Posted by: David Stewart | December 26, 2012

My French Food Adventure

My usual stereotype of French cooking is not very charitable. Formed by movies like “Ratatouille” and “Babette’s Feast”, I usually think of high cuisine in France as being overpriced, overblown, over-rich and inaccessible to a mutt like me.

What I found after my recent 9 day business trip to southern France was that you can eat well and appreciate local dishes without much of a pedigree. And not gain a hefty waistline in the process.

Not every meal was epic or memorable. Given that this was a business trip and a number of meetings with my US-based colleagues happened at dinnertime, there were more than a few takeaway Chinese meals eaten in front of my computer during a conference call. But I was able to experience a few nice meals and capture a few photos.

Salad with duck, Le Cyrilou, Montpellier, France
Cassolette,Le Cyrilou in Montpellier, FranceDesert "apple pastry flambe", Le Cyrilou in Montpellier, France
Most restaurants will not open until 7PM or 7:30 for dinner, and many people don’t eat dinner until 8 or 8:30. Many offer a “menu” or three-course collection of meals. A lot of the set menus, like the selection of dishes above in Montpellier, are quite hardy. Cassolette is a white bean casserole with a crispy crust and some kind of meat. This is a staple of southern France and is made many different ways. This one had a sausage and a duck leg. Many of these dishes require a lot of advanced preparation, often the day before, to achieve their flavors.

Lunch in Chateauneuf-du-PapeLunch in Chateauneuf-du-PapeLunch in Chateauneuf-du-Pape
This set lunch in the wine village of Chateauneuf-du-Pape started with a warm goat cheese and pancetta salad, salmon entrée and a meringue for desert, which is a hard crust of egg and sugar with a scoop of sherbet inside. I ordered a glass of local wine and since the bottle was almost empty, they gave me the rest of it.

By the way, and this is important, I didn’t ever feel intimidated in any of the places I ate. Of course, I wasn’t eating in any places with Michelin stars. It’s possible I might have been treated with more contempt if I had been charged 100 Euros for my meal, but I wasn’t paying anywhere close to that. The restauranteurs were generally kind, often a little funny, friendly and respectful.

alley in Beaune, Burgundy, France
Pumpkin and chestnut soup with bacon and creme fraiche, Le P'tit ParadisBeaune dinner, lamb with spices and honey, Le P'tit ParadisBeaune desert, Tiramisu, Le P'tit Paradis
Down this quiet Rue de Paradis in Beaune, Burgundy is Le P’tit Paradis, another tiny place with a terrific meal. Starter was a pumpkin and chestnut soup with a twist of crispy bacon and a dollop of creme fraiche, and they had me. The lamb leg was over barley. Stunningly good.

Bagels in Montpellier, France
But as I said, most of my meals were pretty pedestrian. For example, this place called “The Bagel Store” was within about a 5 minute walk from the office where I was working. This is a local Montpellier shop, and they sport a distinct New York aesthetic. Note that each of their sandwiches is named after a NYC locale, and when lined up they spell “BAGELSTORE”. But apparently they couldn’t come up with a New York location which starts with “O”. So their sliced meat, avocado, feta, tomato and lettuce bagel is called “The Obama.”

I wonder if I should tell them that he’s from Chicago, not New York.

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