November 12, 1973 | Vintage Insatiable
Nobody Knows The Truffles I've Seen
Never was there a more elegant hustle. I have been seduced and I have seduced. But this, dear friends, and gentle mouths…this was a Seduction.
Some dreamers build castles in Spain. I build castles in Périgord. So how could I say no to the temptation dangled by my friend, the extraordinary Parisian publicist Yanou Collart, agent de presse for La Grande Cuisine Française (liaison of France's celebrated restaurateurs)? Yanou and Jean-marie Dubois, trumpet for Moët & Chandon, the champagne family that now embraces Hennessey cognac and Dior, planned to take ten of "America's greatest writers" on a gastronomic super bouffe by private jet through France at harvest-time. She'd already asked Tom Wolfe. Would I come? Would I suggest America's worthiest candidates? If I were Madame de Staël, whom would I invite to my salon? Norman Mailer; Truman Capote; Gore Vidal; Larry King; Nora Ephron; William Buckley -- I unleashed my fantasies by mail to Yanou. The Kultur Maven was amused but cynical. "It sounds," he sneered, "like Elaine's with wings."
"I can't come unless I pay my own way," I warned Yanou. We agreed it would be impossible to measure the price of hospitality at Moët's Château de Saran or my share of flying us within France by company jet. But I could pay transatlantic air fare and hotel and restaurant bills.
Not all of America's greatest writers were interested or available. Other greats were gracefully substituted.
Now it is harvest time. Next to me on the first-class Pan Am 747 banquette is a friendly bearded man sipping champagne as if parched: Al Goldstein, editor of Screw. "I'm not supposed to mention Screw on this trip," Goldstein confides, instantly intimate, winningly vulnerable. Clearly a primitive gourmand, recent graduate of the Four Season's wine course, Al has, as his last act on land, sent a copy of the Moët invitation to his Weight Watcher's group leader. "I'm the right person for this trip. All the people in my therapy group have sex fantasies. I have fantasies of being locked into a Baskin-Robbins." He holds his glass aloft for a refill, devours a croquette, a cheese puff and a pig-in-a-proletarian blanket. "This is like a ship of fools," Al sparkles. "No one is with his mate. Do you realize what potential there is for lust?"
Awash in champagne and anticipation, there we are, the chosen: Nora Ephron, direct from covering the Rigg's-King carnage in Houston; Jane O'Reilly, assigned by Ms., a magazine that has yet to recognize the existence of food and wine; House Beautiful's Susan Schraub; free-lance writer Alexis Bespaloff; Tim Ferris, formerly of Rolling Stone, bourbonman and wit, currently writing a book called The Edge of the Universe, about how infinity isn't; Penthouse publicist Jackie Lewis, sister of Bob Guccione; photographer Dan Wynn. Wine Editor Kathleen Bourke jets direct from London. Danny Kaye ("because he is so crazy about cooking," Yanou has written me) is already in Paris. No sign of Norman or Truman or Gore. "I'm probably fourteenth choice," Al Goldstein broods. "I'm probably a stand-in for Norman Mailer. I'm Jewish. I'm from Brooklyn. Actually, though, I've never stabbed any of my wives." Al is carrying saccharin in an ejector pen.
I have traveled this gastronomic pilgrimage before -- mostly anonymous, never in a culinary Olympics with two and three-star chefs posed to dazzle. And never in so compressed a time: seven days. All over France, chefs are hoarding the fattest duck livers. The Grande Bouffe is no plodding parable. It is us. Awash in a torrent of champagne -- even aloft, lest throats parch between breakfast and lunch -- we will jet from foie gras to foie gras, docile victims of majestic excess. We will lie on silk sheets in $95 hotel rooms fighting cholesterol rush, absently nibbling exquisite chocolates or celestial prunes [of Agen], never ever totally sober, groaning when the jet fridge yields more champagne…and drinking it. Annoyed to be awakened at four in the afternoon by waiters toting more champagne on ice…and drinking it. Hennessy will tap barrels marked 1815 and 1900 for a boozy interlude in cognac. A 1911 champagne will be disgorged in our honor for a feast at the Trianon, built by an early Moët to receive Napoleon. With swearings on the swords and kissings of hand and cheek, we will be knighted…chevaliers of the Ordre des Coteaux de Champagnes. And at week's end in the handsome Chateau de Saran, Moët's hospitality inn outside Epernay, the firm's export director will offer pink champagne for Jane O'Reilly to drink in her bath. Thank heaven it's champagne. Mme Pompadour said, "It is the only wine a woman can drink who is careful of her beauty…It does not give an ugly flush." So…I am pale. Each night another Michelin-laureled chef has us at his mercy. I feel feathers sprouting. Am I turning into a goose of Strasbourg? Can we survive?
