Twenty-four years ago we experienced a month of July so similar to this one. It rained and it rained and it rained. Every single day. I was desperate and disheartened for I was planning my wedding. I had visions of disaster, rushing through a downpour to get to City Hall and arriving there drenched. No lovely bride in a flowing white dress, hair perfectly coiffed, gorgeous bouquet of roses and lavender would stroll into the Grande Salle to be joined to her dashing Frenchman. No, I saw ruined shoes, the beautiful violet suede matted and smeared. I could almost feel the silky material of my coat soaked through and bunched up in an unattractive mess, the uncomfortable dampness clinging to my skin. I was horrified at the thought of my masses of thick, curly hair frizzing up into a great black billowing puff around my head, the size of a mushroom cloud, framing a face flushed and splotchy.
Yet I woke up bright and early on that long ago July 23rd to a magical, bright Thursday morning. I allowed the sun to pull me out of bed, an ersatz mother of the bride come to awaken me. We were to be there at 11:00 sharp in that grand golden room, married in the rays of light filtering through the windows. Laughter filled the streets as we, a mere handful of family and friends I had never before met, walked, danced, trotted happily in the warmth of a midsummer day, weather fit for a bride, worthy a marriage day. As I walked alongside my soon-to-be husband, I glanced up at the sky in awe and wondered how I could have been so lucky as to deserve the one sunny day an entire month had to offer. How could I have foreseen this break in the weather those weeks ago when I had stood at the counter in the dark office of City Hall and selected a date to be wed? Luck or destiny or just a mere whim of nature, I have ever appreciated and never forgotten this gift.
Twenty-four years later and the same July, the same grayness has hung over the city for weeks like a shroud, the same rain spattering down angrily day after day. As my wedding anniversary approached, the same miserable thoughts flit through my head, the same dejection colored our plans. Although no ceremony was planned, no invited guests or fancy outfits to be ruined by a downpour, nonetheless, we were in the mood for festivities. A few days before the date, JP asked, mischievous grin playing on his lips, if I wouldn’t enjoy an anniversary lunch at La Mare aux Oiseaux. He suggested we make a day of it: a drive out to the country, a stroll through Le Jardin du Marais and lunch at this much-talked-about one-star restaurant in the middle of the marais, La Grande Brière, the marshland to the west of Nantes. Now I had long dreamed of eating at La Mare aux Oiseaux ever since I had attended last year’s Les Goûts Uniques and seen the young, talented chef demonstrate not only his talents, but his passion, his philosophy. And a garden? I would have to give him that if he was to bring me to this great gastronomic lieu.
But it was raining and raining every day. We had already been so lucky as to have a break in the weather for our bike trip. Who was I to tempt the forces of nature, to dare request benevolence twice? Each time the sun had broken through the clouds or we had awoken to luminous, blue skies, as soon as we had slipped on our shoes and stepped outside, the gray came rumbling in, clouds dark in anger at our brazen assumption that the day was ours to trifle with as we pleased. And it would begin, once again, to rain. Yet that Saturday morning broke brilliant, a radiant sun wishing us great joy and promising a glorious anniversary day.
As you know, I rarely do restaurant reviews, but La Mare aux Oiseaux was everything we had imagined and deserves to be talked about. Tastefully decorated in cream and chocolate with touches of jade reflecting Chef Eric Guérin’s passion for nature, the dining room was at once bright and airy, subtle and calming. The staff was young, friendly, knowledgeable, accessible and professional, the perfect balance not often found in restaurants of this caliber; there was nothing staid or invasive, no hovering or condescension. The dishes arrived one after the other, each astonishing in their presentation, but this we expect nowadays in a starred restaurant. But each mouthful startled and amazed; the selection of ingredients is at once clean, sharp, natural in its simplicity yet the combination of flavors was utterly astounding, spectacular, completely uncomplicated yet abounding in creativity and imagination, showing both thought and ease. Who would ever have expected the cheese course to be a luscious combination of mascarpone and Forme d’Ambert blue cheese sandwiched in between paper-thin layers of white chocolate crowned with a dusting of truffle? There is absolutely nothing chi-chi about Chef Guérin’s cuisine; his is based not on some trendy mélange of spices or herbal concoctions, there are no puddles, foams or beads of unrecognizable contrivances. Rather he turns to the beauty of nature blended elegantly with his artistic bent. Although each dish surprises, nothing shocks, nothing jars in discord. Whether a dish is traditional or absolutely contemporary, his food, the combination of ingredients is understandable, showing an absolute respect for nature and a search for the best products she has to offer and combining those ingredients to bring out and highlight each. Truly one of the best meals either one of us has ever eaten. (Chef Guérin's menus can be found here and photos of a selection of dishes here)
A perfect lunch to celebrate, we left entirely content, brimming over with compliments for the young chef and his staff, enamored of his cuisine and even promising ourselves to return for a romantic dinner and a night in his small hotel upstairs from the dining room. We even discussed the possibility of bringing Clem and Simon for a family lunch. That’s how much we loved it.
