This year was my first holiday season in France, as it was for my friends Taffy and Bill, who moved here earlier this year, also, from Windsor, Ontario, Canada. We approached this with a commitment to experience the season as fully as we could, and for us,this meant making the rounds at the wineries to stock up for season, visiting several different small towns for the Christmas markets, which we found were like a PTA bake sale mixed with a craft fair, and some special local foods (sausages, duck magret and confit, sausages and aligot, a mashed potato dish with huge amounts of cheese), a couple of weekends visiting the local chateaux for Christmas carols, and walking the marchés, stocked full of all the special treats meant for the grand events- the 4+ hour long meals both Christmas Eve (Réveillon de Noël) and New Years Eve (Réveillon de nouvelle an), an eating orgy that includes oysters and foie gras and sausages and more.
However, we had one more treat in mind for ourselves- the perfect way to leave 2016 behind and start the New Year in a very positive direction. On New Years Day, we made the 20 minute drive to the neighbouring town of Moirax for lunch at a 1 star Michelin restaurant, L’Auberge du Prieré. We had eaten there before, and we went today knowing the promised menu degustation on New Year’s Day would be a wonderful feast that would ensure a good start to the new year, a meal worthy of one grand gift to ourselves for the holidays.
The room of 8 tables was small, yet we all felt in a world of out own, a self-contained table dressed up like a Christmas present. The restaurant had limited their service to one seating for the holiday meal, which enabled us to enjoy each plate, wait our turn while observing the other tables being served and then anticipate each of the promised nine (yes, nine!) courses.
Oh, wait, did I say nine. Not quite accurate- we started with a sampling of four more, to tease our palate- a touch of caviar on creme and topped with a sprig of micro greens, a crispy chip of smoked fish skin, a mouthful of crab sushi, and a two bite ball of of molten purée that was partially unidentified but fabulously delicious. So, let’s make that thirteen in all. Plus the three extra desserts.
An explanation for the lack of detail on some of these dishes: each course was delivered with a description in French, and while Taffy is fluent, and Bill is close, it’s still a second language, and a few things slipped by us. We were given a full menu with details, but even then we spent time googling some words-verveine (verbena), chevreuil (venison), topinambour (Jerusalem artichoke).
In between each course we did what we do- we talked, we laughed, we sipped our wine, we speculated about the other people in the room- a couple of tables with man and wife; a mother, father, young adult son; a large table of 4 couples and an extra; a middle-aged daughter and elderly mother. All of these groups were very French, however, the table next to us, three generations, a man, wife, daughter and mother, was maybe French, maybe American. While their appearance was French – he was wearing bright blue pants, and that big scarf around his neck, and his haircut was more european than not. The women were all impeccably dressed and accessorised with scarves and jewellery in a Continental manner- they switched smoothly back and forth between languages and topics.
We oohed and awed from the first bite, but this is about the point in the menu where we started talking about the how the flavours were hitting our tongue- a well thought out progression of tastes coming alive in an obviously planned order- like eating a symphony, each movement making itself known at a prescribed pace.
What we didn’t do was have a philosophical discussion, which is what we all imagine the French do at their dinners. We touched on politics, we patted ourselves on the back for making the move to a place we all love so much, and a lifestyle we all feel we were made to live.
We talked about what makes a Michelin restaurant. I have been to several, from one to 3 stars, and the difference between them is big. Le Prieré is in the centre of an ancient village, housed inside an old church priory. with a large, open terrace used in the summer time. The service is pleasant, not overly-formal as I’ve experienced- the service at one of the Michelin restaurants I’ve eaten at was actually off-putting, condescending, horribly uncomfortable), carried out by the chef’s wife and one other person. The serving pieces and plates are all artisan pottery, unique enough to catch your eye and encourage comments. The furnishings here, are all comfortable but understated, mostly antique pieces with a colourful mix of modern art on the walls.
But, the food! That is where you really see the difference- in the way each course rolls into the next. The ris de veau was a soft as a pillow, with a full, round flavour that would have been overwhelming if you had any more than a few bites on your plate. The venison was as tender as a filet mignon, and the combination of orange, beet and endive were a little surprise on a classic flavour blend.
Oddly, at this point, I was still hungry enough to hoover down the first dessert without taking a picture of it. It was lovely to look at, better to eat.
We were aware, by the way, of how geeky we looked taking pictures of each plate, but decided we didn’t really care. My last meal here was a much smaller lunch menu- maybe 7 or 8 courses with amuse bouche- and I really have trouble remembering the details. So we, alone, snapped away.
Coffee was offered, accepted, and with it came a few more little bites.
The small bowl contained several chocolate textures, the most exciting being some small-dice chocolate meringue pieces.
The meringue was a perfect end to the meal- filled with layers of passion fruit and kiwi purée, it was light, flavourful, and with a sense of humour. We were told to tap it with our spoon- I used possibly a bit more force than necessary, it was actually quite delicate. I laughed out loud!
Feeling proud of our endurance, we rolled out of Moirax 4 and a half hours later, talking all the way about special points of the meal- and that meringue was one of the longer discussions! We will go back- we made a list of others we would like to share the experience with- if not for the grand holiday meal, but maybe just the menu de marché (27 euros) or even the menu décourverte (57 euros) or the menu degustation (77 euros).
What, you ask, did we pay for this? The special holiday meal was 97 euros, with and extra 35 euros for a flight of four wines, spread out over the course of the service. A special treat, for sure, but,far less than a similar meal would have been in the US, probably by half. Besides, I didn’t buy myself anything for Christmas or Chanukah. This was it- the big gift.