As a young girl spending summers with my grandmother near Toulouse I fell in love with a Frenchman. It was so long ago that I’ve forgotten his name but he was a charming fellow, a bit stocky with rosy cheeks and a smile on his face. Sometimes he was perfectly dressed, in a double-breasted blazer with shiny loafers and a pretentious little foulard around his neck, other times he just wore a simple shirt and trousers. He was always in a good mood … and he was almost always eating. On our way home from the market we would drive past him in my aunt’s car, as we turned down the little country road that led to her house. He would sit there, bathing in sunshine, a half-finished bottle of red wine on a table next to him. He would be slicing a sausage or a piece of bread with his pocket knife. He would waive to us. Sometimes he was invited to my aunt’s house for dinner which, as you can imagine, was very exciting for me. He would bring foie gras, armagnac and camembert. His rosy cheeks would turn red, as would mine (remember I was in love with him), he would tell charming stories and, on at least one occasion, he would start dancing when dinner was over. Except with him dinner was never really over. In between songs he would nibble on a strawberry tart or a slice of brie. On Sundays we would see him, heading straight from the church to a local bistro where he would join his buddies in epic celebrations. What were they celebrating? Who knows, being French, having a day off? I think they mostly celebrated life and good food.
Now I remember his name, he is called Bon Vivant. He lives in every French village and town. In the Pyrénées he loves a bit of black cherry jam with his Ossau Iraty but in Jura he swears by a little yellow wine with his Comté cheese and walnuts. Funnily enough he is as present as ever, after all those years. Even with the rise of supermarkets and take-away coffees he’s found a way to keep his integrity … and I still love him.
Sunday was my birthday and that called for a trip to town. Impatiently I wanted to go on Saturday instead – to have a pre-birthday lunch, get some flowers (my husband saw to that – the prettiest renoncules) and goodies for my big day. Unexpectedly we ended up in the loveliest belle époque brasserie called Le Noailles (the oldest one in Bordeaux), the type of establishment I adore, with black clad waiters, white tablecloths, a pastry tray and red banquets. The food and the atmosphere were so excellent, the room was filled with such joy – it was the comfort of Saturdays at its best. I had a sole meuniere (as I often do in such places), Oddur had the foie de veau, my mother-in-law the salmon and the kids a bit of everything. The food was all excellent but the desserts were to die for, perhaps because the birthday girl in me was in a pastry state of mind. What pleased me most is that my childhood sweetheart, the bon vivant, was sitting at practically every table, enjoying his meal as much as we were. Sometimes he was with his twin, the other bon vivant, but their younger brother, the gourmet, was all over the place too. They were the cutest elderly couple who had a three-course meal with cheese, a younger man and his elegantly dressed daughter with the impeccable table manners and a woman whose two teenage children seemed to be savoring every bite. I could hear them discuss the food, the wine, the desserts. It felt like I could have been here a hundred years ago and met the same people, it was a great way to start a birthday weekend.
We left this world of yesteryear, fulfilled and happy, expecting to walk right back into modernity but in the square opposite the restaurant we spotted a vintage car exhibition. I know next to nothing about cars, don’t even drive myself (thus the bicycle), but I do appreciate a nice belted Jaguar when I see one, in racing green. From the bon vivants of the restaurant to the connoisseurs of automobiles – everybody has their thing, especially on a Saturday. Our automotive adventures were followed by a stroll through the place Quinconces and the Jardin public where we caught a matinée exhibition of Guignol’s adventures at the puppet theatre. Children were shouting and screaming, warning Guignol on stage. The story is always the same with Guignol landing himself in peril but persevering in the end. This little outdoor venue echoed with the laughter of countless other children from a different time, when there were no ipads or iphones, not even TV.
The chef at Le Noailles is a friend from the time he worked at Café Lavinal, one of our favorite places in Médoc. He treated us with little extras and after lunch took the time to sit with us and share recipes and ideas. Talking about the bon vivant and the gourmet. They have a cousin called the glutton. Le Glouton is also the name of a bistrot that Ludovic and his wife Elisabeth are planning to open in Bordeaux this August. A glutton is, of course, less mannered and greedier than the other two but I am sure Ludovic will put some manners into him – it is a bistrot opening that I am eagerly awaiting.
