Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Bresse and baba

Restaurant L'Escargot Paris

First published Canberra Times 22 June 2011.
On a short visit to Paris, we walk across from our nearby hotel to the Châtelet-Les Halles district, an area that has reinvented itself over a number of centuries from shabby to chic, now housing the who’s who of restaurants.
It’s a sunny Saturday morning, and the heart of this historic precinct, the Rue Montorgueil is buzzing with locals out for brunch. It’s pretty obvious from the crowd that this is ‘the’ place to eat, shop and be seen.  
Bordering Les Halles, where the city’s old central market was located, the bustling pedestrian street of Rue Montorgueil and its surrounds have taken up the slack and is now home to many artisanal food producers.  The roots of the district have always been centred around food, housing the ‘metiers de la bouche’ the secondary food service industries that grew up servicing the old market. 
It’s a pretty lively area with buskers, street theatre and a plethora of trendy and traditional wine bars. The adjoining street of Rue Mauconseil was home to many historic theatre troupes, including that of 16th-century playwright, Jean Baptiste Racine.
Our new found taste for escargot lures us to a huge golden snail that sits majestically above the entrance to the restaurant L’Escargot, at number 38 Rue Montorgueil. This magnificent example of classic Parisian decor was opened in 1875 by the well known restaurateur Mignard. Oozing decadence, its plush velvet lounges, glistening chandeliers and etched glass provides us with a taster of its past.  We reserve a table for dinner the following night.
Coq au vin blanc
Just along the street is the famous patisserie Le Maison Stohrer. Dating back to 1730, it is one of the oldest patisseries in Paris. I buy two of its signature pastries, the puits d’amour, or the ’well of love’ and a baba au rhum. The puits d’amour is a crispy pastry filled with custard, topped with burnt toffee brittle, and the subject of another infamous Louis story. This is so light, flaky and delicious, I am lost for words. Okay, I’ll try. The brittle toffee layer cracks while the buttery, flaky layers of pastry crunch as I bite down. The warm, creamy brulee dribbles out over my hand and clothes and I am enveloped in a cloud of sweet vanilla, albeit with a messy t-shirt.
I have overdosed on my well of love and can’t contemplate eating the “baba au rhum”, so it’s left it in the bag for later. I’m sorry about that, because I’m not sure how it will fare some hours later.
On my way out of the shop, I stop to check out the gold crown embedded in the floor at the entrance and the opulent murals covering the walls by artist Paul Baudry. I’m afraid these pale into insignificance when confronted with such sweet creations. 
We walk on to my favourite part of the neighbourhood, where there is a cluster of shops dedicated to the “arts de la table”, selling catering equipment and cookware to professional chefs and cooks.  We only have time to visit Dehillerin, Simon and Mora, where the variety of cookware and pastry supplies located on multiple levels is mind-boggling. Our stop here manages to fulfil my kitchen accoutrement addiction and another suitcase, providing a welcome distraction to our imminent Paris departure. 
Bresse chickens
Further down the street we are led by our noses to a boucherie, where chickens are roasting on an outdoor rotisserie. The fat drips below onto a bed of sliced potatoes, sizzling and roasting on an open hotplate. With my well of love now nothing but a faded memory, my stomach is growling again.
I poke my head into the shop and it’s filled with meats of all descriptions, including a pig’s heads with staring eyes, an assortment of innards, pâtés and regional specialty terrines. Resisting the potatoes, I choose a contented looking Bresse chicken, resting peacefully in its refrigerated nest with head still attached, complete with feathers.
Raised in a designated area, near the small town of Bourg-en-Bresse in southeastern France, the flavour of these princely chooks is rated among the best in the world. They are appellation classified, like a good wine, and free to walk around the countryside foraging for insects and eating real food. They are dry plucked and have not been through a chlorine bath process, that many large producers use to reduce the presence of bacteria. French producers have moved away from this technique, after a dioxin scare some years ago and you will be hard pressed to find anything but free range chickens in France.  Although worth it, be prepared to pay at least double the amount for the Bresse experience.
The Bresse works particularly well in this recipe and I use most of the chicken for this dish.  The more gamey and distinctive flavour of this organic chicken, comes through against the subtlety of the winter vegetables and the soft, slightly acidic sauce. Over the years, this recipe learned from Anne Willan, has been one of my standards. You can use chicken marylands, legs or the whole chicken. Sometimes I vary it using all white winter vegetables, or carrots and broadbeans for a change of texture and colour. I have adjusted it to be a little more heart friendly by reducing the butter and cream content, trimming the fat from the chicken and using a light cream.  If you can’t source a Bresse, an organic chook is the next best thing.
Our shared dessert of Baba au Rhum, with a slug of extra rum, freshened and warmed in the microwave, matched the chook perfectly.
Serves 4
Coq au vin blanc
1 organic chicken, cut into pieces or chicken legs/marylands with bones
2 tbsp unsalted butter
1 tbsp olive oil
2 leeks, sliced into 3 cm lengths, the white part only
6 french eschalots, halved
1 organic garlic clove, sliced into chunks
2 carrots, cut into 3 cm lengths
½ cup of broadbeans, blanched and peeled or peas if you prefer
bunch of thyme
1 ½ cups of dry white wine, you may not need all of this, a riesling or chardonnay
¼ cup of light pouring cream
pinch of paprika
2 tsp plain flour
2 tbsp unsalted melted butter, extra
½ tsp sea salt and pepper

Wash the chicken pieces and pat dry with paper towel. Trim the excess skin and fat. Using a large high sided frypan, about 40cm wide, heat the butter and olive oil over a medium heat. Fry the chicken, skin side down, till golden brown, then turning to do the other side. Fry for 4 to 5 minutes on each side, checking for colour. When done, remove from the pan and drain on paper towel. 
Tip away excess oil accumulated in the frypan and return the chicken to the pan. Add garlic, eschalots, leek, thyme, carrots and wine and place over medium to high heat until bubbling. Reduce heat to a low simmer and cover with a lid or foil to cook for about 30 minutes. You can cook this dish either on top of the stove in a frypan, or in a large casserole or roasting dish in a preheated 180 degree oven for the same length of time.
After 30 minutes, remove the lid from the frypan and mix in the cream, paprika and salt and pepper. Replace lid and continue to cook for approximately 20 minutes, or until the chicken is almost coming off the bone.

With a slotted spoon, carefully remove the chicken and vegetables from the sauce to a bowl and cover with foil.  Keep the sauce on the heat. At this stage if there is any excess fat on the top of the sauce, blot with paper towel or skim off.
Mix the flour and melted butter together and add this to the sauce, cooking for a further couple of minutes. Taste for seasoning and pour the sauce over the chicken and vegetables, lastly adding the broadbeans or peas.
If preparing this meal in advance, complete up until the final step where you have removed the chicken and vegetables from the sauce. When you are ready, reheat the sauce, adding the flour and butter mixture and return the chicken and vegetables to reheat through before serving.
If you prefer you can omit the flour and butter paste at the end, resulting in a thinner sauce.
This meal also looks great served at Christmas, using all white vegetables, served with creamy mashed potato, to complement an all white theme. Photos Steve Shanahan