Last Friday at lunchtime I was seated at a little bistro in Bordeaux. We had reserved a table for three but so far it was only me and Gaïa (that is if you’re not counting Humfri our smooth fox terrier). Half an hour later the situation hadn’t changed, the waiters and some of the other diners were starting to cast sympathetic glances towards my table, encouraging little smiles. I knew I was in trouble when the owner came over and offered me a glass of champagne – that’s how long we had been waiting. With a heavy heart I politely refused the “coupe de champagne”, and pointed to my bump (I’m gently easing into my sixth month now) – what does a woman waiting in a restaurant on Valentine’s day need if not a glass of champagne. Gaïa was very happy with her bread and grenadine water combo, Humfri had the treat of his life – the owner prepared him a few snacks. My husband, as usual, was not answering his phone – this was not how you do Valentine’s day. Then of course he came, with the loveliest pink roses and the whole room nodded approvingly. The elderly gentlemen at the next table even applauded and when he pulled out a bottle of perfume, there was a whole chorus of “well played monsieur” and bravos. He was forgiven – just about.
Sitting idly in a restaurant for almost an hour has its advantages. You get a real feeling of the room, how the waiters operate, how attentive they are, what the other clients are like. Le Petit Commerce is a Bordeaux institution, a good time place with an air of “joie de vivre”. My eyes were drawn to a very interesting table near the window, a curious mix of five men and a lady. Boy were they having a good time, apéritifs outside, a nice bottle of wine inside, that table never stopped laughing. They were on very friendly terms with the “patron”, the one who offered me the champagne. Writing these posts I find myself saying frequently “one of the things I love most about France”. I guess I must say it often because there is a lot to love. Well, one of my favorite things are these long lunches in restaurants, particularly on Fridays, when people have put the most serious business behind them and the weekend is just around the corner. What better than to meet friends for lunch over a bottle of wine and nice food, share stories and laughter and then put in a “light” shift at the office before heading home to the family. It turned out to be a memorable lunch, the owner, a real character and the kind of man every restaurant needs, refused to be photographed unless we put on the restaurant uniform – blue working jackets, and then we posed with him behind the bar (unfortunately these pictures were not in focus at all). We did, however, get to keep the jackets – they’ll be very chic on the 1st of May. In the end, when the staff had started having a meal of their own in one corner of the restaurant it was just us and the five men + woman left in the restaurant. They had a final drink, then left one by one – such a fun group. We didn’t find out much about them, one of them looks like Bill Murray, another one is a psychiatrist (he arrived on bicycle) – one can only hope he had no serious consulting to do after a lunch like that. Fabien Touraille, the charming owner, gave us a bottle of the house white wine and soon we found ourselves in the car hoping to beat the clock as we had a bunch of kids waiting at school.
It was a fabulous lunch and funnily we almost didn’t have it. In fact had it not been for another much worse one, we probably wouldn’t. Three days earlier we had been in Bordeaux, this time with all the kids, to attend to administrative affairs. It was raining but we had high hopes for a place we had never tried. It wasn’t very satisfying (so I won’t name any names) and it never stopped raining, not even for 10 minutes. After lunch I left Oddur with the kids and told them I would be back in an hour. I was wrong – I was back in three, French bureaucracy at its best. I accidentally took Oddur’s wallet so he, three children and a couple of dogs were left walking the street of Bordeaux in the rain. He tried to be inventive, they spent an hour at Mollat, a large and lovely bookstore, they found a playground that was partially covered. Mostly they just walked. I am told little Gaïa was a trooper, never complained once until the very end when she said “I want maman” (she speaks a strange mix of French and English). That’s when Oddur could resist no longer and took them all to a toystore. The toystore, alas, does not accept dogs so he was forced to wait outside with Humfri and Jeanie, and watched in horror through the glass as the kids ran riot in the store. Luckily I arrived just in time with the funds, they all got a little present and even a ride on the carrousel to round off the day. On the way home Oddur said “we’re definitely going back on Friday for a proper lunch”. If at first you fail, then try again.
So what has all this got do to with the menu I prepared on Sunday? A lot actually, I was inspired. I wanted fish and I wanted fun. I woke up in a fantastic mood and the first thing I saw was that blue jacket on the chair in my bedroom. Then I admired my roses – I put them in a vase I found at Anne’s brocante last year, very 20’s and goes so well with pink roses. Selfishly I kept them all in the bedroom – they are MY roses. Then it was the perfume on my bedside table, it’s called “Portrait of a Lady” by Frederic Malle, a blend of Turkish roses and cinnamon – I’ve been wanting it for a while. In the kitchen the bottle of wine greeted me, It has a drawing of fish on it. Le Petit Commerce is all about freshly-caught fish and I wanted more of it. This pregnancy all I want is seafood, citrusy things, almond milk. It’s the same as when I had Hudson, our boy, so we thought we’d be having another. It isn’t, it’s another girI, we are thrilled to bits – you can never have enough of those. We’ll be doing our own version of little women.
I wanted to make a sauce with cider in it and what better to pair with a creamy apple cider sauce than a beautiful sole. A tasty touch were the little “crevettes grises”, that add extra flavor. We started with some cod roe on toast with olive oil and lemon, some couteaux with garlic, herbs and lemon zest. Since artichokes are making an appearance in the markets these days I had to find a way to include them too and I made an artichoke à la barigoule, a Provençal dish. Because of my almond cravings I made an almond milk flan the other day but it wasn’t very popular in the house, although it was just what I wanted and reminded me of Chinese desserts. So I made it up to the kids with a “proper” milk and cream flan with pomegranate syrup.
