mondial de UNESCO. It is old and beautiful. there are enormous statues on tops of rocky peaks like Rio. The country surrounding it is enormous rolling hills. There are volcanos both dormant and active. There are picturesque streams and large lakes. it is beautiful to say the least.
Peggy's oldest sister, Carol, is a professor of theater at the conservatory here. She produces and directs around 15 plays a year here. She lives in a fabulous old house in the hills outside of town. It is really only 5 minutes by car but you feel like you are in the middle of the country. She lives there with her daughter blanche who at 7 years old is already stunningly beautiful.
Carol, being an actor and director is a bit crazy. She's the one that gets the family dancing on tables during the christmas dinner. She has always lived in strange places. The first place of her's I visited was 14th century farmhouse she was re-habing. The stove for cooking both cooked and heated the house. For summertime cooking there was a separate building outside with a wood-fired oven. There is never anything in her refrigerator. She shops for lunch and dinner daily. She finds great fresh products and eats them simply. Sardines grilled whole with slow roasted potatoes, fresh peaches cooked slowly on puff pastry are some of the things she does daily.
She knows every unknown spot in her area. Yesterday, we went swimming, and instead of stopping at the gorgeous blue lake that we passed, we drove down a side road that went from pavement to gravel to dirt. We arrived at a small river with crystal clear water. As the dirt at the bottom the river quieted down around our feet we could see hundreds of tadpoles and small fish swimming all around. The field next to it was full of purple poppies that as we walked amongst them we had the impression that the ground itself was jumping. Instead of the ground it was thousands of small grasshoppers, more than I've ever seen before. Jules, my son, spent hours finding the largest rocks he could carry and throwing them as far as his little arms could. I tried to teach my nieces the art of skipping rocks (if there was an olympic rock skipping team, I'd be on it). One of those afternoons that everthing aligns and you feel completely peaceful.
The next day we went into the old part of Puy en Velay. We walked around the markets and bought rotisserie chickens out of a truck. The Philly food truck scene could learn a lesson from this. Turning golden brown on their spits, the drippings fell off onto slowly cooked potatoes underneath. for 18 euros we got two chickens, and a sack full of chicken fat basted potatoes. Awesome.
That night we went out to eat at a new restaurant. Open for three weeks, Carol heard about it from her friends who eat out all the time. The menu marked the price of the different prix fixe menus and wine but without one single dish listed. All the dishes listed were on blackboards that the servers moved around the room so that each table could see. Marked on the blackboard was Paté en Croute (champion du monde 2009). Back in April I hosted a chef who won the pate en croute champion du monde in 2010. I had to tell the chef. As we talked towards the end of the night it turns out that he worked five years for Joseph Viola, the chef that visited me in Philadelphia. I laughed mainly because I knew his recipe for pate en croute. In fact we make a very similar version to it at Bistrot la Minette. It is a small world and even smaller world in the culinary field. He is three weeks in business and we are three years. He's a young guy and I wish him all the luck.
Added later: Something I forgot to mention. We went walking in the mountains around Puy and came upon a forest of tangled trees. Normally these trees grow straight. The entire forest has grown in a tangled mess because bakers used to come up here and cut trunks and branches to fuel their ovens. Cool stuff.
A field of poppies, cow dung and a billion grasshoppers.
Blanch, Rose (the young ones on the rock) and Carol (swimming) taking a dip in the river.
Roasted chicken off the food truck, then given to us in the bag it is sitting on. Below that, 2009's best Pate en Croute.
Why the French eat well
Written by Peter Woolsey Friday, 19 August 2011 02:26
You are just as likely to eat in a good restaurant here in America as you are to in France. Yes, when you get to the high end spectrum of restaurants France leaves us in the dust. So does Spain, and Italy even England does. Last time I looked France had 35 three star Michelin restaurants. I know of four of five in the United States that would qualify. This, is not the reason your average joe French person eats so much better than your average joe American.