Bleary from jet lag, in Paris less than an hour…and here we are at a champagne and oyster breakfast at Restaurant Le Duc (243 Boulevard Raspail; tel., 326-59-59). Expensive -- $7.50 for a panaché of seafood for one, Belons $1 each -- but what an astonishing harvest of river and sea! Giant Belons and briny oysters of l'Ile de Ré; crackling baby shrimp to eat, shell, feelers, eyes, and all, brilliantly peppery; giant crab, sweet and tender with full stomachs and exquisite coral; tiny snails that have to be tugged from the shell…barnacles, really; tenderest langoustine steamed in a pepper-and-fennel-scented broth; mussels and clams…and raspberry tart. I was only going to eat two oysters, I said, staring at the Everest of shells on my plate…"I had faith in you," says Danny Kaye.
Breakfast was amazingly soporific. Now it is the dinner hour. I try to warn Yanou that a nightclub, even Regine's boîte, is no way to launch any gastronomic crusade. But Regine, darling of tout Paris, is a friend of Yanou's; and Michel Guérard, brilliant chef of Le Pot-au-Feu, supervises the Reginskaïa's kitchen (128 Rue La Boétie; tel., 256-20-00). Anyway, I find myself willing to pay the price in smoke and noise and ticky-tack music for Reginskaïa's salad of tenderest lobster, tossed with prepubescent green beans in a fennel-scented sauce with a generous mound of caviar ($30 on the à la carte menu). "You must mix in the caviar," Regine scolds. "I can't bear to throw it around," I protest.
In any Manhattan restaurant the dinner would be impressive -- a commendable mousseline of scallops in essence of crayfish sauce; an elegant improvisation on chicken Kiev with a heart of foie gras; heady leek purée. In a New York nightclub, the dinner would be a knockout. But "it is not Le Pot-au-Feu," as Guérard himself observes, and nowhere near the highs of the week to come.
We are awash in the wine of our host. Comte Ghislain de Vogüé, managing director of Moët & Chandon, frowns as the waiter pours a froth of Dom Pérignon into his glass. He tosses the foam into an ice bucket and gestures for a less bubbly pour. "I don't really like champagne during the day," he confides, "except perhaps on the rocks at a picnic." There are no clean brandy glasses. He rinses a wine glass with Hennessy cognac. We discuss Moët's plans to make a sparkling wine in California's Napa Valley. "I am wondering what to call it," he muses. "I have thought of calling it Napa Moët, but that is too dangerous. If it fails, it reflects badly on Moët as well as on Napa, where I have many friends."
We are divided now into two groups. "A" flies to Strasbourg and dinner at the famed Auberge de l'Ile. We are "B," en route to Tours. Al Goldstein broods that the plane might crash. "I can see the headlines: DANNY KAYE KILLED IN PLANE CRASH WITH SIX OTHERS." Comfort him with bubbly.
No one sings the genius of Charles Barrier. He has Michelin's highest benediction, but he lacks the verve and ego of his other three-star confreres. As Danny Kaye observed, he doesn't even look like a chef…he looks like an ear-nose-and-throat man. Restaurant Barrier (101 Avenue de la Tranchée, Tours; tel., 53-20-39) itself is styleless, bourgeois in its reach for elegance. But Barrier's kitchen is all expansive space with endless alcoves where he bakes his own remarkable bread, and smokes fresh salmon and eel.