It all came off wonderfully and was so tasty, and more importantly we had such a good time – once again the lunch lasted for hours. A rowdy lunch at a fun restaurant, a “quiet” lunch at home – I am as ever in awe of the powers of good food – it’s at the table where the very best things happen.
Le Petit Commerce, 22 Rue Parlement Saint-Pierre, 33000 Bordeaux Tel: 33/05 56 79 76 58
For the prettiest flowers in Bordeaux: Sadia Fleurs, 26 Allée de Tourny, 33000 Bordeaux
Couteaux (razor clams) baked with herbs and lemon zest
300 g/ 2/3 pounds razor clams, about 15 razor clams/ couteaux
2 garlic cloves, finely sliced
1 spring onion, finely sliced
Lemon zest of ½ lemon
A tablespoon of freshly squeezed lemon juice
A handful of coarsely chopped hazelnuts
1 bay leaf
A few sprigs of thyme
A few sprigs of parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Clean the razor clams under cold water. Then dip then very briefly in a bowl of very hot water so they can open, then dip them again in cold water. Remove/cut off the dark sand vein (usually filled with sand) as well as the dark tip of the ‘neck’.
Place the razor clams in a baking dish, sprinkle the lemon zest, a dash of lemon juice, thyme, chopped parsley, bay leaf, garlic and spring onion. Scatter the chopped hazelnuts, drizzle olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
Place in a preheated oven 240°C/ and cook for approx 8 minutes. Serve immediately.
Artichokes à la barigoule
8 to 10 small baby artichokes
2 small carrots, diced
1 white onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, finely sliced
80 g/ 3 ounces lardons/ bacon, chopped finely (matchstick size)
1 branch of thyme
1 branch of rosemary
1 small glass of white wine
30 ml/ 1/8 cup chicken or vegetable stock
Trim all the dark leaves from the artichokes and remove fuzzy choke. Slice the lemon in 2 and rub the trimmed artichokes to prevent them from darkening. Place the artichokes in a bowl of cold water and squeeze in 2 tablespoons of lemon juice. Dice the onion, carrots, lardons, garlic and set aside.
In a deep sauté pan, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil and sauté the artichokes (pat them dry first). Add the diced onion, carrots, lardons, thyme, rosemary and garlic. Continue to stir for 3 minutes, then add the wine. Reduce for 2 minutes and add the stock. Season with salt and pepper. Place a piece of parchment paper on top of the artichokes, lower the heat to medium-low and leave to simmer for 15-20 minutes (depending on size of artichokes), or until artichokes are tender.
Sole with cider cream sauce & shrimps
This old-fashioned Normandy-style dish is so rich in flavors, from the delicate apple cider sweetness to the deep nutty taste of the brownshrimps. I used small crevettes grises (brown shrimps). A lovely way to prepare sole, served with steamed ratte variety buttered potatoes. You can also prepare this dish with sole fillets (or any of your favorite white fish), you can ask your fishmonger to prepare them for you if you prefer.
4 filets of sole, skinned
230 g/ 8 ounces brown shrimps/ crevettes grises (uncooked if possible)
4 shallots, finely chopped
430 ml/ 1 & ¾ cup heavy cream
5 tablespoons salted butter
1 bay leaf
A small bunch of parsley
350 ml/1 & ½ cup apple cider (brut)
A dash of piment d’espelette
Coarse sea-salt and freshly ground black pepper
Peel and slice shallots finely. Heat 30 g salted butter and sauté the shallots for 4 minutes, until softened. Add the bay leaf, 2 sprigs of parsley, salt and pepper and the cider. Bring to a soft boil, lower heat and reduce to half. Strain the sauce through a sieve, return to pot, then add cream and stir for a few seconds on a low heat. Take off the heat and set aside.
Dust sole with flour on both sides and season with salt and pepper. In a large sauté pan, heat the rest of the butter with a dash of olive oil. Cook sole about 3 minutes on each side, or until cooked through. Set aside on a plate and sauté the shrimps on a high heat until cooked through, about 2/3 minutes. Place the fish on a serving plate, add the shrimps on top, and pour the cider cream sauce on top. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve immediately. Season to your taste. Serve with steamed potatoes.
Flans with pomegranate syrup
These little flans are so light, lightly flavoured with maple syrup (I like these flans semi-sweet, as the grenadine syrup is very sweet). They are so easy to prepare, all under 5 minutes. I served these with a lovely pomegranate syrup, inspired from my pomegranate meringues recipe.
240 ml/ 1 cup milk
240 ml/ 1 cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons maple syrup (more or less to your taste)
2 g agar-agar
For the pomegranate syrup
Juice of 2 pomegranates
4 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon orange blossom (optional)
In a medium saucepan, heat milk and cream on a medium heat. Add the maple syrup and whisk in the agar-agar. Bring to a soft boil, lower heat and simmer for 4 minutes. Take off the heat and leave to cool for a few minutes. Pour the mixture into individual ramekins, leave to cool and refrigerate for a least 2 hours.
In a small saucepan, heat the pomegranate juice, orange blossom (optional) and sugar for 5 to 8 minutes on a medium to low heat, or until the mixture becomes glossy and thick, like a syrup. Take off the heat and set aside to cool.
Unmold the flans, sprinkle a few pomegranate seeds on top and drizzle the syrup.