THE FRENCH CONNECTION
An Indian chef in France
Having read about the culinary history of France and worked with a few French chefs with very high opinions of their cooking, I have always wondered what makes their cuisine so special. A few weeks ago, I finally got the opportunity to find out when my friend – and Operations Manager of Curry Leaf Cafe – Rachida Zitouni invited me to join her on a ten-day trip to visit her sister and mother in Périgueux, in the Southwest region of Dordogne.
I’ve always believed that it is the countryside where the real essence of any country’s food culture resides, and so it proved on my trip. The French part of the journey started with a scenic two-hour drive through the towns and villages between the airport at Bordeaux and the home of Baktha, Rachida’s sister. Her daughter Tanya welcomed us in, explaining that Baktha had gone to the local boulangerie patisserie to pick up some fresh bread and something sweet for ‘gouter’ – a French tradition, I learned, which dictates that you eat something sweet with your tea or coffee around 5pm each day. This immediately reminded me of the ‘Chai Paani’ tradition in India where afternoon tea is offered with a sweet or savoury snack such as a samosa or pakora.
Aside from the house itself – whose massive French windows open the space up to the fresh air and sunlight front and back – the highlight of the Zitouni residence is the garden, where your senses are overwhelmed with the fragrant smell of rosemary and mint. Amidst the wild herbs, flowers and trees whose branches bowed with the weight of ripe fruit, I also met Luna – a beautiful wild cat who was found roaming the woods nearby many years ago, and has since become part of the family.
When Baktha arrived back from the patisserie, it was with a sweet smile and an even sweeter smell emanating from the paper bag in her hand. When we sat down in the garden to ‘gouter’, I discovered she’d brought us Jésuite (a pastry filled with crème Anglaise, topped with almonds and crusted with meringue, so named because of its resemblance to a Jesuit’s hat), Croissant aux Amandes (almond croissant) and Chausson aux Pommes (an apple pie made with puff pastry that looks like a mini calzone pizza). This immediately reminded me of the vegetable puffs and chicken puffs my mother used to buy from the bakery for our after-school snack, which we would drink with hot flavoured milk, and got me wondering how puff pastry made it all the way from France to India. Then I remembered Pondicherry, the former French Colony in South India; a true meeting point between these two culinary giants of east and west.
After a while we decided walk to burn those buttery layers of puff pastry with a walk around the town centre. The architecture simply blew me away. Buildings dating back to the 14th century have now become bars, restaurants and shops, but the walls remain the same and the design hasn’t been changed at all. In this part of France, the conservation of historical architecture dwells easily alongside contemporary life. As we headed back, Rachida informed us that her mother – who lives about 20 minutes away – had made us all dinner. Being of Algerian birth, and our trip coinciding with the month of Ramadan, she had decided to make us some traditional North African dishes.
I’ve always wanted to go to Morocco and try the food there, not least because I find so many similarities between North African and Indian cuisines. So I was really looking forward to trying Rachida’s mother’s cooking; we all agree that mums are the best chefs, thanks partly to the extra ingredient they put in: love. I could taste it in abundance in that dinner: Lamb Shorba, Bourek, and a dish called Choukchouka that’s made with eggs and a tomato and courgette sauce, and tastes quite similar to an egg curry we make back in India thanks to the use of cumin, dry red chilli and caraway seeds. Accompanying this was a fresh garden salad and bread from the local boulangerie. I enjoyed every single element on the table and couldn’t stop admiring the most delicious shorba I have ever tasted – no small compliment given that my home city of Hyderabad is very well known for it. For dessert, Baktha served us melon from a local farmers’ market; again, the best I’ve ever had. A great reminder of why I focus so much on organic, local and free-range produce when cooking in my kitchen at the cafe in Brighton.
After our lovely dinner, we walked to the riverside to watch the 14th of July fireworks display – a fantastic way to end my first day in France. I went to bed thinking of waking up to the aroma of fresh coffee, bread and croissants the following day.
Part two coming soon…