And this night Barrier brilliantly surpasses the staid solidity of his name. For two years, Barrier confides, he has been working on a mousse of fresh duck liver…pressing it through a sieve, beating in cream, poaching it in a bain-marie. Now we are tasting it. Absolute triumph. A raisin-studded paste, bright rose, as if it were raw. Voluptuous in texture, in taste…an artist's refinement of a pampered duck's liver. It does look raw, though. Some of America's greatest writers are unwilling to taste it. "Al," I whisper, "I am shocked. A man of your sexual sophistication ought to love this dish." Al Goldstein brightens. "I hadn't thought of it that way. Hmmm. Sensuous. It would help, though, if you'd press down on the back of my head."
Then comes a second sense-reeler: firm, velvety marrow in brioche with a fine butter sauce scented with Bourgueil, the local wine that really does smell like raspberry. Now fresh-caught salmon is freed form its parchment wrap and served with carrot and celery matchsticks, the sauce blending essence of urchin and crayfish -- "marriage of the river and the sea," as Yanou observed reverently. Impossible to more than taste the poularde -- a bird of more flavor and chew than Americans are used to in our factory-raised chickens -- poached with lean, elegant fillets of eel. "I'm out of my element," Al groaned. "I can tell when they're making the Orange Julius right, but this --"
Lotus tea sherbet is served in balloon goblets under a veil of spun sugar. An inch above the spun sugar I suddenly catch a flash of thighs and related anatomy. Danny, Yanou, and our Moët escorts are leafing through Screw. "I expect to go to jail within a few months under the new obscenity laws," Al is confessing. "I want to go on a full stomach." As the Dom Pérignon is poured, Al is busy taking subscription orders. By now, I expect, the latest Screw will have reached out Moët hosts, the Comte de Vogüé and the Comte Chandon de Briailles. "Do you realize Smut spelled backwards is Tums?" Al observes. Across the room, a dachshund barks. Danny barks back. Tim Ferris sighs. "If this is the first-string group, I imagine the second team must be under the table fornicating by now." (Our dinner cost $40 per mouth, champagne not included, but Barrier offers prix fixe dinners at half that price.)
Biarritz is mostly shuttered by late September, a beach town abandoned for the season. But there is an easy, mellowed warmth at the two-star Café de Paris (Place Bellevue; tel., 24-19-53. Meals from $13 to $20, wine and service not included). Tonight's civilized feast would be impressive on its own. But it suffers in the intoxicating taste memories of Barrier. Even the house-baked bread is less majestic. Chef Pierre Laporte's rouget in terrine with pistachio exclamation points is a splendid taming of that otherwise strong red mullet, here served with a silken watercress cream. Medallion of tender langoustine threaded with bacon en brochette, served with a fragile mousseline, is so sane, it almost disappoints. But there is fresh duck liver, sautéed with apples, to challenge our liver's brief respite. And though the timbale Caroline is a stunning spun-sugar-net-crowned pastry, its vanilla cream is too strongly scented with rose petals. What a relief to graduate from little country wines to a fine cru exceptionnel from the Haut-Médoc, Château Chasse-Spleen, its name inspired by praise from Byron for its good nature…"gay enough to chase all spleen." Jackie Lewis, nursing fragile digestion ("I'm not going to hack this liver," she mutters), sips Dom Pérignon. "They should send us a case of this when we get home so we can taper off gradually."
Next morning, Laporte, the handsomest chef I've ever seen, escorts us to the airport where, by divine gastronomic fate, his father runs the one-star Relais de Parme. Immediately corks are pulled, we are sipping wine and tasting Papa's rich rillette of goose -- chichons. "It's our marmalade," Laporte teases, spreading great gobs on fresh toast. Well, at least we won't starve between breakfast and lunch. Aboard our mini jet, Moët's saintly Jean-Paul Médard, sensing the general fragility, mutely pours champagne.
Memories of rare and splendid celebrations of rabbit and fish and bird and irresistible pastry from an earlier anonymous visit to the two-star Hostellerie du Moulin de Mougins (Notre-Dame-de Vie, Mougins; tel., 90-30-68; dinners, $12 to $27, plus wine and service) heighten the appetite as we drive north from Cannes. Roger Vergé is a master, brilliant in the classic style. Where Lyon's dynamic Paul Bocuse has moved toward emphasizing nature, Vergé enchants with artifice. But tonight's dinner is somewhat dimmed. We are too many at table, isolated from the handsome elegance of tapestry and stone that graces the old mill. Nothing is served quite hot enough.
