France is a nation of mass contradictions. On one hand, you learn about the classical idea of the republic: liberty, fraternity, equality – but how does that idea transcend the image of French Identity? I wrote my post-graduate thesis on the emergence of French Identity during the period of the Third Republic leading up to the First World War, and one of key theories behind it, as per many French Historians (like Graham Robb or Eugene Weber), is that peasants became Frenchman: A nation of regions that during the 19th century developed one identity, based heavily on a perceived notion of what ‘Frenchness’ should be as it modernized and industrialized. There are quirks to this, and you see that in the distinction of the Bordelaise, but the overarching feeling is one of an imposed identity.
So what has all this got to do with food? Well, I ask the question in the context of whether we are going through a renaissance in French food. With the ever-increasing number of new french restaurants opening up, with a focus on classical rather than haute cuisine, they are starting to dominate the scene again and not least with the reappearance of one of Britain’s greatest (French) chefs, Pierre Koffman. His restaurant is described as ‘hearty, robust, seasonal food, influenced by Pierre’s Gascon heritage’, but still French. Is it both? Can it be both?
The one thing that was the most abiding memory of my recent visit to Koffman’s was the sense of satisfaction. I knew what I had just eaten had no intention of trying to dazzle me, it just wanted to satisfy me in a way only simple good cooking can. This is Gascon cooking. As PK is reported to have said, “It is done at its very best if its been done all your life”; the love of food and the appreciation and respect of the traditions and nature of the region.
Between my wife and I we had the foie gras, crab, roast partridge and rabbit. Each dish smacked of simplicity yet was truly delicious. It is hard to really describe the food more than that, because I was having far too much fun. Sorry. Mildly tipsy and just enjoying myself. Gratification to a degree I rarely experience. The dishes were traditional and elegant, and did not possess the tricks and traits that you associate with Michelin star cooking, allowing them to speak for themselves. Gascon’s like to consider Foie Gras a local specialty as their main produce is duck, chicken and geese. Indeed there is a website that claims “The method of pouring the grain down the necks of the birds is something that only the British have a problem with”! Whilst I think that is a little bit of a contentious point, the delicacy of the dish, along with the quality of the foie gras and the brioche toast, made it seem anything but pâté on bread.
For dessert, we had a Gascon Apple Pie, and a Caramelised floating island (‘Oeuf À La Neige Caramélisé’). There is a slightly blurry picture of the Apple Pie to the right. The story goes that every now and again PK works the pastry station. If its true, then it may explain why I enjoyed my pie so much. The Armagnec (a product of origin of Gascony) gave the apples such a little hit of spice, and the sugar of the pastry was so soft and something reminiscent of, actually, I cannot compare it to anything, because it was like nothing I have had before. Even in France. My wife’s carmaelised floating island, a giant macaroon with the most syrupy custard sauce, was exquisite, and they rounded off the evening in the best way.
I cannot remember the last time I had such a good time eating out, because the overriding memory was of a fun evening eating fantastic food. Can it be beaten? I don’t necessarily think that is the point. It is rustic, peasant food from Gascony. It will warm the cockles and give you immense satisfaction and let you simply enjoy yourself. Sometimes there is nothing better.
And I found nothing French about it.
Brief footnote: Pierre Koffman is famous for his pig trotters, which are still available at Koffman’s. Please check out this recipe if you want to have a go: Trotters