LE REPAS DU DIMANCHE, THE SUNDAY MEAL
Weekends in Brittany, which happen, unfortunately, only about once a year, never often enough, are always calm and cozy, among friends, filled with news and laughter, simple cooking and delicious meals.
We always stay with our good friends Isabelle and Dominique (with the smiling face of Clementine, their daughter, never too far, the sound of her accordion music welcoming us back). Martin, their son, is off in the wilds of Austen, Texas for 6 months learning how to be Texan, fast and furious, still astonished to see how many Americans actually do wear Stetsons and cowboy boots à la Dallas et J.R. Ewing, and experiencing the joys of the true Texan Barbecue.
I first met Dominique and Isabelle on my honeymoon. Married on a Thursday morning and JP had to be at work on the following Monday, poor as dirt and just happy to be together, he decided to take me to Brest for the long weekend. We stayed with these new friends, happy to have us in their home, helping me along patiently with my broken French and difficulty following any conversation. The whole group of friends slipped into yellow rain gear and life preservers and was whisked out in a motorized dinghy for a picnic on wind-blown Ile Molène. Freshly caught and steamed crabs and clams, walks on the beach and walks on the harbor, good food, good friends and it has been that way ever since (although I do like to think that my French has improved somewhat). Wild, windy, and beautiful, rocky coasts and fishing boats, the ancient and the modern side by side, hand in hand, Brittany is an amazing region full of hardy, good, generous people, proud of their birth.
And this time around was no different. We packed our suitcases, kissed Marty goodbye, and headed north towards the heart of Brittany, the land of seafood, crêpes and bigouden.
First stop, La Roche-Bernard and L’Auberge Bretonne, a beautiful inn and the restaurant of chef Jacques Thorel, proud bearer of 2 Michelin stars, preparing a classic Cuisine Bretonne, gastronomic and modern. We arrived in time to wash up and head straight for the dining room, anxious to finally savor the cuisine of this Grand Chef.
We both ordered the Spring Menu and slowly wended our way through each course, from his famous Truffled Sea Scallop poached in a light Asparagus Broth to the Rabbit in a Morel Cream Sauce with an emulsion of yellow wine, the magic of his cooking apparent in every bite. Dish by dish, we were more and more astonished what this chef was able to do with the simplest, freshest ingredients, clean, pure flavors mingling just so on the tongue, growing and changing with each mouthful. The meal ended with Le Grand Délice de Solange, Solange’s Great Delight, Chef Thorel’s wife’s special selection of desserts. We expected a plate with a few bites of different desserts and instead were astonished when 3 entire desserts were placed in front of each of us: the perfect Soufflé of Caramelized Apples, a “Cappuccino of Fleur de Lait”, milk whipped and frothed light as air with perfect summer strawberries folded in, and finally a Miroir au chocolat, a thick layer of dark chocolate cracking under the spoon revealing a layer of rich, gooey caramel underneath.
Happy, contented and tummies full, we went to our lovely room and to sleep.
Next day, off to Brest. Dominique had 2 illuminated abstract paintings being exposed at the Fine Arts Museum in Brest for La Nuit des Musées (The Night of the Museums) and we absolutely wanted to attend the event and see his latest work. The rest of the weekend we hung out (typical rainy Brest weather), visited a tiny bit of the city (mainly the bookstore, as it was raining) and caught up with Dominique, Isabelle and our friends Martine and Gildas.
And, as they usually do, Dominique and Isabelle cooked.
LA PINTADE DU DIMANCHE
The Guinea-Fowl cooked for Sunday Lunch
Dominique prepared a beautiful guinea fowl in his magic Terra Cotta bird cooker (as I call it). Clean, simple and healthy, the bird sits atop and is stuffed with peeled and sliced vegetables; fennel, carrots, potatoes, zucchini. No grease or fat, a sprinkling of salt and a grinding of pepper and the top is nestled carefully atop that baby, popped into the oven and out it comes, moist, juicy, flavorful and perfect! Served with her vegetables and the released juices, of course.
And Isabelle had bought some beautiful strawberries: Brittany is famous for her strawberries, sweet, juicy and ripe, and she decided to make a Vacherin for dessert. A Vacherin is a frozen dessert made of eggs, whipped cream and sugar and enriched with crispy meringue. Her version was simple to make and wonderfully delicious.
4 eggs, separated
300 g/ 300 ml (about 1 1/3 cups) heavy whipping cream, well chilled
100 g (about 4 oz) powdered sugar or to taste
Meringues (Isabelle had bought 3 large, super huge vanilla meringues at her local boulangerie)
Strawberries, cleaned and sliced
Clementine had a bottle of Saskatoon Berry Syrup from Canada, so we decided to toss the strawberry slices with a couple of tablespoons of this thick, sweet, fruity syrup.
Separate the eggs. Beat the egg yolks until thick and pale in color.
Beat the cream until soft peaks form, then gradually beat in all of the powdered sugar accept a tablespoon or two, and continue beating until the cream is thick and stiff peaks hold.
Fold the sweetened whipped cream into the beaten yolks.
Beat the egg whites, gradually beating in the remaining powdered sugar, until stiff peaks hold.
Fold the whites into the yolk/cream mixture, blending thoroughly yet carefully.
Crush the meringues into bite-sized pieces.
In a large bowl, glass loaf/terrine dish or any large mold that will go in the freezer, make layers of the cream mixture, the broken meringues pieces and the sliced strawberries, ending with meringue and then berries.
Place the bowl in the freezer for at least several hours, all day if possible.
The Vacherin is delicious, lighter and creamier than a classic ice cream with the pleasant crunch of the meringues in each mouthful. Our only mistake was layering in the sliced strawberries; the berries froze more than the ice cream and didn’t thaw. Next time I make this dessert I will drizzle melted chocolate over each layer of the meringue pieces to form a thin layer of crispy chocolate that will crack as you dig into the Vacherin with your spoon, and I will serve the strawberries separately, spooning the freshly sliced berries onto each bowl as served.
We had a wonderful time with our friends. It was just too bad that we didn’t stay long enough to have lunch at La Crêperie Moderne, or Moules Frites (mussels with French fries) at our favorite place near the aquarium. We’ll just have to go back again soon.
(A special shout out to all our friends, Dominique, Isabelle, Martine and Gildas, along with Clementine soon on summer vacation, Martin at the University of Texas at Austen, and Isabelle’s friends Delphine and Jean who live in Plougastel where the best strawberries in Europe are grown)