There is nowhere more apparent of America's food disconnect and France's love afair with food than the highway rest stop. On our way to Puy-en-Velay, we pulled over for lunch. Normally we would have waited and searched out a nice little restaurant in a small village but more often than not the needs of you three-year-old are at the center of the decision making process. The rest stop's food service is Casino buffet. Now this food is not great, but compared to Sbarro, Burger King, TCBY, and Starbucks it shines. This is what is available at Casino: Bottles of wine and mineral water, salads of greated celery root in remoulade, beets, grated carrots, and vegetable macedoine. There were three choices of cheese and fresh baguettes. The entree choices were broiled fish, roasted chicken, freshly grilled steaks with sides of mixed vegetables, roasted potatoes, haricots verts, rice and French fries. Even dessert is pretty deluxe with apicot tarts, chocolate puddings, fresh cakes, and fruit salad. At the end you can even buy an espresso. They even have nice outdoor spaces to eat shaded by trees.
French supermarkets are just as different than American ones. Wouldn't you love to shop somewhere that was a mix of DiBruno Bros., Moore Brothers, Espositos, Eppilitos, and Sunday's farmer's market? The French get this everyday from their average supermarket. Their farmer's markets are even more impressive. I would love to walk into an American supermarket and be hungry instead of angry.
Our average meal on the fly is quite different from France as well. Often my in-laws sit down to a "casse croute" which means to break crust. All we do is empty a fridge and devour its contents. An average one consists of left overs, such as quiche or a beef roast, crusty baguettes, every cheese in the families cheese box (Peggy and I have a cheese box in our fridge in Philly), Patés and terrines, lettuce, tomatoes, and vinaigrette. I would take this any day over cold cuts, swiss cheese and sandwich bread.
Kids are taught to eat well from an early age. not only are the school meals three courses with rabbit eel and calfs liver being part of the weekly menu but food is part of the curriculum. My wife learned about wine regions and production when she was in middle school as part of the basic curriculum. I learned about the food pyramid, the dumbest way of explaining food and proper nutrition. Why in the US can we not lead by example? No wonder rest stops are full of crap. Of course that is what you want to eat if you grew up with pizza, hamburgers, and chicken fingers.
Written by Peter Woolsey Wednesday, 17 August 2011 17:27
This could have easily ended up to be a blog about my medical condition. We could have visited the depths of Dijon hospitals and recounted endless jokes from doctors asking me not to pay them in dollars. Thank god it won't be. I'm better and we can leave it at that.
I seem to get endless amounts of worry about my health on both sides of the Atlantic. No matter how old I get my mother worries about my condition, whether it be mental, moral or physical. When I am here in France, Christine takes over, though the differences between French mother worry and Jewish mother worry can be quite different. I am thankful Christine worries about me at all. Normally she is all about her grand kids and not nearly as hands on with the generation in between. She is a great mother-in-law.
Christine has had a hard life. Born to French parents living in post WWII Germany, they moved to Jura in the early sixties. She started working at an early age by taking part in the apprentice program that most French blue collar kids go through. By 17 she lived alone, paying for her own apartment that had one bed, one, chair, one plate, one spoon, one glass etc... One day her father offered to take her to buy a mobilette so that she could stop taking the bus all the time. She went and picked one out with her father only to have her father make her buy it. Then rain, snow or shine she had to ride this thing that barely went 30 mph 45 miles to and from her parents house every Sunday. With no money and a job in a restaurant that took up all her time, she was not exactly living the dream life of a 17year old. Then one night in front of a bakery she met a young man named Marcel. Marcel was already a baker like his father and two brothers, and his boss didn't mind it when Christine stayed up and talked with Marcel while he worked all night. They were married in 1973. She was 18 and already 3 months pregnant. She paid for her own wedding. After Carol was born Virginie came only 16 months later.
As a young couple they bought a bakery in Salin-les-Bain. Like any start up it was difficult the family with four kids at the time lived directly above the bakery. Christine tells me how she cried the first day they opened and only made ten francs. Marcel went to work all night and slept through the day. Christine had to take care of four kids, run the day to day operations of the bakery, do all of the accounting for the bakery, clean the apartment, cook for the family, do all the shopping etc... The apartment was heated by the chimney from the bakery, even in the summer.
It didn't help that the kids were crazy. They were having fun and decided to play campfire, grilling meat and singing with guitars and such. Only problem is that they built the campfire in the basement. One time they had a fight in the car and Delphine fell out of the car onto the highway. A customer once came in her shop and said to christine to not get too excited but her 2 year old (my wife) was walking along the second story ledge of the building, which was about 3 inches deep. Another time they left Minette at a rest stop on the highway and no one in the family noticed until a stranger showed up at the door with her a couple of hours later. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. I will say that these all sound like horror stories, but each time they are recounted it is with a deep laugh and a gentle smile.
