Sunday, February 2, 2014

truffe en fête.

blogosphere! i have news to report, at long last. it’s been a quiet month here in the countryside – lots of movie watching and novel reading. but, this weekend, i had one of the coolest experiences that i’ve had to date here in france… and it was all about the truffle, the cherished black diamond of the périgord!

a few weeks ago, a couple of my pilates friends here in excideuil told me about a special all-day event held each year called “truffe en fête.” it's put on by the local chapter of the rotary club, and celebrates one of this region’s most precious commodities – the truffle. the whole shindig is split into two parts… the first segment is an afternoon “conference,” at which attendees learn about the truffle, listen to local “trufficulteurs," and even have the opportunity to do a little taste-testing as well! the second part is a full-on french feast experience, with every course featuring (you guessed it) the truffle. when christine and beatrice told me that it was a benefit dinner for a local cancer research fund, i was sold! what better way to experience the local culture and taste truffles for the first time than by giving back to that same community. as the date approached, i continued to look forward to the event with high expectations!

finally, the weekend arrived. i had offered to go with christine and beatrice on friday, to help set up for the event on the following day… and i’m so glad i did! i met several members of the rotary club, who were all wonderfully charming and friendly. we spent the afternoon/early evening rearranging tables, perfecting the place settings, and generally making sure that everything was ready for the 200 person dinner the next day. the venue itself was absolutely gorgeous. situated just a few kilometers away from excideuil, the “domained’essendiéras” is a beautiful complex of two chateaux (one from the 16th century and one from the 19th century), a banquet hall and clubhouse, golf course, vacation homes… you name it. the chateaux were beautifully renovated by the family that owns the property, and i was continually impressed with the attention to detail they so obviously devoted to the process.

on saturday, i got myself all dolled up and went down to the venue early with the ladies (begging rides has become the norm, since i have no car) to help with last-minute preparations before the afternoon session started. there wasn’t much to do for the first hour or so, but around 2pm, the highly-anticipated (and slightly late) keynote speaker showed up! her name is danièle mazet-delpeuch, and she is an absolute gem. as a native of the périgord region and a world-renowned specialist in the regional cuisine, danièle was a total match for this event. she had even agreed to prepare a little “amuse-bouche” as a treat for the audience, so when she arrived, beatrice and i kicked into sous-chef mode. we spent about an hour and a half in the kitchen in total, preparing the cutest little hors d’oeuvre you ever did see. step one was cutting a big loaf of freshly baked, freshly delivered bread into strips and arranging them onto plates for eventual toasting. for step two, danièle showed me how to carefully cut little quail eggs open with nail scissors and pop them into pre-heated frying pans for some sunny-side-up goodness. once they cooked, i was given a little scalloped biscuit cutter and told to place the beautiful little eggy flowers into the shallow plastic bowls that beatrice had set out onto the trays. once the eggs were placed, the freshly toasted bread strips (called tartines) were lovingly spread with the foie gras that delphine had made especially for the event. DI-VINE. the final, and most important, touch was to lightly touch the foie-gras end of the tartine into some crumbled raw truffle, sprinkle just a teensy bit of the truffle onto the egg yolk, and place the tartine across the bowl. throughout the process, danièle was so wonderful and encouraging – she even complimented my egg-cutting techniques and told me i had a future as a chef. once the assembly was complete, danièle went out and spoke for about 30 minutes before doing a foie gras demonstration! her life has been incredibly interesting; she started out as a sort of local culinary hero in the perigord region, welcoming chefs and cooking enthusiasts from all over the world to her country home/farm for foie gras and truffle camps. then, in the late 80’s, she was summoned (almost literally) to paris, upon recommendation, to be the personal chef for the then-president-de-la-republique françois mitterand! she worked in the palais de l’élysée (equivalent of the white house) for two years. then, she went to work in antarctica as the chef for a french research team for 14 months! she’s literally been on every continent! a movie was made about those two experiences (working in paris and antarctica) – it is called "haute cuisine" (or les saveurs du palais) and came out last fall. i just watched it today – it’s very entertaining, and the woman who plays “hortense” (danièle) did a great job of capturing her spirit. all in all, i consider myself very, very lucky to have had such a unique opportunity!

by 6:30 or so, everyone had left to go get ready for the dinner. we made sure everything was picked up  and tidy before heading down to the banquet hall. i sat and watched the england/france rugby match (the 6 nations tournament opener!) with a bunch of the men. france ended up winning right at the very end, which put everyone firmly in a great mood for the rest of the night. i was also interviewed by the local blogger for a little article on his site, periblog (link forthcoming). around 7:45, we lit the candles and the “servers” (rotary club members) started popping bottles of bubbly! now, i’ve had my fair share of authentic french dinners… but i’ve never been to a banquet-type dinner. and let me tell you, this one was special. we started with the pre-dinner drinks around 8pm, and everyone kind of just mingled until about 8:30. after a few opening remarks from the rotary club president and christine, the first course was served. naturally, it was a soup – a velouté of white beans and potatoes, with the ever-present truffle, of course. it was delicious. i could have had 4 bowls of it. and of course, with a new course we must have new wine! throughout the night, our table ended up having something like 8 bottles of wine… there were only 10 of us at the table, and two didn’t really drink. so, you can do the math there. the second course was a truffle foie gras (heaven help me) with carmelized onion jelly and fresh, crusty bread. i cannot even begin to describe the delicacy that was this dish. it was simply divine. i was starting to feel full by the end of it, though, because that slice of foie gras was substantial to say the least. thankfully, the third dish took a while coming, because the purée had to be prepared exactly before serving… and it takes a lot of purée to feed over 200 people. finally, the main course came out, and boy, was it worth the wait. a beautiful cut of beef cheek, roasted for several hours and served alongside a potato purée made with truffled crème fraiche and this fantastic gravy. it was absolutely decadent – the meat was so, so tender and the purée was this velvety concoction of perfect seasoning, buttery, truffley, potatoey goodness… mmm. i will never think of mashed potatoes the same way again. after that, we had the cheese course, which was a truffle-infused, soft goat cheese with a slice of toasted bread which had been glazed with truffle oil… i love goat cheese, but the texture was different than any kind i’ve tried thus far. finally, dessert was fresh crêpes with truffle caramel – exactly as delicious as it sounds. as is only fitting, there was a round of coffee to finish everything off, despite the fact that it was pushing one in the morning at that point. the meal honestly took like 5 hours. #france. i have never, ever had a meal so decadent and detailed and perfectly french in my entire life. each course was introduced by a meticulous explanation that perfectly explained the treat we were about to receive. we took our time, enjoying each dish as it was brought to us and praising the elements that were particularly phenomenal. the evening was made even more special by the fact that i got to sit with several friends from excideuil and the surrounding area, some that i have known for a while now and others that i met that evening. i also got to meet christine’s daughter and beatrice’s two children, which was a treat! it was funny to meet the kids, now that i’ve gotten to be friends with the parents.

i stayed and helped clean up a little bit – mostly bussing the tables and getting all the glassware sorted into the trays. finally, just after 2, i left with christine’s husband gilles (my name counterpart), who kindly offered to bring me and beatrice’s son adrien back to excideuil. i was talked into staying for a drink at their house, since i’m friends with the kids and there’s nothing like a beer at 2:30 in the morning. i finally, finally got home just after 3am, and promptly fell into bed soon thereafter.

it seems only fitting that this post is one of my longest ones yet, and it’s about food. that’s a very appropriate metaphor for france, if i’m being honest. if there’s one thing the french know, it’s how to eat, and eat well. bon appétit, indeed!