Talking about time passing and remembrances of things past, when it is your birthday you reflect and you look forward. But mainly I just want to have a blissful day with family and friends and food. Inspired by Le Noailles and the atmosphere there, the bon vivants, gourmets and gluttons I have been revisiting classic dishes such as the pork chops with prunes and the marvelous ‘merveilleux’, an old-fashioned meringue dessert covered in cream and chocolate flakes. Simply wonderful!
My day was made even lovelier by all your countless birthday wishes and kindness. So I had to steal Ludovic’s meringue tart recipe and make it as a special treat for all of you, even if I already had another dessert planned.
On your birthday you are allowed to have two desserts.
p.s. On Monday I got the sweetest email from a girl, a reader of the blog. She’s American but is currently an au pair in Bordeaux. She said she saw me entering le Noailles, wanted to say hi but felt it was too intrusive. She should have – I would have offered her a lemon meringue tart!
Potato galettes with sautéed asparagus with fresh peas
(makes about 8 galettes)
4 large potatoes (about 700 g/ 1&1/2 pounds)
3 small shallots, finely chopped
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
1 egg + 1 egg yolk
4 tbsp plain flour
Coarse sea-salt and freshly ground black pepper
A bunch of asparagus (3-4 per person) (I used the sables des Landes white/violettes asparagus)
1 cup fresh peas, shelled
A small piece of Comté cheese (or cheddar)
A dash of piment d’espelette
A few sprigs of fresh chives
A dash of freshly grated lemon zest
A tablespoon of crème fraîche per serving
Butter & olive oil for frying
Peel the potatoes and grate them into a large bowl. Add the chopped shallots, nutmeg, egg and egg yolk, flour. Season with salt and pepper. Mix well with a wooden spoon.
Heat the 2 tbsp olive oil and 1 tbsp butter in a sauté pan until sizzling hot, scoop about a tablespoon or one and a half tablespoon (depending on how large you want the galettes), flatten them with a spatula. Cook them on both sides until golden. Grate a teaspoon of Comté cheese on top. Place them on kitchen paper to absorb excess oil.
Peel the asparagus and cut off the stiff ends. Slice the asparagus in half. Sauté the asparagus in a pan with 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter, stiring gently. After 5 minutes add the peas. Season with salt & pepper. Add a few tablespoons of water and continue to cook until absorbed and asparagus and peas are tender yet al dente.
Place the potato galette on a serving plate, place the asparagus and peas on top, add a tablespoon of crème fraîche, season with salt & pepper and a dash of piment d’espelette. Sprinkle with lemon zest and finely chopped chives.
Pork chops with prunes & red wine sauce
For the pork chops
4 pork chops/ côtes de porc
230 g/ ½ pound dried prunes, soaked in warm water for 15 minutes
4 tbsp/ 60 g unsalted butter
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
A few sprigs of parsley, leaves picked and finely chopped
A few cloves of unpeeled garlic
Coarse sea-salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the sauce
1 carrot, diced
2 shallots, finely chopped
1 bay leaf
3 sprigs of thyme, leaves picked
180 ml/ ¾ cup red wine
30 ml/ 2 tbsp red wine vinegar
60 ml/ 4 tbsp chicken or vegetable stock
2 ½ tbsp unsalted butter
Coarse sea-salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the sauce
Chop the carrot and shallots. Heat 1 tbsp butter in a sauté pan and cook until slightly golden. Add the bay leaf, thyme, season with salt and pepper, then add the vinegar, wine and reduce for a few minutes. Add the stock and bring to a soft boil, lower heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the remaining butter. Drain the prunes and add them to the sauce. Continue to simmer for 5 minutes and set aside.
In a large sauté pan, heat the butter and olive oil on a medium to high heat. Sauté the pork chops and unpeeled garlic cloves on both sides until golden and cooked through. Season with salt & pepper. Spoon excess fat from the pan, then pour the prunes and wine sauce on top of the pork chops. Sprinkle with chopped parsley. Serve immediately with steamed potatoes.