Things got better. They had a beautiful vacation house that they went to on the weekends with a swimming pool and surrounding forests. They still have a photo of this house hanging on their wall. They sold it and bought a bigger and better bakery in a busier town with a larger house. The kids grew up and became interesting and successful. Life became calmer and easier.
I learned some of this story tonight. Most of it I knew already. We were walking past a bakery in Dole after an evening eating morel mushrooms and vin jaune over Bresse chicken, and she mentioned that she met Marcel there. It was nice to hear and a good story, I promise much better from her mouth than from my computer.
Written by Peter Woolsey Wednesday, 17 August 2011 03:44
I have had a sordid history with my back. It got so bad a year and a half ago that I ended up having back surgery to fix it. In the last week before I left for France all my old symptoms came back. Scary to say the least but really it was looking like my time in France was going to be spent in a bed. I lost a day of my vacation to working the French health system but more importantly I lost the opportunity to learn Antonio's grandmother's couscous.
Antonio is Minette's (my wife's youngest sister) off again on again boyfriend. Recently they've been living together in Clignancourt, the neighborhood just to the north of the Paris border. Apparently they broke up but they seemed like they were dating again last night. They've been a couple since they were 14 or so. This is a common theme in Peggy's family. Her little brother who is 22 lives with a girlfriend he's been dating since he was 15. Bothe Virginie and Delphine, two of her older sisters married their teenage sweethearts. Peggy bucked the system and married an American that she only knew for a year and a half!
Needless to say I met Antonio when he was 17. A big fan of XBOX live he used to beg me to teach him insulting terms to scream at American teenagers he was playing with on line. As a young man he worked for a flour mill, an actual 14th century flour mill that was still in operation cranking out flour for Banette, a company that supplies artisan bakers, including my father-in-law's bakery. When he moved to Paris he worked at the one remaining flour mill still operating in Paris. Recently he joined the army. He is now part of an elite commando force jumping out of planes and such.
Antonio is a good cook. last year he cooked a delicious pasta bolognese for us in his miniature Parisian apartment. He learned from his grandmother. As a special treat, first to celebrate Minette's birthday and secondly as a chance to show the rican (slang for American, which is what most of the family calls me) her couscous recipe, Antonio's mamie (grandma in french) came over to cook couscous from scratch. That is precisely when my sciatic nerve attacked.
Couscous is a dish so good they named it twice. In America we think of couscous as a grain. In north Africa, it is a copious dish with vegetables broth and slowly stewed meats. It differs in style from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. France's largest immigrant populations are all north African. Like England has adopted Indian curry as a national dish so has France with couscous. Antonio's grandmother learned the dish when she lived in Algeria from 1951 to 1954. She worked on it all day making the grains of couscous by hand and stewing the lamb, chicken and vegetables for hours. Sadly, lying on my back in a haze of codeine I saw none of this.
My codeine haze lifted just in time to eat. There were 20 of us and enough couscous to feed 40. It was a true party with big magnums of Burgundy flowing like water and jokes that induced couscous launching fits of laughter. When couscous is done right the grains are light and fluffy. The chicken and lamb were stewed for hours with tomatoes and onions until it made a lamb fat laden broth. The vegetables were stewed separately and were a mixture of carrots, turnips, artichokes, onion, garlic and garbanzo beans. a pile of couscous is smothered by the broth, vegetables and meat. We ate until midnight when we had cakes with kirsch laced pastry cream. I wish I could find it this good in Philly.
Hand made couscous
Couscous with the meat and vegetables
Antonio and his grandmother
The cooked vegetables at dinner time
Gabi (Delphine) and Minette (Charlene)
First night in Auxonne
Written by Peter Woolsey Monday, 15 August 2011 16:39
Auxonne is a little Burgundy town about 10 miles south of Dijon. It is a country town with an old cathedral, three bakeries and a movie theater. It is a bit of a large city for the surrounding villages, many of whom only have a church and no bakery. First a church, then a bakery, then a small general store and then a bar is usually the order in which towns grow here. The fact that Auxonne has a movie theater means it is quite large for the area. It seems to me that the must have no more than 20,000 people living there. There is one totally awesome fact about Auxonne, Napoleon Bonaparte did his military school training here. To this day there is still a military school on the northern end of town.
