THE ROAD TO REAL FRENCH FOOD
Life has been crazy busy.
It’s what happens to us, right? We work, we achieve, we change. We just don’t stop.
Take the last three years of my life. Soon after reaching the finals in BBC 2’s Masterchef The Professionals in 2016, I went onto to become Executive Chef at EAT and rapidly progressed to Director of Food. Here, I made some pretty progressive changes to the company and its food. It was a period of professional challenge and development (think of it somewhere pitched between the high expectations of a Michelin-starred restaurant and the emotional intensity of running your own artisan bakery).
Yet even when you drive forwards, heart first, there comes a point where you have to take your foot off the throttle, step back and look around. I look at what I’ve achieved during the past few years. I look at the changes I’ve made to EAT and its food ethos, I look at my personal development as a chef, and most importantly I look at my new family. In the frantic years since Masterchef, my wife, Marie-Claire, and I have welcomed two beautiful children into our lives.
So, as EAT takes a new direction, I’ve taken the opportunity to do something for my family and with my family – of course, it all hinges around food.
Cue a whirlwind culinary adventure, tasting my way through childhood memories and beyond, to get to the heart of French cuisine. Through vineyards and local food markets, bistros and farms, I’ll be discovering current flavours and trends and heading back to the roots of French cuisine. Don’t worry, I’ll be taking a bag of Bristol’s finest ground beans, from Extract Coffee, along for the ride. I know I’ll need my caffeine hit travelling with two small children, but I can’t wait to introduce them to my world… the world of food and adventure.
The journey begins
A car fully loaded with everything we need for a few months, and map in hand to guide us through the terrain – known and unknown – we embark on our French adventure. There are a few essentials (besides coffee) that we need on the way. So, we stop in Lyme Regis at my oldest friend’s award-winning restaurant to stock up on what I know to be the best pickles and jams (we’ll need these later for cheese). After all, as every good chef knows, preparation is everything. That’s especially true when travelling with a young family.
With the next generation in tow (even our driving schedule is tailored around Rémi and Amandine’s nap times), we’re beginning the journey by visiting places in France that are not just close to our families, they are close to our hearts.
Le Mans and the markets
Le Mans is my hometown and where I first felt that flame of passion for food and followed it into a career. Here, my mother and I would frequent the markets, building relationships with all the stall holders and learning everything we could about quality produce. UK buzzwords like ‘fresh’ and ‘seasonal’ are just how it’s always been done. Many, like my mum for example, only ever cook chips when new potatoes are in season (and always in an unhealthy amount of delicious beef dripping, none of this triple-cooked malarky). Food in France has always been about regions and seasonality.
We spent time wandering around these markets again. My mother now manages them, so we still chat to all the stall holders like old friends. It’s chicken that we purchase from the Le Mans market, so it’s been free to roam its whole life, and fed on a healthy diet of mixed grains. It feeds our family of four with plenty for leftovers. Markets like this are the epitome of French food. They are where our ingredients come from, and always change with the seasons. That’s just how the French do it.
Bring out the baguettes
While we’re on the topic of ‘how the French do it’, I want to take a moment to talk baguettes with you. Baguettes are baked two to three times a day in France, which means that the ones you buy are always as fresh as you can get. You know the kind. The pull it apart with your fingers while it’s still warm and cover it in creamy butter kind. Is there anything better than biting into warm, fluffy bread? For me, I like my baguettes a little overdone. If you leave them in the oven, they caramelise and produce a different, deeper, nutty flavour. Honestly, I could write a book about baguettes… best leave that for another day.
The best biscuit dunking
Our bellies full and tastebuds satisfied at Le Mans, we waved my side of the family goodbye and headed off in search of Champagne. As we drove through winding country roads, my mind drifted back to early memories of Champagne in Reims. I remembered snippets of a wine course (even though my head at the time was filled with all things pastry), and how the weather affected the grape and the finished flavour as much as the soil quality and ageing process.
Well, the weather was performing beautifully for us as we approached Reims to the idyllic views of grape vines climbing UNESCO World Heritage Champagne Hillsides towards a balmy blue sky. Of course, we headed straight for the centre of town, to sip our first glass with a view of the Gothic Cathedral. Our palettes tingled with every sip, and we enjoyed a slice of tranquillity while the children slept. Safe to say, we sampled a lot of Champagne in Reims, including the famous biscuit rosé de Reims. Like many great recipes, the biscuit rosé was born from a mistake. An accidental discolouration of the vanilla-flavoured biscuit meant that the baker decided to dye it pink (rosé) to hide his mistake. Now it’s customary to dip a biscuit rosé into your Champagne to really bring out the depth of flavour. Trust me, it’s divine.
I told you there’d be cheese
We weren’t just in Reims for the Champagne. We were ready to get our teeth into traditional galettes. Galettes (pancakes) are very different in France to how you find them in the UK. A traditional French galette is made with buckwheat flour, which gives a much darker colour. You can fill it with whatever you like – we’re in France, so the richer the better. Perhaps confit duck egg, cheese, something sweet, or I’ve even tried galette stuffed with scallops.
Marie-Claire and I took a little time to really savour a couple of these galettes while the children slept (again, great timing, kids!). My wife went for Emmental with free-range egg and tender kettle-cooked ham, while I plumped for poitrine fumée (bacon) and Chaource. Chaource (pronounce it as you would say ‘horse’) is my all-time favourite cheese – creamy, a little crumbly, and perfect in a galette. It’s apt for this part of our trip, as this little-known cheese is made in the nearby town of Troyes, a city that actually used to be the capital of Champagne.
Marie-Claire’s family live in South East Paris, so we left Reims behind for a foray into the capital city. Proving that it’s not just in the markets and hillsides where you find seasonal food, we happened upon a beautiful mirabelle tree, bulging with the weight of its fruit. What a tree to find in season! Marie-Claire’s uncle soon whipped up the mirabelles into the most beautiful tart you’ve ever seen (or tasted). And, because mirabelles are in-season, everywhere we went we saw them. They were spilling over market stalls, on restaurant menus (it makes a mouthwatering accompaniment for foie gras), and even in ice creams and sorbets. We really felt the presence of the seasons around us, and let me tell you our tastebuds fully appreciated every fresh morsel. So did the children. Everything we tried, they tried and it feels like they are learning and absorbing the spirit and flavours of the French landscape. They may be too young to remember this, but it’s an experience that is nourishing them in deeper ways.
Our French foodie adventure is 2,500-mile round trip, and now Dijon beckons. So, we’re hitting the road in search of mustard and the fountain of youth. Stay tuned…