Daily Maverick: France conquers the world, for a week

Daily-Maverick-poulet-et-champignons-savoury-galette-at-swan-by-bianca-coleman

Daily Maverick: France conquers the world, for a week

The Daily Maverick on Swan Café featuring in the international French food festival, Goût de France.

Goût de France – or Good France, if you wish not to murder their beautiful language – was begun by the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs and chef Alain Ducasse, inspired by Auguste Escoffier, who in turn launched the Dîners d’Épicure initiative in 1912. It’s time to book your table, tout de suite.

Bonjour, bonsoir, and bon appetit – next week the entire world will be celebrating French cuisine as part of the annual Goût de France, a gourmet festival of thousands of dinners, lunches, picnics, banquets and balls à la Française on five continents.

While this heady mix gives us permission to indulge in fabulous food, this year’s event also places a focus on socially and environmentally responsible cuisine; for example, on 22 March, UNESCO will host an international conference on good food for consumers’ health and sustainable regional development.

“South Africa is number eight on the list globally in terms of the number of restaurants involved in Good France 2019, which says a lot about South Africa’s appreciation for French gastronomy and French culture,” says French Ambassador Christophe Farnaud.

“It also shows how open South Africans are to new experiences and culinary adventures, and reflects the strong relationship between France and South Africa, especially in terms of gastronomy, culture and wine.”

Restaurants, hotels and chefs are invited to participate, says Farnaud.

“The only criterion is that the restaurant serves a French meal on one or more days during the week. We have never turned away any participants. The more the merrier!”

Goût de France – or Good France, if you wish not to murder their beautiful language – was begun by the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs and chef Alain Ducasse, inspired by Auguste Escoffier, who in turn launched the Dîners d’Épicure initiative in 1912: the same menu, on the same day, in several world cities, for as many guests as possible.

“French cuisine is present around the world because it offers without imposing. That’s what gives it its strength and influence,” says Ducasse. He also famously said: “Desserts are like mistresses. They are bad for you. So if you are having one, you might as well have two.” But that’s a story for another day.

The region of Provence will be in the spotlight for 2019 and will be showcased during the events. The actual main day is March 21, but many local participating restaurants will be offering their menus or specialties for as long as the whole week.

Swan Cafe in Cape Town, for example, embraces everything French, every day.

Open for just 10 months, it’s owned by French-born and raised Jessica Rushmere, and here you will find food prepared in true French style.

Poulet et Champignons Savoury Galette shown off at Swan Cafe (image above)
Jessica is a former international model who previously owned La Petite Tarte in De Waterkant for many years. “I love to create an experience, with great attention to detail, from the food to the service to greeting in French,” she says. “I want to give that to people who have never been to Paris, and who dream of France.”

The menu includes paper thin sweet crêpes and savoury galettes, made with gluten-free buckwheat flour, as well as “Sexy Salads”.

Expect the abundance of butter and cream so lovingly associated with French cuisine, and which doesn’t result in a nation of obese citizens. There are plenty of theories about this, and books have been written, including the bestseller French Women Don’t Get Fat: The Secret of Eating For Pleasure by Mireille Guiliano, published in 2004.

Even with all the breads and pastries, wine, and never missing a meal, the French generally manage to remain trim. How do they do it? By exercising moderation, taking their time and enjoying a leisurely lunch or dinner.

“They always leave something on the plate,” says Peter Weetman, owner of Societi Bistro. “And they often take a walk after eating, to get the digestion going.”

Societi Bistro has always been heavily influenced by French and Italian food.

“It’s such a huge honour for us to be involved with this, and to be recognised by the embassy,” says Peter. “I love their lifestyle and love their food, and it’s the opportunity to showcase what it is we do here; it goes back to the thing we’ve always done – a bit of armchair travel. You can be sitting here and you could just as easily be sitting somewhere in France.”

