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A MICHELIN MEAL IN SOUTH-EAST OF FRANCE

Sathya Saran  (click here to know more about this blogger)

I have watched 'Masterchef' with deep interest. Earlier, I  have handled the cookery pages of a magazine as editor of the segment for two to three years, and learnt the art of food styling. I have partaken of great celebratory dinners, where each dish is a work of art, but till last week, I had never, ever, eaten in a Michelin-star restaurant. We were in Carcassone, a walled city in the south-east of France... revelling in the luxury of living in what appeared an ancient monument turned hotel. There is a special joy in spending a night or two in a heritage property which has had a rich history.

I know I will never forget the times I have spent in Blue Room of Shiv Nivas Palace in Udaipur, or the night when I slept with all lights on under an overweight chandelier at Lake Palace because search as I might I could not find the switches, concealed perhaps behind the huge paintings. I was glad though; the penetrating eyes of the subjects of the portraits made me feel safer with the lights on; my fancy told me they might step out of their frames and wander about if the room turned dark. And then there was that wonderful night my friend and I spent in a turret room in a castle in Ireland. Despite the pretty pink decor we kept the lights on, just in case! Tower rooms have, after all, dark histories.
 
But this, I learnt from Mme Pujol the delightfully expansive owner of the Hotel De La Citi, Carcassone, was a five star property, only, and she stressed 'only, a hundred years old'. And the Michelin-star restaurant, The Barbacane, was quite younger. The restaurant was like a page from a history book. We walked through wrought iron doors into a space that suddenly seemed a symbol of pomp and pageantry. I could almost hear the trumpets. Later as I sank into the heavily fashioned cathedral-like wooden chairs with carvings along the back and arms, I realised that the space above the large glass windows carried insignias and coats of arms. There were many, each decorative and proudly displaying a motto, and each had been painted with perfect detail. Painted tapestry like pennants hung from the walls. And the stained glass gave the place a heraldic glow.
 
A meal in such a place is a ritual; a solemn but joyful partaking of the treasures of a chef's knowledge of handling what Nature provides by way of vegetable and meat, and his expertise in turning both into delights for the palate. I felt that conversation should be erudite and yet simple, blending with the mood of the food, like a good wine does, enabling us to taste the food as individual creations. And as Madame Pujol told us the history of the hotel she manages with such enthusiasm, the mood seemed just right.
 
A group of rather high spirited ladies sat close by in a wide circle, and either their spirits were such that eating was just a routine to fill the stomach, or they had so much exposure to such food that the wonder of its creation had paled. It did seem a pity that they did not think fit to absorb the mood of the elegant surroundings while they waited for their food to arrive. 
 
My peep into kitchens of chefs dedicated to food as fine art through one-on-one interviews in the past has told me that the more qualified a chef, the more seriously he takes to the task of creating each dish he sends out of his kitchen. The food trail started soon enough. I had been asked if there was any taboo the Executive Chef Jérôme Ryon should keep in mind, and had mentioned liver as one, and meat cooked rare as another. I wondered suddenly what I would do if presented with a carefully dressed dish of snails. It was a delicacy after all. Who knows, I told myself, even as the dishes were being brought in, they might be something I will find I quite love!
 
I needn't have worried. The vegetable looked delicious.  "Summer vegetables in a fricassee cooked barigoule-style, aestivum truffle and seasoned toast," was announced as the plates were set down before us. Well, I am mostly a vegetarian, and vegetables in Europe tend to be a far cry from our spicy delicacies. I have had my share of boiled vegetables sauteed in butter, and this could be just one more variation. It was not!  Crisp, each vegetable holding its own taste, the blending a perfect harmony of flavours. No kid would have to be told to eat her vegetables if they were served cooked in this manner. Yet there was a simplicity to the dish; and it was just at that point when one had had enough and yet one wanted more, that the plate got empty. 
 
"Grilled wild turbot, thin tart with pigeon's-heart tomatoes, grenaille potatoes and house-made ketchup, Choron sauce",  the intoning voice pronounced as the entree was placed on the table. The journalist in me could not help asking, and I was told the tomatoes were called that because they did look like yellowed pigeon's hearts. The turbot on its part was an ugly flat fish found in Black Sea, and Choron sauce was a thick sauce with tomato puree and shallots and was possibly named after  the person who invented it, a certain Alexandre Choron esq. Well, to cut a long story short, the seafood course disappeared faster than you could say Choron Sauce. The tomatoes were lusciously juicy, the fish was cooked to a delightful perfection, and the sauce did the rest. Ugly or otherwise, I gave the turbot (and the Chef) full marks for taste.
 
The wines, white and red, were now winking alternately. We had started with an aperitif of champagne, and followed it by a fruity white. Now we would chase the next course with a full bodied red, all chosen to suit the meal by the Head Wine Steward Georges Gracia, who we were told was a specialist in regional Languedoc-Roussillon wines. 
 
The “’Roasted Pyrénean lamb fillet, pastry with pequillos, ratatouille, lamb's sweetbread, lamb's breast, thick stock" was a formidable repast. Any other version of such a chunk of densely packed meat would have had me panting from over-exertion, but the balance of well cooked, flavoured meat and the contrast of the softly seasoned ratatouille,the crunch of the pastry with its hint of pequillo pepper was so fine that I worked my way through more than my normal share with no fuss at all. 
 
There was a choice of two desserts, but I could have neither, having decided to eschew sweet dishes for a while. But my colleague oohed and aahed her wicked way through the “”Fresh raspberries, Bordeaux cannelé and dark guanaja chocolate dessert”” and for good measure ate her way through my portion of “”Apricots roasted with honey, house-made panettone and almond milk ice cream with macadamia nuts.”” 
 
By now, the mellow after dinner mood that follows a meal that satisfies the palate and the senses was setting in. Below us, in the distance, the city lights winked brightly, telling me to remember to check out the view by day. As I wended my way to the comfort of my four poster bed with its soft pillows, I felt I could ask for nothing more. For that evening, at least. Another day, maybe I would be in mind to wonder, if this is what a one-star Michelin meal can be like, what would a three-star...
 
 
 
11-OCTOBER-2012
 
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2 Comments
 
04-NOVEMBER-2012 sonia kohli
another wonderful place in Lyon---a Michelin Star-called AUBERGE DE L'ILE BARBE---a must try
 
 
12-OCTOBER-2012 Sathya Saran
The photographs are by Supriya Kantak
 
 
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