The celebratory dinner hosted by the French ambassador Florence Jeanblanc-Risler in Wellington on Monday night (21/3/16) was everything I love about French dining. Beginning with an aperitif and polite conversation, we moved to tables graciously set with a regiment of silver, and proceeded to work our way through an elegant procession of dishes representing the best of French cuisine.
The occasion was the launch of Goût de France, an annual event (now in its second year) that celebrates French gastronomy in various restaurants worldwide. It’s all about honouring the legacy of the greats – we toasted Carême, Escoffier, Vatel, Brillat-Savarin – and recognising the techniques and ingredients that remain the backbone of contemporary French cuisine.
In New Zealand eight restaurants are combining local ingredients with French inspired recipes this week (commencing 21/3/16) – Hippopotamus, Jano Bistro and Whitebait in Wellington. Bracken in Dunedin. Hopgood’s in Nelson, Kazuya and The Grove in Auckland, and Pacifica in Napier.
Each will bring their own style to the event. The Wellington menu was fairly traditional, as befits an embassy occasion. The ambassador’s chef Fabien Le Gall worked with former embassy chef Veronique Sauzeau (now Le Marché Francais) and Laurent Loudeac (Hippopotamus Restaurant) on a six course menu beginning with consommé and ending with chocolat. French and New Zealand wines accompanied each course.
Laurent’s signature dish of Aoraki salmon served trois façons (ie, confit, tartare and wood smoked) was followed by a classic pot au feu (tenderly poached filet de boeuf in bouillon with ‘forgotten’ vegetables and a dash of truffle oil). It came with toasted walnut bread that was slathered with bone marrow and salt crystals – it was the perfect rustic counterpoint to the refined bouillon and I confess I had to dunk it. Discreetly, I think.
The dessert was a degustation of chocolate – crowned for me by a dark chocolat ganache with a sliver of candied orange peel.
The cheese course was magnificent: an oven baked Mont d’Or with sautéed oyster mushrooms and crispy fried parsley to garnish.
We broke through the crust and took it in turns to spoon the melted cheese on to our plates. It was unctuous. No one does cheese like the French. Ripe and savoury, sensual, sophisticated – it was un vrai goût de France.