I am leaving for France tomorrow, which has me dreaming of carrots. On a visit to the Loire Valley some years ago, I stayed at a 19th-century water mill turned country hotel. The resident chef at Le Moulin Bregeon, Pascal, prepared carrots which were so spectacularly delicious it entirely changed my view of carrots.
They were sautéed in butter, of course, and sprinkled with fresh herbs, cooked to perfect tenderness and richly caramelized. I had never tasted a carrot like that: A taste so robust and, well, carroty, it was as if these were direct descendants of the world’s first carrot, the perfect specimen before humans started messing around with the air, water, soil and so on.
I asked Chef Pascal, who comes from the Périgord region of France, what makes them so delicious, how are they prepared? He paused a moment, his dark eyes intent, and then said, “simple,” making a quick outward gesture with his hands. The French “simple,” is pronounced differently (rhymes with psalm) and I understood his meaning to be with simplicity, rather than easily. When asked to elaborate, he added, “au beurre et à l’ail,” with butter and garlic. Again, he made the hand gesture. Simple.
There had to be more. With further prodding, Pascal explained the cooking process: the carrots are simmered until the water evaporates, leaving them to brown and caramelize in the butter. I took the simple secret home with me, if not the French carrots, and great attempts were made to replicate Pascal’s carrots. And they were good, delicious even, but never the same.
I understand that amazing food is all about the ingredients: Pascal’s carrots were grown in the gardens at Le Moulin, and the herbs snipped from a terra cotta pot outside the kitchen door. French butter also has a different flavour. Is there something more? I like to imagine the French are keeping culinary secrets from the rest of us. Recipes handed down, like heirloom silver. Six-year-olds on stools at the stove learning a unique flourish of the sauté pan. Or is it truly just simple, but simple in a way that is uniquely French?
I also wonder if everything I ate in France was really that incredible or do I have gastro-nesia: the ability to remember only the most delicious moments? I know I am excited to return to France to find out.
I will be posting lots of photos and video stories on my Instagram while in France. Please follows along!