France on a plate
When Alexander Lobrano looks at a map of France, menus and markets immediately spring to mind.
It is a fitting Pavlovian response for this food and travel writer whose latest book, "Hungry for France," (Rizzoli) introduces a new generation of young cooks exercising their culinary creativity in the provinces.
After years of eating his way through the bistros of Paris - an enviable task that culminated in his 2008 "Hungry for Paris" - the Connecticut native and former European correspondent for Gourmet magazine opted to leave the capitol behind for his second book.
Part travelogue, part memoir, the book with stunning photographs by Steven Rothfeld includes profiles of carefully chosen restaurants and recipes like "Pan-seared John Dory with Rhubarb and Blue Crab Jus" and "Lemon Verbena-Cherry Clafoutis."
Delightful also are the descriptions of the eating itself, whether Lobrano biting into a runny Saint-Marcellin cheese at a Lyon market ("the dripping lactic velvet smelled very lightly of wet straw") or savouring langoustines in Brittany ("once I'd tasted the tight little curl of tender, sweet, sea-kissed meat in one of their crunchy, easily opened tails, a permanent craving was born").
Q: As a self-described "man who travels to eat" you talk about a formative visit to Lyon in the late 1980s to eat in the meat-heavy "bouchers". That trip whetted your appetite for French regional cooking and the chefs who make it happen.
A: That was my epiphany. I went down there and learned a lot of things that weekend. I was so spellbound by Paris but it suddenly occurred to me, I'm not just in Paris, I've got this whole country! So every time there was a holiday weekend, I'd go to Bordeaux, or go to Nice, or Strasbourg, or wherever it was. What I quickly found was that a lot of parts of the country that no one ever talks about are the ones that are absolutely enchanting, have unbelievably good food and interesting history.
Q: Why did you decide to focus on France's provinces this time?
A: There's a new generation of contemporary French chefs, really talented young men and women who are making French food really interesting again, and they're not just in the cities. My marching orders to myself were 'Who are the really interesting young chefs who no one has ever heard of before?' These are the people who diehard food lovers all over the world would be most interested in finding out about. They don't need me to tell them to go to three-star restaurants. What they won't know about is this incredible little bistro outside of Agen, for example.
Q: Paris was always the place to be. Why aren't they in Paris?
A: A lot of them would say because of the TGV (high-speed train) and the Internet you don't need to be in Paris anymore, you can live in a beautiful village outside of a small market town and have a nice quality of life and not be worried you won't find a clientele because people will come to you. So the idea that the only place to find good food anymore is in the cities is no longer true. That's kind of busted open the template for a culinary career in France. In Paris, the rents are so high that a lot of them said, "I wouldn't be able to do what I'm doing here in my restaurant in the country in Paris because in order to make sure everyone liked my food so I could pay my rent, I'd have to be less creative."
Q: How is the actual experience of eating when you're in the provinces different from that in an equivalent Paris restaurant?
A: There is a connectedness to the immediate surroundings in a rural setting that just can't exist in an urban one. A lot of chefs have the advantage that they source their products not from a restaurant supplier, but from the garden of the old woman down the road. She might stop by in the morning with a basket of mushrooms she gathered, that's how most of them work. People come by the kitchen door and say, "I was walking my dog this morning and I found all these cepes."
Q: While most of the chefs in your book are French, plenty come from further afield - Argentina, Japan, Britain...Why?
A: France is laying claim to the best of the global gastronomic talent because the chefs will tell you the French are still extremely exigent when they sit down at the table, and they're also very curious. So you can serve things in a classical manner one day and the next day you can try something completely different. There is an audience for the creativity.
Q: You call your culinary adventures in France an "incessantly exhilarating learning curve" mixing up history, art, culture.
A: For me the best way to understand where you are is to sit down at the table. On the plate you find history, you find art, you find a geography lesson. For me it's the most rapid way to place yourself as a foreigner when you're travelling. And in France, every single region to this day still has very different food and history ... (The food) is a refraction of French history. A lot of food in Europe is based on premises of scarcity. People were trying to preserve food in different ways, whether its choucroute, with pickled cabbage, or charcuterie, or confit. It all dates back.
Q: Do you actually have a favourite region?
A: I have favourite regions. I have a soft spot for the north of France, where no one goes. I love Corsica. I love the Loire Valley, which is just unbelievably beautiful, and of course the wine, and I like Burgundy quite a lot too. I could keep adding, but I better stop...