My wife Peggy's family moved here from Salins-les-Bains a small town in Jura known for its pottery to Auxonne about 17 years ago. They owned a bakery in Salins-les-Bains (Jean Marie Lacroix's home town) for about 20 years before they moved to Auxonne. Their bakery in Auxonne was regarded as the best and they did very well until they sold it to retire 2 years ago. This is not a biased statement but, Maarcel my father-in-law, makes the best bread I have ever had. He is a third generation baker that learned from his father, whose picture is hanging on the wall in Bistrot la Minette by the kitchen. The very first time I met Marcel was one very drunken evening 9 years ago when I, with all of Peggy's sisters and their boyfriends went to Marcel's bakery at 4 in the morning and stuffed our faces with croissants that had literally come straight out of the oven. Good at any time but when they are coming out of an artisans oven they are life changing.
My mother-in-law Christine and Marcel are happy to be done with the bakery. 35 Years of going to work at 11 pm and not coming home until 12 the next day has taken its toll on Marcel. Christine seems more resilient although I don't know how she ran the store and did all the accounting while raising six kids. Peggy remembers in the early days when the family lived above the bakery, they didn't even have a kitchen to themselves and had to eat breakfast with all the bakers working around them.
My in-law's house sits on an acre with farms in the front and back of the house. It is attached on either side to the adjoining houses, a 18th century rural version of town houses. The farm in front grows red onions as do almost all the farms surrounding Auxonne, whose main factory makes onion powder. The farm behind the house grows flowers. It is a large field of multi-colored patchwork. Their backyard has a pool and petanque court as well as a little garden and a play set for the grandchildren. We eat outside every night under the roof over their terrace.
Tonight was no different. Tomatoes from the garden, roasted potatoes with concoillottes, grilled sausages ironically made on a George-Forman-esque grill sitting next to their actual outside grill. Concoillottes is a type of very hard cheese that is melted with white wine until it streams off a spoon. Here are some photos so you can get a good idea of what I am talking about.
My mother-in-law Christine cutting up potatoes:
First the potatoes are sauteed and then finished in the oven:
Some of the bounty from their garden:
Drizzling concoillotte on the potatoes:
Eating on the terrace:
Delta, Why can't we be friends?
Written by Peter Woolsey Monday, 15 August 2011 14:43
Every year I do the same thing. I don't go to casinos and I am certainly not a day-trader, instead I bet on TGV tickets. I buy the ticket on line. I give myself a nice window of time to get from the plane to the Gare de Lyon in central Paris and I hope beyond hope that my flight will be on time. Every time I am wrong. This is nearly a decade of betting and betting wrong. You might think I would learn, this time I was sure it would be different.
At the Philly airport I got to my gate. Everything led me to believe there would be an on time departure. So I went ahead with my strategy. My back is a total mess right now so I timed my medication so that I could take my pain killer, my muscle relaxer and my anti muscle spasm pills 15 minutes before boarding. This would get me to pass out, sleep through take off and sleep as comfortably as I could in my condition. Of course, the moment I took the pills is the moment it was announced that the plane needed a repair before flying. The part was in Atlanta and the plane bringing the part to Philly couldn't get off the ground because of monsoon like rains. Four and a half hours delay. I had to ask two girls taking my flight to take wake me up when the plane was boarding.
I got off the plane at 12:30. My train had already arrived in Dijon without me. By the time I got from Charles de Gaulle airport to Paris, I had two hours to wait at the Gare de Lyon before the next train to Dijon. I am always willing to make lemonade out of lemons so I headed to Le Train Bleu, a historic restaurant in the Gare de Lyon.
In the US our trains were built first and then our cities followed. Like 30th street station, most of our trains stop in the city and continue on. As old as Paris is, the train companies built lines as far as they could into central Paris and then built enormous romantic open air train stations. Paris has five of them for all the train lines coming in north, south, east and west. Each of these stations is the size of Grand central station and just as busy.