This old-fashioned marvellous dessert is a little gem. A French meringue, covered in whipped cream and chocolate flakes, how simple and delicious! Especially with a name like ‘Le Merveilleux’ – simply irresistible.
Tip: Place the chocolate in a warm environment for a few minutes to facilitate the grating. You’ll get nicer & richer flakes.
For the meringues
3 egg whites
100 g/ ½ cup fine sugar
100 g/ 1 cup confectioner’s sugar
½ tsp corn starch (maïzana) or cream of tartar
350 ml/ Heavy cream, for whipping
150 g dark chocolate, grated (I use a vegetable peeler)
In a large glass bowl, whisk the egg whites on a high-speed until frothy. Add the cornstarch and sugar/ confectioner’s sugar (1-2 tbsp at a time) gradually and continue whisking until stiff and glossy. Transfer mixture to a piping bag and pipe small meringues (about the size of a round plum).
Bake in a preheated oven 140°C/280 F for 25 minutes, then lower heat 95°C/200 F and continue to bake for 2 hours. Switch the heat off and open the oven door. Leave the meringues to cool in the oven.
When the meringues are completely cooled, grate the chocolate into flakes (I use a vegetable peeler) and whisk the cream in a large bowl until stiff.
Cover the meringues evenly with a thick layer of cream and sprinkle with the chocolate flakes. Serve immediately.
Lemon meringue tarts
(makes about 8 small tarts)
Last Saturday, the first thing that caught my eye as I entered the brasserie Le Noailles was the cabinet à desserts (the dessert cabinet), especially this lovely lemon meringue tart. The base is a Breton sablé biscuit, so rich and buttery and slightly flavoured with rum. Ludovic, the chef, is from Brittany, so this sablé is extra delicious.It’s then covered with lemon custard and an Italian meringue on top. Pure pleasure. Merci pour cette recette Ludovic!
For the sablés
250 g/ 2 cups plain flour
130 g/ 2/3 cup fine sugar
240 g/ 1 cup unsalted butter
1 pinch of fleur de sel/ salt
2 egg yolks
1 tsp dark rum
1 vanilla pod, split lengthwise
1 egg yolk, for the eggwash
A bunch of redcurrants/groseille – to garnish
On a clan surface, mix all the ingredients together until you get a smooth dough. Shape into a ball, wrap in cling film/ plastic wrap and refrigerate for a least 2 hours. On a floured surface, roll out the dough and cut out 8-10 cm circles (my circle molds have a little round trim/cannelé). Brush the sablés with eggwash. Bake on a parchment lined baking tray in a preheated oven 180°C/ 350 F for 20 minutes or until golden brown. Leave to cool on a pastry rack.
For the lemon custard
Juice of 3 lemons
80 g/ 1/3 cup unsalted butter
130 g/ 2/3 cup granulated sugar
Squeeze the lemon juice. Pour into a saucepan, add the sugar and whisked eggs. Whisk gradually, adding the butter, until mixture becomes thick like a custard on a medium to low heat. Take off the heat and leave to cool completely. Then refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
For the Italian meringue
4 egg whites
250 g/ 1 & 1 ¼ cup granulated sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
80 ml/ 1/3 cup lukewarm water
1 pinch of salt
Heat the water and sugar in a saucepan on a medium to high – bring to a boil. Stir until all the sugar has dissolved and has thickened to a syrupy consistence and has reached a temperature of 120°C. Now you can start beating the egg whites until soft peaks. Increase the speed and pour the syrup in a slow stream. Lower the speed and continue to whisk until the mixture has cooled, about 10 to 12 minutes. The mixture should be thick and glossy.
Transfer lemon custard into piping bag and pipe a small ball (size of a ping-pong ball) in the center of the sablé.
Transfer meringue mixture to another large piping bag and pipe small meringue shapes on top of sablé and lemon custard, starting from the bottom sides. Brown with a blow torch.