Foodie alert. Excessive food and wine commentary follows!
A couple of weeks ago, we found an announcement online for a special culinary event at the Château de Pennautier*, not far from our house. The organizers promised to bring together six noted chefs from the Carcassonne area. Hence the name Les Toqués d’Oc (toqués comes from the toque, or chef’s hat; Oc is the traditional name of this region and its language). Each would prepare a course for the event. We would be dining with about 200 of our closest friends within the 17th century château. It all started at noon on Saturday.
At the reception office for the château, a young woman handed us perforated tickets, and invited us to stroll through the garden to the main entrance of the château. Six panels comprised the tickets, one for each course. Instead of being served each course at the table as we expected, we were going to get our courses at chefs’ stations. We envisioned Honolulu Food & Wine Festival, with plastic plates, snippets of food, and general chaos.
We found the château’s ballroom filled with round tables. They were dressed with white table cloths, metal flatware, and wine and water glasses. Things were looking up: no plastic plates, knives and forks here. At the entrance to the ballroom, a young man dressed in black instructed us in French and English. Being among the first to arrive, he directed us to the tables at the far end of the room. He asked that we choose seats at a table already filling, or if full, start a new one; and please don’t choose seats with a single empty seat to each side. He expressly reminded us that we were there for both food and conviviality.
The table filled around us with couples who didn’t seem to know each other but who fell into conversation immediately. The woman to our left tried to strike up a conversation, but instantly realized that we aren’t exactly from these parts. (It only takes our saying just “Bonjour” and the French know we are Anglo!) She smiled and hesitated. We smiled and hesitated. We all studied the menu. Time to get some wine.
Along one wall of the entrance hall, which is not very large considering that 200 guests were expected, four vintners offered their wines. One of the vintners is associated with the Château de Pennautier: Lorgeril. We have many times visited their boutique and restaurant which is near the château. A couple of their red wines are among our favorites. We chose a summery rosé with which to start the party.
Back at the table, I was relaxing into the fact of 10 nice French people, and our table mates were becoming less wary of the English speakers. It seemed that this event was as new to most of them as it was to us. A few, although living in Carcassonne, had never been in the château. Everyone was unsure about how the event would unroll. We were starting to feel a bit less alien.
There was a set of loudspeakers. The announcements, in French, were as legible as those of a subway conductor, even for our French companions. However, at one point, the table deciphered enough to realize that the first course was ready for us to retrieve. The instruction was to bring your wine glass. By the time we returned to the entrance hall, the crowd filled it, waiting for the first dish on the one side, and selecting wines on the other. Behind a white-cloth-covered table stood about 6 young chefs. Through en-filade doors, we could see tents outside where presumably the food was being prepared. Soon, servers starting bringing attractive plates to the chefs, who in turn finished dressing each one. As you will see, each course was beautiful, as composed and well presented as if we were in one of their restaurants.
With plates and (empty) glasses in hand, we maneuvered back through the crowd to find the wine paired with this course. Except for the later fish and dessert courses, the paired wines were all robust reds from the immediate region, including one of our favorites from Lorgeril. Even with starters and main courses with oysters, escargot and chicken, and on a summery Saturday afternoon, the sommeliers (and probably sponsors) chose characterful reds. Right up our alley!
The first starter (entrée in French) was a variation of steak tartare topped with a slice of a fresh large Mediterranean oyster, a celebrated variety in the region. We had never had such a combination, but it was wonderful. The joining of the oyster and the beef, along with the slight acidic contribution from capers, onions and lemon, popped with freshness. Our winter and spring have been notably gray, cool and rainy. Only in the last few days has sunny warm summer finally pushed the gloom out. This starter felt like a giddy sigh of relief that vacation weather had at last arrived.
But not to everyone. Much to our surprise, two women at the table really didn’t like raw oysters. One, sitting near me, confessed that this was the first time in her life that she had eaten a raw oyster. She said she enjoyed the dish, but needed to eat it with her eyes closed. The two women then realized that an escargot was to be at the heart of the next dish, which pleased them just about as much as the raw oyster. To their credit, they ate both dishes. For us, their reaction, which was full of humor as well as authenticity, humanized our French neighbors. We thought that the French — I mean, all the French — so love and defend their cuisine, that nothing would be off-limits. Turns out it is a bit more normal.
As promised, the second starter’s focus was a round fritter with an escargot center. It floated in a super-fresh pea and fava soup, garnished with purple flower petals. To the chefs’ station, the servers from the tents outside brought the soup plates. The chefs added the fritter and selected the flower petals. For each course, we witnessed the same clever approach: The front-of-house chefs put final aesthetic touches on the heart of the dish, which had been more easily prepared off-site and in volume. We had feared that, for an event of 200 people, the food would recall banquets at Hilton Hawaiian Village. Very happily, these chefs and their teams succeeded tremendously in choosing dishes for such a large group while retaining their signature taste and visual styles.
During the time of the starters, a late arrival sat at our table. Her husband had not yet arrived. The reason was that an air-traffic-controllers strike had delayed his flight from Belgium to Carcassonne. Everyone rolled their eyes in knowing sympathy at the table. Notably contentious rail and air strikes in France have filled this spring and now summer. All that anyone can do is try to plan around them, and if caught by surprise, stoically power through. The woman said that, ironically, it was her husband who had chosen this event, and was now missing it.
The first main course (plat in French) was a white fish surrounded by fennel in at least three forms: purée, crispy thin slices of the bulb, and perfectly poached stems.
The second main course was our favorite. The description in the menu was relatively simple: chicken, rice, pear, ginger. Fortunately, its synergy made most of the table ooh and aah. The white chicken meat was juicy and firm as it is supposed to be. But it was all the other ingredients that lit up the dish. The rice was a very specific red rice from the village of Marseillette, about 15 minutes from Carcassonne. The rice was nutty and bright. A jus of beef stock and ginger linked the ingredients. Little balls of poached pear, skewered with a verveine leaf, were like the models at a car show, framing the dish. Somehow, all these ingredients and their preparation harmonized beyond what we had expected.
A patisserie in Carcassonne, whose creations we have often admired, provided the dessert: white chocolate mousse in a lime glaze and hiding a pineapple center, a wafer with hints of ginger, coconut gelato, and a sprig of chocolate. I loved it; Mike was less enthusiastic, probably because he would have preferred the white chocolate to have been dark. The wine pairing was a silky dessert wine, again from Lorgeril.
At the time of the dessert course, the lost husband from Belgium arrived. Impressively, the chefs still were able to provide him with each course. We noticed that his plates were fuller than ours had been. Air traffic controller strikes have little hidden benefits.
By the end of the meal, our table was lingering in conversation more than almost all the others. The couple at my right had opened up, as had we, in the course of the courses. At one point, I asked if they had any recommendations for good restaurants in the area that might not be as well known as others. At first, they seemed to struggle a little; they spread the question to others at the table. After a few suggestions of the usual known restaurants, they started to come up with interesting options off in various villages, which we noted in our phones. It was fun to experience everyone’s enthusiasm about the food and restaurants of their — and our — region. One of the best ways to get a conversation going in France is to ask about food. Works every time!
Finally, after all these courses and almost four hours, we headed outside. Fresh-ground espressos in the sun helped counteract the surfeit of food and wine.
We walked back to our car and safely drove home in a bubble of enthusiasm. It was remarkable that such good food, wine, ambiance and company were possible with so many people. And at a good price — much less than in one of these chefs’ restaurants. Somehow, we couldn’t bring ourselves to eat or even drink anything else for the rest of the day. Would we do it again? Yes indeed!
*You can see more about the Château in an earlier post.