Sometimes all journies lead to the same destination and so it was when i opened Maeve O’Meara’s French Food Safari, the cookbook based on the television series of the same name and fame.
My journey started in South Australia a few weeks earlier where, as part of a media jaunt to the Tasting Australia food festival, we were skippered around the Eyre Peninsula sampling a bounty of fresh seafood, inlcuding Kinkawooka black mussels, which were steamed– straight from the sea – as we bobbed on a charter boat alongside a Puglisi family mussel farm.
A week later i bought a ticket to a cultured butter making demonstration by Pierre Issa – aka Pepe Saya. Towards the end of a magical evening, Merna Taok - the owner of Homemade Fine Foods, located at the same factory – steamed a big pot of Kinkawooka mussels which were slathered in Pepe’s melted hand-churned butter. Our goodie bag at the end of the evening included a pack of the vacuum-packed, pot-ready Kinkawooka mussels (they’re packed this way so the shells don’t open and secrete the nutrient rich liquer upon which the mussels survive, when they’re knocked about and stressed under traditional loose transportation methods, thus extending their shelf life), and a 225-gram pat of Pepe Saya butter. I also took away some sustainable crab stock from The Stock Merchant, who is located in the same warehouse.
A few days later i opened French Food Safari, for the first time, bang on the page for moules mariniere (mussels in white wine), which calls for – amongst other things – mussels, butter and fish stock – the star ingredients in my fridge. Guillaume Brahimi, O’Meara’s side-kick on the French Food Safari television series and partner in crime in the creation of the cookbook (he contributes the vast majority of the recipes), provides a simple recipe which calls for mussels to be steamed in a broth of stock, wine, garlic, shallots and parsley.
It took 10 minutes to prepare and cook, thanks to Kinkawooka mussels that are already cleaned and debeared and ready for the pot. We picked plump orange and white mussels from a rainbow of black-purple shells and dunked chunks of fresh bread into the aromatic broth. It ticked all the weeknight dinner boxes: quick, no fuss, and fulfilling. Destination satisfaction!
O’Maera and Brahimi take the reader on a gastronomic tour of some of France’s key culinary destinations after which some of the chapters are named: the village, markets, the orchard, bistro and bouchon, the restaurant, and the French kitchen. The reader is transported into the underground working bakery of Poilane in Paris, where a wood fired oven hasn’t cooled down since it was first lit in the 1930s, and to the “temple of great food”, Les Halles Market in Lyon. O’Meara and Brahimi dine in the homes and restaurants of famed French chefs, and invite the reader into their inner sanctum.
There is a touch of genius in Brahimi’s rendition of beef bourguignon, which calls for carrot purée to be stirred through near the end. The puree perfectly thickens and sweetens this beef and red wine stew, and lifts the dish from the status of ‘bog standard’ to ‘innovatively unique’. Although I’m a self-confessed potato junkie, I managed to abstain from Brahimi’s Paris mash, which calls for 250 grams of butter. O’Maera describes it as “heaven and wickedness itself”. I don’t trust my willpower much longer.
As winter wraps her arms around us, many of the recipes are enticing, including Jacques Reymond’s coq au vin (chicken in wine) which requires two bottles of Pinot noir, and Philippe Mouchel’s lamb navarin, a winter stew from Normandy. I put Peter Robinson’s Trout Grenobloise to the test. It was outstanding – if not a tad buttery – but a leaf an chive salad with shallot vinaigrette undercut the richness of the dish.
But French Food Safari is far more than just a collection of other people’s recipes. It provides a crash course in French gastronomy by discussing issues such as Appellation d’Origine Controlee – or contolled designation of origin – a certification granted to certain French wines, cheeses and other products, and introducing the reader to the concept of the Meilleur ouvrier de France – a lifetime award that sets master craftsmen apart as ambassadors of their trade.
Given that French Food Safari relies to a large extent on the recipes of some of today’s quintessential French chefs, the inclusion of biographies for each of the supporting cast would not have gone amiss, as not all names are immediately familiar. If the reason for omitting biographies was lack of space, then perhaps the rather pointless famous quotes and French proverbs that are scattered throughout the pages could have been scrapped instead.
Nevertheless, it’s a book that will stoke many an appetite for a French sorjourn. And if you can resist such a temptation, at least psyche up your inner francophile and embrace some of the classic French dishes – and others with a contemporary twist – that cram these carefully considered pages.
Beef Bourguignon, by Guillaume Brahimi
125 ml olive oil
1 kg braising beef such as rump, topside or chuck steak (preferably wagyu), cut into large chunks
2 carrots, halved lengthwise and sliced
2 celery stalks with leaves, halved lengthwise and sliced
1 leek, white part only, halved lengthwise and sliced
1 onion, chopped
5 French shallots, halved
500 ml red wine
10 thyme sprigs
7 bay leaves
300g speck, diced
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
300g button mushrooms
1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped
5 carrots, chopped
Heat the oil in a heavy-based pot over medium–high heat. Add the beef and cook until browned all over, then remove to a plate leaving most of the oil behind. Add the carrot, celery, leek, onion and shallots to the pot and sauté for 5–8 minutes.
While the vegetables are cooking, pour the wine into a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Simmer for a few minutes (this helps to reduce the wine’s acidity).
Return the beef to the pot of vegetables along with the thyme, bay leaves, speck, red wine and some salt and pepper. Stir to combine, then
cover with a lid and simmer gently for 40 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare the carrot puree by steaming or boiling the carrots until just soft. Drain and puree (or mash finely).
Add the carrot puree and whole mushrooms to the bourguignon and cook for a further 10 minutes.
Check the seasoning, stir in the parsley and serve.
French Food Safari
Note: The Food Sage received a review copy of the book from Hardie Grant.