Le Train Bleu is a restaurant that over looks the trains and the passengers scurrying to them. Inside it is belle epoque architecture with golden walls and soaring painted ceilings that would not look out of place in the great halls of Versailles. The menu is expensive. Half of what you are paying for is the ceilings. I got the TGV menu. Promises of service in 45 minutes is what I needed. It started well enough with foie gras terrine served with reduce banyuls vinegar, cured smoked duck breast, and large country toast. Then something happened that really is not that common these days. My roasted leg of lamb was rolled out on a silver cart and carved table sized with the waiter adding a large scoop of gratinéed potatoes.
One of the greatest revolutions that the food world had ever seen started in France in the early 1960's. Part of Nouvelle Cuisine was that chefs started to plate the food in the kitchen and send it to the table presented beautifully.Crazy idea, right? So prolific was this change that nearly every restaurant in the world fell into line and did the same thing. We do it at Bistrot la Minette. So, having my meat carved table side was a trip. Even after finishing my dessert of petit fours and espresso I was jealous of the table across from me. They each had an enormous baba au rhum delivered to the table. The server cut each one of these elongated soft ball sized simple syrup soaked cakes in half and then pored a shot of rum on each half. Another waiter came over and then smeared whipped cream on each half. They left the bottle of rum on the table incase two shots of rum was not enough. It was a time warp.
I was feeling satisfied and royal from lunch and the half bottle of Haut Medoc. The train was easy. The fastest corridor in all of Europe the TGV reaches speeds of 220 + on its way to Dijon. I got there only five and a half hours late. Waiting for me was Jules, my three year old son, and Peggy my beautiful wife of 7 years.
Before I go...
Written by Peter Woolsey Saturday, 13 August 2011 11:58
Here is the first and hopefully the only apology or disclaimer I will make in this blog. I am a chef and a cook, not a writer.
I also must explain that I am not a fan of blogs, especially food blogs. Bloggers who see themselves as amateur food critics can be a serious bore. Everything is described as mouthwatering or just not tasty enough. There are very few people who can describe flavors so that a reader can relate and be transported to that bowl or plate of food. 'So Peter, why are you writing a food blog?' you might ask. The answer is not to try my chops at amateur-food-criticizing but to really give fans of the Bistrot a good look behind the scenes. This is as behind the scenes as it gets. It doesn't take place in the depths of our basement prep areas or in the afternoon when the cooks have the kitchen and restaurant to themselves. Even my employees, many of whom work twelve plus hours a day for me never get to see this part of Bistrot la Minette.
Often on my menu I use names to describe dishes like Peggy’s potatoes, Christine’s cauliflower gratin, or Nicolas’ slow cooked zucchini. Much of this is because I can get inspiration from people who make stellar home-cooked meals as well as the bistros and restaurants and even markets I visit. So much of what we do at Bistrot la Minette germinates from ideas I have and things I eat or see on my yearly vacation to France.
I will warn you that it is not as romantic as it sounds. Sure, it is France, another country on another continent, but for me it just another trip to my in-laws. So while the language is French and the surroundings are France, I tend to pick up my sister in law from the train station, or paint the spare room off of the kitchen, or fill in holes in my father in law’s petanque court, or just watch crappy TV with my brother in law. You know, typical in-law stuff. We do eat well and I think my mother-in-law tends to like to show off when I am around. My wife tells me that when I show up the meals get a bit more complicated and the wine gets a bit more expensive. I keep telling them I’m a simple guy who can drink wine out of a box and it is pleasure enough just to have some one else cook for me.
You will meet the whole cast of characters (and there is a lot of them as my wife Peggy is one of six kids), like Marcel, my father-in-law, who spends his summer days gardening in a speedo and who I can never understand because he literally makes up his own words, to my brother-in-law Nicolas a French fireman with the appetite of an American, whose humor is as sexually low brow as you can possibly get and of course Minette, my wife’s younger sister, who is also not only the namesake of the restaurant but also a total pain in the ass.
While I have the luxury of writing the introduction from my comfortable office under the kitchen at Bistrot La Minette, I will be updating this blog from my iPad when I am on the go. No matter where I am, I will be the authority on English, so there will be no help with the prose or grammar. Forgive the mistakes and the colorful language and enjoy this brief glimpse into my life and cuisine. Keep reading.