Editor’s Note: This past May I had the pleasure of teaching a Travel, Food and Wine Writing Class in Provence for The Writer’s Workshop. During the class, the students experienced the magic of Provence: wonderful restaurants like Maison Drouot in St. Remy de Provence , fabulous wineries like Domaine de la Mourchon and fascinating historic sites like the St. Paul de Mausole mental hospital where Vincent Van Gogh painted The Starry Night. I’ll be sharing the stories they wrote over the next few weeks, exploring the beauty, history, food and wine culture of this amazing place. I’ll be teaching a similar course in Rioja, Spain this spring (May 21-27): http://www.thewritersworkshop.net/classes/travel-writing-classes/.
By Maia Eisen
“Foam is so over back home,” pronounced the woman seated on my left at the highly-rated Maison Drouot restaurant in St. Remy, Provence, France.
“Foam?” I peered down at the dainty little abstract-art composition centered on the over-sized plate the waiter had just set down in front of me with a flourish.
I was feeling thoroughly out of my element as part of a group of ten people participating in a Food, Wine, and Travel Writing workshop taking place in the small Provençal town of Vaison la Romaine. Our group included two certified sommeliers and a professional nouvelle-cuisine chef. My wine palette had two perceptions: “nice” and “hmm.” When dining out at home, I chose a menu that included Pho noodle soup rather than lemon condiment courgette. I wondered how I was going to learn the lingo to write about this food. I could at least draw on my skills as a landscape designer and garden writer to appreciate what lay on my plate from a visual perspective.
The first course, the entirety of which would have fit on a tablespoon, bore the humorous French term, amuse-bouche – something to amuse the mouth, or in other words, merely awake the taste buds. The amuse-bouche, made to appear even smaller by being served in a very over-sized bowl, consisted of a few bites of octopus tentacles cuddled against a rounded spoonful of creamy-smooth, green asparagus mousse. The bowl was deep and matte black; the octopus looked a long way down inside it. Perhaps the chef intended one to feel that the octopus was at the bottom of the sea?
Then our second course arrived, a composition in salmon, magenta and green - a harmony of secondary colors. On the large white plate a thumb-sized chunk of nearly raw salmon rested beside a deep-magenta, demitasse-cup-sized puddle of pureed beet. Artfully placed on and around the magenta puddle lay two or three pale coins of parsnip, one slim slice of grilled avocado with toast-brown lines striping its sides, two minute, green chard leaves with magenta veins, and two small blobs of the foam in question. I was informed that it was “dill foam,” but it looked like teaspoonfuls of bright green bubble bath. Lovely to look at, but how could these tiny portions possibly fill my tummy? I grabbed a roll from the basket, ate it quickly, then grabbed a second, enfolding it discretely in my left hand so as not to appear too gauche.
After the salmon, the main course arrived. Again, it was a visual delight, with some very finely pureed substance formed an integral part of the composition. This time it was pureed celery root. I was beginning to wonder why every course included a part that could be eaten toothless.
The main component of the main course – two slabs of very fatty, very pink pork – however, definitely required teeth. As did the deliciously salty garnish of chopped black olives and hazelnuts forming a ring of black and brown dots around the pink pork and the puddle of cream-colored puree. Something called “braised gem lettuce,” which resembled half of a Lilliputian romaine, added a dash of green, and a nice crunch. Glancing around to see if anyone was looking, I tore off pieces of my secret roll as I ate, mopping up the puddles.
I stuffed the last of the roll in my mouth just before the dessert arrived – a four-layer concoction on a coconut theme. The foundation layer was a crunchy, toasted coconut crumble. Then came two versions of super-smooth textures: a rounded scoop of white coconut sorbet, topped with a schmear of white coconut mousse. It was all dusted with fresh white coconut shavings. I found the cold sorbet refreshing; the mousse, by contrast, had a slightly sticky texture, like uncooked meringue.
When the meal was over, I stood up, brushing bread crumbs off my lap. Much to my surprise, I was seriously full. Groaning my way back to our bus, I realized that, as with so much else in life, appearances can be deceiving – all those small portions added up to a much bigger meal than I'd expected. I resolved to skip the rolls at our next meal. But I had to agree with my fellow writer – foam might have been a funny fad, but it did not amuse my bouche.