I love eating out in France (who wouldn’t?!), especially at lunchtime and preferably at a modest brasserie in a very typical French village, somewhere deep, deep in the French countryside. I do not really enjoy eating at stiff, fancy restaurants where plates are made to resemble works of art. Keep the art for the museums and bring on the real, honest food prepared with love! Though to be perfectly honest, I feel there is much more artistry in a well-made, simple meal than there is in a snobby chef’s masterly food arrangement skills. In fact, I have been moved to tears by a perfectly cooked steak — just as I have by a Rembrandt! And, I have been bored and aggravated to tears while sitting at a pretentious restaurant that served decorative food in tiny portions and where stark faces looked at every move I made, literally following each forkful to my lips. Ugghh…
I recently ate at a restaurant most tourists would pass by (except for coffee or a drink on market day). It’s a hangout for locals run by people some (and, no, I am not one of them) would call ‘arrogant’. Though the restaurant has recently changed management and adopted a new name, not much has really changed. You still have to do your best to get their attention if you want a drink, the locals are still sitting in the exact same spot (God forbid you happen to forget that and take their table — the looks!), and the only thing served from 12-2 p.m. is a straightforward menu du jour consisting of a starter buffet, two main choices and a few dessert options. Don’t even bother asking for a menu. This is it. Take it or leave it.
Never, not once, have I been disappointed. It’s home cooking served with carafes of good local wine, to the sound of French conversation and — sorry — the smell of Gitanes. Because after all, when I go to France, I want to be right in the middle of French culture, trying to blend in as much as possible.
One day, I walked over to the starter buffet and helped myself to a flavorful terrine (with chorizo!), some cold vegetables, grilled aubergine and a verrine of thick, ice cold beet gazpacho. You can see the photo here. Oh the taste in that little glass of soup! It was fragrant, peppery, tangy and just beautiful! I have made beet gazpacho in the past, but it wasn’t as good as the one I had that day. So I took note of what I was tasting and vowed to recreate that recipe when I got home. It’s been gloriously HOT here in the Netherlands — no better time to make it than now! Here’s the recipe, which yes, tastes just like the one I had at that perfect and utterly French restaurant. Enjoy!
Peppery Beet & Tomato Gazpacho
- 3 tomatoes
- 500g cooked, vacuum packed beets (with juice)
- 1 small red onion, chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, bruised
- 1 tsp pink peppercorns. bruised
- 1 tsp dried coriander
- 4 tbsps rosé vinegar (or red wine vinegar)
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- ½ tsp piment d’Espelette
- 320 ml water (or more, if you like a thinner soup)
- fleur de sel
- freshly-cracked pepper
- good olive oil, to serve
Make a small X with a sharp knife on the bottom of each tomato, and plunge them in boiling water for 3 minutes. Rinse with cold water, and remove their skins. Chop the tomatoes roughly, and put them in a food processor or blender together with the rest of the ingredients. Blend well but make sure the mixture is still nice and thick. Taste and adjust the seasoning or add extra water if you like. Leave in the fridge for a few hours before serving. Serve with a drizzle of olive oil and an extra grinding of pepper.
Though I love eating out, I am everything but a food snob. OK, with the exception of the ‘Salade Riche‘ I so much adore (and had last weekend again) at one of my favorite French restaurants, Bel Ami. I guess that salad would classify as rather snobbish with its abundance of fish and duck liver curls. But aside from that sensual dish of pure gastronomic indulgence, I am not partial to fancy restaurants that serve ‘artistic’ cuisine with smudges of food, flowers, geometric patterns or foaminess that reminds me of spit. Nor am I impressed by ‘well-known’ chefs or their Michelin stars. In fact, the type of food (and type of restaurant) that I most enjoy is down-to-earth. Real food. Real people. Real passion. And sometimes, there’s a great deal of passion to be found in those ‘simple’ restaurants, which unfortunately are either never discovered or too ‘plain Jane’ for some.
Last Saturday as hubby and I were driving to Haarlem for our lunch date (have you read the review yet?), we were talking about my experience at the recently opened Proeflokaal Bregje in Almere (read that review, too?). Was I too harsh, I asked? Was I expecting miracles for such a price? I mean, seriously. What the heck did I think I was going to get for €12,50? For three courses, that price is just plain ‘ridiculous’, so chill it there girlfriend! Right?? Well, actually, he reminded — wrong.
Let’s rewind back to a rainy August afternoon in France in 2013. Just as an example, because believe me, I could give you more. We were on our way to further explore the Médoc wine region and had agreed to stop along the way at a restaurant recommended by one of my favorite Dutch wine growers (and cheeky devil of a writer) Ilja Gort. This particular restaurant, called La Fontaine, supposedly served a pretty awesome lunch menu for the mere price of €13,00. I knew I had to check it out, not because I thought this couldn’t be done, but because it was recommended by Mr. Gort. A good lunch (with what I call ‘stick-to-the-ribs’ food) for almost next to nothing is not that uncommon in France, a country that takes its lunch breaks (and its food, but that goes without saying) very seriously.
