History at the table

There's something reassuring about institutions. Their strong identity, their inevitable attachment to traditions. When it comes to restaurants that have been around for longer than a couple of generations, what strikes me is, that beneath a sense of immaculate transparency as of the roots of each dish, there's a strong, familiar attachment to gastronomic history. It is particularly the case when entering Benoit. I already mentioned here the peculiarity of this Alain Ducasse owned parisian brasserie, once a meeting point for butchers and farmers who would mind their business in the early morning on the right side of the Seine, in the famous Halles market, part of a then infamous neighborhood now under hip rise. From après le marché to après le théâtre the distance was little, but the food, just as honest. I was invited to taste the uplifting gorgeousness of the most renowned historical dishes of France at a table elegantly settled in '30s fashion. First came the gougères. These puffy, over-gratifying cheesy pastries are divinely fluff and seat pompously at the side of my course, for the whole meal. Yes I did eat all four of them in a matter of seconds, and yes the watchful maitre de salle noticed it and promptly gave me more. And more. Oops, and more.

gougeres3I indulged in the celebrated Léopold de Rothschild's favourite crayfish soufflé. Light as air, the soufflé is obtained from the blending of yolks and egg whites beaten stiff. The legendary Auguste Escoffier, one of the codifiers of French cuisine, adds a crayfish cream and parmesan, alternating layers of shaved truffles and crayfish tails and some freshly cooked asparagus between each layer. In his memoirs, Escoffier related a story about "Old Baron de Rothschild", who, when having supper at the Grand Hotel de Monte-Carlo, didn't want any asparagus but the 'green ones' ", launching a fashion that spread all the way to London, and prompting producers to put forward the green rather than the white asparagus.

gougeres2Henri IV's wish is as famous as his white plume "If God still gives me life, I will make sure that no ploughman in my Kingdom does not have means to have a chicken in his pot”. Exhausted by decades of religion wars, robbed by armies and looters plying the country, peasants had only the strict minimum, certainly not a chicken in their pot every Sunday. To restore the image of the monarchy, Louis XVIII made Henri IV an icon, and the inventor of the Poule au Pot. This dish became a national emblem and, much to my delight, was sumptuously carved in front of my very eyes.

gougeres4Does the Charlotte take its name from the wife of the King Georges III Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, who bore him fifteen children? Historians are puzzled. It was originally a bread crumb and applesauce dessert, when Antonin Carême, the ante-litteram celebrity chef was inspired to create the Charlotte with biscuits, that he called Charlotte à la Parisienne, which later became the Russian Charlotte. He chose to hide the bottom and sides of the mould with finger biscuits and garnish the inside with a Bavarian device composed of gelatine and whipped cream custard. I enjoyed it with pear and chocolate sauce. An impeccable combination for the ending to a splendid meal.

With love and gougères,