Still, there are exquisite touches. Fresh flowers lie on the saucer of an ethereal soup, cream of spinach made richer and more celestial with almond milk. Minutes earlier in the kitchen was absorbed in peeling asparagus thin-as-sting-beans for the individual terrines now being served -- flakes of loup, the fish that tastes like bass, and asparagus layered with fragile fish forcemeat bathed with a mousseline sauce. Now classic magic: tender rare medallions of lamb marinated to mimic the sweet gamy taste of venison, served with mushroom crêpes and baked tomatoes as tiny as marbles, with onions and celery hearts cut precisely the same size. With the lamb, a big Clos De Vougeot '66 of Lamarche. Just a perfunctory taste of cheese from the rolling cart: a rigotte de Condrieu. Then an inundation of sweets: Vergé's magnificent petites patisseries -- something movingly chocolate. And the house's tiny petits fours, ooze of cream and fondant, tart candied currants. A sweet wine to sip, Château Suduiraut. And an intoxicating alcohol of pear. "You could get pregnant just from drinking this poire," Danny Kaye announces.
I am sleeping a lot. Frankly, whenever I am not actually eating, I seem to be sleeping. I try to be prudent. I could do without bread that cushions the blow of La Grande Cuisine's heavy artillery: the foie gras. I could bypass the cheese, but there are 365 cheese made in France, and I don't want to die till I've tasted every one. I could finesse the champagne, but isn't champagne Jim Beard's recommended cure for overindulgence? (He never mentions what to do if the overindulgence happens to be champagne.) Raspberries are like emeralds. I can never say no. Happily, I've discovered I get greater cosmic joy watching Al Goldstein putting away petits fours than if I ate them myself. Well…almost. On Tuesday I actually ate just half a chocolate truffle. Even I was impressed.
"Everybody cover your head with a napkin," Yanou cries. The napkin tent is ortolan-eating etiquette and, heaven protect Franco-American relations, squeamish Al Goldstein, in the isolation of his napkin cloak, is slipping the plump little bird into his pocket. Yanou is popping her own bird into her mouth -- and Jackie's rejected bird, too, "not to do hurt to the chef." They are the first ortolans of the season, plump little wonders to munch whole, served on a bed of spinach by our beaming hosts, Les Frères Troisgros (Roanne; tel., 71-26-68).
Jean and Pierre Troisgros -- utterly uninhibited by their three Michelin stars -- have found a perfect playmate: Danny Kaye in toque blanche with chef's jacket taut around a pillow pot belly. The kitchen is in shambles. Flashbulbs blinding. Crusaders sipping champagne, chomping rosy ham, popping zesty little snails into each others' mouths. At one point a French photographer trails through the dining room holding a raw pig's head…insisting it is a calf's.
Finally we are enticed to table, have put away our ortolans, and Danny is serving the Troisgros' legendary salmon -- thin scallops sautéed, Danny reports, in a Teflon pan without butter or oil, and surrounded with a sorrel butter bath. Now Danny is off to the kitchen again, where thin slices of fresh duck liver are browning, to be served rare with an insolence of humble turnip. Lemon ice spiked with Bacardi is designed to revive numbed appetites for partridge, served with a roulade of cabbage hiding a lethal heart of foie gras. We sip a big round Corton Clos du Roi, '70, too young for my taste, but the Troisgros like their Burgundies puckery with youth. "Le Grand Dessert," a wondrous hodgepodge of fresh and poached fruit, ice cream, sherbets and custards on a giant plate, is delicious overkill favored by many of France's top restaurants. Is it a reflection of insecurity? Or the Jewish-mother syndrome? I love it and I hate it. Tonight I ask for only prunes, with thick crème fraîche. (This dinner for one cost $48. Such seasonal feasts must be ordered in advance, but most of the house masterworks are available on the prix fixe menus at $12 and $24, wine extra.)
Now Moët's Jean-Marie Dubois is challenging all comers to a boozy champagne game called Pomponette. We are chug-a-lugging Dom Perignon. Glasses are flying across the table. And five are smashed. "This is the most decadent night of my life," Al Goldstein announces. This from a man who has just invited us all to his next orgy.