But alas, when we arrived, on a Monday, La Fontaine was closed. Somewhat disappointed we continued on a bit further, in the direction of Pauillac, where somewhere along the way hubby pointed out a roadside restaurant. I, however, was just the slightest bit hesitant. From the outside it did not look that inviting. A little too rugged for my taste.
I did agree though, as I was hungry… and eager to get on with our wine tour. And holy heavens am I glad I did!
Brace yourself, because here it comes! Don’t mind the lesser quality photos…
The starter was succulent prawns served with a simple green salad dressed with not much more than a well-prepared citrusy and fabulously tangy mayo. Oh and there was bread. Plenty of good, chewy French bread.
Then came the main: A steak perfectly grilled, sprinkled with a bit of coarse salt and served with good thick-cut chips, crunchy on the outside and piping hot. The vegetables were simple, but who’s going to bitch about vegetables when you’ve already been served the mother of steaks??
I should mention that each of us got a small pitcher of wine to go with our meal. Not crap wine. A simple, smooth merlot and a fruity rosé. Note: that’s my daughter’s ‘coca’ in the background. On holiday, she’s allowed…
There was even dessert, mousse au chocolat, which I did not photograph (sorry) and coffee to round it all off.
And all of that for the ‘ridiculous’ price of €15,00 per meal. €15,00!! Just €2,50 more than what I paid at Proeflokaal Bregje (excluding the crappy Cosmo). That ‘ridiculous’ price was enough to buy me a meal at Au Poivre et Sel in Le Pian-Médoc. A meal that left me swooning. Yes, people. It is possible.
If the French can do it, why can’t we?
Welcome to Monday! How was your weekend? Mine was great and had a little of everything: some work, but also a good share of fun!
On Saturday we visited the recently opened food establishment in Amsterdam, East57. Have you read my review yet? I was quite impressed and will definitely be going back soon. Not only for lunch, but perhaps for an afternoon of wine and trendy bites followed by gourmet food shopping at their well-stocked delicatessen.
I am now officially in love with Brandt & Levie’s pepper and juniper berry pâté which I purchased there along with cheese, bread and a bar of the limited edition Tony’s Chocolonely chocolate bar with licorice flavor. Tried it yet? I absolutely hate licorice but after sampling a bite of this chocolate, I needed to buy it. The flavor is hardly overpowering, only enhancing the creamy milk chocolate with a mildly salty note.
That evening, as we were having dinner, I handed hubby an envelope (with a heart — how romantic am I?) with reservations for dinner for two at A La Ferme in a few weeks. The restaurant, located in ‘de Pijp’ in Amsterdam, serves traditional French dishes and features beauties such as Bresse chicken on their menu. Just looking at their offerings makes me smile! I made the reservations after hearing about the ‘Franse DinerDagen’, or ‘French Dinner Days’. During ten days, from the 14th to the 23rd of November, you can enjoy a four-course dinner (incl. coffee and a digestif) at fifty top French restaurants across the country that were selected by IENS and En Route Magazine. And at only €34.50 per person, not something you should pass up!
If I wasn’t eating or working these past two days, I was reading the latest issue of one of my favorite Dutch food magazines: Elle Eten. The issue features their ‘100 Favorites’, everything from products, to recipes, to restaurants, to food trends that all of us culi-nuts should not miss out on.
I was especially intrigued by their mention of James Osterer, the English artist who covered subjects (mainly himself) in layers of cream cheese, candy, chips and other foodstuffs before photographing them for his ‘Wotsit All About?‘ project. The works reminded me of the Italian Renaissance painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo. Behind them is definitely some ‘food for thought’:
“The works become a catalogue of self- destructive behaviours, and are also managed in such a way that while transgressing themselves as odes to great works of historical art practice, they become re-packaged eye candy for uncomfortable consumption. They are bittersweet to the point of decay and emphasize much of our contemporary society’s needs for synthetic glucose praise, and, in doing so, proselytize the image as a new catalogue of self-harming sugar worship.” (jamesosterer.com)
In other news, this week I’ll be busy writing and testing over thirty recipes for another Christmas production for Vriendin. This one includes cocktails, too. I’ve got a ‘helluva’ job, I know! On Wednesday I’ll finally be meeting up with the fascinating Dutch food writer (and columnist for DUTCH), Gerrit Jan Groothedde. Gerrit Jan recently debuted with his book ‘Weg van de supermarkt’, a plea and guide for real food, which according to the author, cannot be found at our local supermarkets. I can’t wait to meet him in person! Later that evening I will also be having dinner at a newly opened resto in Almere, and reporting on it the next day for you, so stay tuned!
Make it a great week!!