Bouillabaisse at Societi Bistro.
They’ve gone mostly a very traditional route with their menu, which will be available all week from 18 March 18 until 23 March, and paired with South African wines. As with any special menu here, you are not beholden to work your way through it from beginning to end, but are invited to dip in and out at will. Dishes include salade Lyonnaise with endive, bacon lardons, poached egg, and chicken liver vinaigrette; bouilabaisse, bœuf bourguignon made with brisket, red wine, bacon and mashed potato (“a stunning dish as we ease into autumn, and reminiscent of our very own Tony Jackman’s namesake lamb shank which you find here in winter”); and tuna Bordelaise with bone marrow, carrots, tomato and pearl onions. A chilled glass of Hartenberg Shiraz is recommended as an accompaniment to this more unusual dish which plays to the gamey characteristics of this fish.

For dessert, there will be a platter of locally made French-style cheese, and/or the best Paris-Brest this side of the Seine. Societi Bistro tests every dish extensively before making it available to its guests, sending it back to the kitchen to be refined as many times as necessary to reach the exacting standards demanded. The delicate choux pastry filled with praline crème patisserie is no exception and I can personally vouch for it after smashing one in my face earlier this week in the name of research.

The arduous job continued at Sotano On Bree, where a five-course menu plus a glass of Rose and a delicious Blanc Cassis aperitif (Morgenster Vermintino with Chambord), will be available all week for R350 a person. Chef Russel Jalil has done a fabulous job from the delicate amuse bouche of petite pissaladiere (miniature flatbeads with sweet caramelised onions, olives and anchovy) all the way through the delectably sweet and juice poire tatin (pear tart) with vanilla ice cream – a symphony of exquisite simplicity bursting with clean flavours.

Poire Tatin at Sotano on Bree.
In between is brandade de poisson with mousse a la moutarde (fish, mashed potatoes and LOTS of garlic which never overpowers, with mustard). The main course, or plat principal, is confit de carnard a la Provençal with pomme puree et demi glace – confit duck, silky smooth mashed potatoes, colourfully pretty vegetables, and a rich brown sauce.

Everything sounds so much better in French, or at the very least, in a French accent.

Franck Dangereux of Food Barn in Noordehoek says his menu is a very traditional offering: “The reason for my choice is simple – Provençal food is so delicious in its simplicity….no froth or clever tricks…just good ingredients cooked with love.”

Serving from March 19 till 23, the menu begins with kir au cassis, beignets de brandade et olives (white wine and cassis, brandade fritters and olives), followed by raviole de ratatouille et fromage frais, petit mesclun et beurre au basilic (ratatouille and ricotta ravioli, tender leaves, basil butter sauce); navarin d’agneau, pomme purée (Provençal lamb stew with crunchy young vegetables and buttered mash); croquette de chèvre de Pépé et prune (goats cheese fritter with plum); and finishing with pêche melba (lightly poached peach, raspberry sauce, vanilla ice cream). The five-course menu with wine pairings is R450.

Bouchon Bistro in the heart of the Cape Town CBD is unique in that it’s also home to a tiny winery and tasting room. Yes, Dorrance wines are made right there, in a cellar adjacent to the bistro, which has a suitably moody atmosphere to make you forget where you are. The set menu here will be served on the evening of March 21, but do hurry and book as the first night is already sold out.

The entrée choices are soupe à l’oignon or assiette de charcuterie, followed by a main course of boeuf bourguignon or moules frites, and assiette de fromages. for dessert there will be crème brûlée or tarte tatin. The cost is R350 a person, and if you’ve reached this point of the story, hopefully you don’t need the English translations of these classic dishes.

“Good France 2019 is an international celebration of French gastronomy. We would like people to join us in celebrating the French lifestyle or art de vivre,” says Farnaud.

“South African restaurants have so much to offer and through this project we hope to provide some exposure to the great culinary talent in South Africa.” DM

Photography & words: Bianca Coleman

Originally published on dailymaverick.co.za, 15 March 2019.