We aren't scheduled to visit Paul Bocuse (tel. 47-00-14), but Collonges au Mont d'Or is only two hours away and we are hungry. Great food is like great sex. The more you have, the more you want. Bocuse is feasting Group A tonight, but he insists we come for machon, a Lyonnaise snack.
The maître is waiting for us at L'Abbey, his huge catering hall with one wall a giant animated calliope. He shouts a command and we are eating caviar to "The Star-Spangled Banner." There is a platoon of bottles on ice, fried whitebait, ham, tiny pastry rounds filled with anchovy and truffle. What a lovely machon. I am popping a few hundred more sturgeon eggs into my mouth when Bocuse warns it is time for lunch.
How handsome the restaurant is by day. Our chickens are roasted before a blazing fire -- poor little bruised birds form afar, proving, up close, to have truffles stuffed under the skin. We drink a Condrieu Viognier '71 with an exquisite salad of crayfish in mustard cream. To be sure we know what we are eating, Bocuse spills a dozen live crayfish onto the table. There is cardoon, a strange stalky vegetable, mousserons, and perfect string beans with the barbecued birds of Bresse. Then, as Yanou reports our plane will be half an hour plate, we take time for cheese, finish a magnum of Richebourg '64 of Gros, with an enchanting bouquet unlike any other Richebourg I've tasted, and submit to a blitz of desserts -- wondrous raspberry ice in crisp meringue, quintessential petits fours, and sinful chocolates. As I share a fudge-filled prune with Al, he sighs. "I'm quitting Screw to get a job as copy editor of Gourmet." Bocuse is packing a giant wicker basket -- country bread, sausage of Lyon, wine, and every chocolate in sight, "in case you get hungry on the plane." I see we are only the pitiful instruments in this culinary competition.
That evening, in the tiny two-star Pot-au-Feu outside Paris (50 Rue des Bas, Asnières; tel 733-00-71; dinners $15 to $21, wine not included), I am raging with hunger. I can't believe it. Guérard speaks with the halting innocence of a choir boy. "What could I possibly feed you after all the great dinners?" Something supremely simple he has decided: fish steamed on a bed of seaweed. And some pigeons he has found "raised by a country woman in a most admirable manner." Nostalgia for the wondrous dinners I have eaten here overwhelms me. I am disappointed. The Spartan fish arrives naked and forlorn. But what a revelation. My grandmother used to say "sweet as fish," and we would smile indulgently. Here it is. The acid of shredded tomato is the perfect foil for the sweetness of this ascetic loup. And after, in the blissful pause between courses, I can taste the sea in my mouth, There is a feuilleté, of course, Guérard's strength. His puff pastry is supernaturally gossamer ("He uses margarine," his detractors rumor). Tonight the pastry is filled with lobster and sweetbreads in a bordelaise sauce.
A waiter passes a basket of rolls. I wave him by. Then I get a whiff of my pigeon and I know I will need bread to survive. "Smell that liver," I cry. Saturday Review/World's Horace Sutton, just joining our group, sniffs. "It's probably your own," he says.
Maybe, Horace. But there is also liver in the sauce of that pigeon (so admirably raised it cuts with a fork) arranged on the plate like an Aztec bas-relief: precise angles of pigeon breast, a triangle of liver-cloaked toast at the brown. The head splits precisely in two so you can eat the brain. At the foot, a geometric mound of onion marmalade -- onion shreds cooked in butter, caramelized and ennobled with ancient vinegar, cunning counterpoint to the dense richness of the bird. The roll is hot. I break it open. Inside is a truffle big as a golf ball baked in the roll, its juice permeating the flesh. In gourmand circles, that is wit! Guérard's grand potpourri of desserts is more aesthetic than most, but the '54 Lafite-Rothschild, still carrying the bouquet of its pedigree, tastes lifeless. There are musicians now -- accordion, violin and noisy sing-along -- but even in my semi-paralyzed state I know we have just tasted a triumph of taste and intellect.
The best? How difficult to say. The Troisgros brothers were masterful, as expected. Even in his restrained, adlib machon, Bocuse's fitful genius emerged. Vergé's spinach almond cream still haunts me. But Barrier leaped so far beyond anticipation, his dinner stands out as a masterpiece. Guérard, in the most challenging position, met the challenge.
And so did we.
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