There are moments in one’s life that are like forks in the road: accept the opportunity suddenly thrown before you—take the left fork—or discard and continue along what has been forged for you. At least, that’s what those who avoided the ambitious gene would accept.
My moment came during a visit to Italy and France in the late ‘70s, specifically the time spent with my brother Bernard, his wife Deirdre and their young children in the tiny village of Ceyzériat (population then, around 1900) in the Ain department of France. They had ventured to France for a year of reflection, one in which the children would be schooled in French.
It was here that I understood what it was to respect life as it was, and can always be; that food and culture could not be separated and never be compromised. It was here that I understood that bakers rose at 1am not just to profit from their labours when the patissierie opened six or so hours later, but that the best bread and pastries could not be done any other way. It was here that we took our containers to the laiterie to indulge in the richest of cream. It was here that I saw billboards featuring chickens with the French tricolor on their bursting breasts, pronouncing they were the one and only Bresse chickens, controlled by federal appellation since 1957. Each chicken is packed as if on the way to a debut ball, labelled elevée en pleine nature aux céréales de Bresse au lait (raised by nature with added cereals and milk).
It was here that I discovered that truite au bleu was not a crazy concoction of trout with blue cheese, but trout taken live, bopped on the head, tossed in vinegar causing it to turn a shade of blue (all to do with the fresh mucus of the recently alive fish) poached within seconds, and served in the poaching juices.
It was down the road from Ceyzériat, via a local narrow railway, that I visited my first Michelin-starred restaurant, the Auberge Bressane, in Bourg-en-Bresse the department’s capital; and it was here that all the above came together. This was the expression of the best ingredients, created by the best craftsmen and women, served in the best environment that included not just the best glasses and napery, but also that aroma that describes the energy and effort of the kitchen. I remember returning home and describing the service to a friend: just when you started to think you needed your wine topped up, or your supply of bread or butter replenished, a waiter was there. He just knew.
This was also the day I was introduced to quenelles de brochet, sauce Nantua. This is a classic of the region, often sneered at these days as a throwback. They’re not: they are delicate dumplings of seafood (in that region, pike), served on a sauce of the tails of crayfish, cooked long and lovingly. Quenelles are classics of the classic era of French cooking, an ideal mix for the Thermomix. This is another recipe we have amended for the Thermomix from More Than French, Philippe Mouchel’s cookbook (co-authored by TMix+ contributor Rita Erlich, Slattery Media, 2011) that describes almost 50 years of cooking in the best kitchens of the world, most of them French.
We thought it best to leave the sauce Nantua to the pros, and offer a simple watercress sauce as an accompaniment. Alternatively, the butter sauce with the salmon (page 23) is a natural fit. The shaping of the quenelles can be a challenge—even the great Julia Child admitted they can be difficult—but the finished dish makes persistence worthwhile.