But the day was not yet over. Barely 3:00, we strolled through the village and along the water’s edge as our meal settled, not wanting to hop straight into the car and drive away, savoring the flavors that lingered on our lips and the wonderful experience. The sun was now blazing and we slipped off our coats as we walked hand in hand, enjoying the picture-postcard quaintness of the thatched roofs of the homes huddled together looking for all the world as Breton as they were. We finally headed back to the car and off in search of our next stop, le Jardin du Marais.
Nestled in the marshy zone of the Grande Brière outside of Nantes, the vegetable and ornamental gardens of Yves and Annick Gillen are certainly a sight to behold and a must to visit. Fervent environmental activists, they began their completely organic gardens and self-sustained, natural lifestyle over twenty-five years ago. This passionate couple live not to control nature, but to live in rhythm with it, respecting it and its forces. Energized by solar panels, windmill and zeal, they plant, tend, create in a space dense and green where nature reigns, coaxing up peaches, apples, lettuce, beans, tomatoes, roses and hydrangeas from the earth in joyful union. We spent a delightful, informative and incredibly inspiring afternoon with Yves as he led us and about twenty other souls through the different areas of the garden, soaking up every word with relish as he explains in his spitfire fashion, arms waving, eyes glinting, how everything works, the organic way to garden and to live, how we all, working together, can better the world. His passion and excitement ooze out of his every pore and we are swept away, his humor and emotions infectious. We finally duck out just before the talk on compost in order to dash home to Marty who had been home alone all day.
All in all, it was a perfect 24th wedding anniversary and we were happy, tired and well pleased with the entire day. And thrilled that the weather had been so kind to us, a gentle yet well-appreciated gift from the heavens.
And a little, tender gift to my husband who has stuck by me through thick and thin, taking the brunt of the worries on his slender shoulders. In exchange, I try and make him laugh everyday and bake for him as often as I can before he cries “Uncle!” 24 years and counting: I swore to him that we still had at least 30 more together.
J'ai apporté du lilas
J'en apporte toutes les semaines
Madeleine elle aime bien ça
Ce soir j'attends Madeleine
On prendra le tram trente-trois
Pour manger des frites chez Eugène
Madeleine elle aime tant ça
Madeleine c'est mon Noël
C'est mon Amérique à moi
Même qu'elle est trop bien pour moi
Comme dit son cousin Joël
Ce soir j'attends Madeleine
On ira au cinéma
Je lui dirai des "je t'aime"
Madeleine elle aime tant ça
(nota bene: Although the sun was shining on that long-ago wedding day, the breeze warm and gentle and not a drop of humidity was to be felt, the bride’s hair did indeed frizz up into a great black billowing puff around her head, alas, much to her chagrin.)
La Mare Aux Oiseaux, Parc National de Brière - 162, Île de Fedrun
44720 Saint Joachim FR - Tél. +33 (0)2 40 88 53 01
Le Jardin du Marais, Hoscas - 44410 Herbignac Tél : 02 40 91 47 44
Open from mid-May to mid-September/Ouverture : mi-mai à mi-septembre
HONEY VANILLA MINI MADELEINES
I have adapted this classic recipe from one in my December 2010 issue of (French) Saveurs
This recipe makes about 60 mini-Madeleines (1 ¾ - inch / 4 ½ cm at their longest point).
9 ½ Tbs (135 g) unsalted butter
2 large eggs
Scant ½ cup (1/2 cup – 1 ½ tsps / 90 g) granulated sugar
1 Tbs (30 g) liquid honey
Scant ¼ cup (1.35 fluid oz / 40 ml) milk
1 cup – 2 tsps (135 g) self-rising cake flour
1 vanilla pod
Pinch ground cardamom (optional)
Prepare the Madeleine batter the night before baking:
Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Continue heating until the butter turns a dark hazelnut brown color and smells nutty. Remove from the heat and allow to come to room temperature.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar, honey and the milk until homogenous. Using a small, thin-bladed, sharp knife, split the vanilla pod down the center and scrape out all of the seeds. Add the seeds to the batter. If you don’t have a vanilla pod, simply add about a teaspoon of liquid vanilla extract.
Sift the flour onto the batter and whisk to blend. Whisk in the melted brown butter: try not to add the dark dregs the settle to the bottom of the pan.
Cover the bowl and refrigerate overnight.
Prepare the Madeleines:
Preheat the oven to 410°F (210°C). Lightly butter the shell-shaped cavities of a mini-Madeleine mold (the easiest way to do this is using a pastry brush and either softened or melted butter).
The batter right out of the refrigerate will be thick and easy to work with: simply place about half a teaspoon (if using bigger molds, simply fill each shell no more than three-quarters full) in each shell cavity.
Place the Madeleine tin directly on the oven rack and bake for about 8 minutes. Do not overbake the Madeleine or they will be dry: take them out when puffed up and the center forms a large bump, the edges are golden but the center is still pale.
Once out of the oven, very gently lift the Madeleines from the molds using a knife and place on a rack to cool.