the new mexican gastronomy

IMG_2820When chef Enrique Olvera opened Pujol in Mexico City’s upscale Polanco neighborhood almost 14 years ago, the budget was so small that his wife had to paint the walls. Things have changed at what is now widely considered Mexico’s best restaurant, with its platoon of 27 cooks. The subtly lit interior is like a fine suit: understated and elegant. Service is hushed and artful – if just a bit quirky – so you can focus the food. One of the leading exponents of new Mexican gastronomy, Olvera is deeply immersed in his cultural legacy. Dried insects feature heavily, like in the elotitos tatemados, a take on Mexican street food: smoked baby corn glazed with coffee mayonnaise and dusted in salty ant powder. Brilliantly served in a hollowed out gourd, it’s an addictive umami snack. In a minimalist version of the salad course, acidity and herbal freshness are explored in foraged wild greens, pinon, and native seasonings. Olvera continuously re-invents traditional dishes and their presentation—you might not recognize something as a flauta, a taco, or a tamale, but with an artist’s flair for combining regional ingredients and modern techniques Olvera lays a foundation and builds on it to create something new. If Pujol is any indication of how sophisticated (yet wholly unpretentious) fine-dining in Mexico can be, I’m in for a whole lot of sensory overload.

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escamoles

escamolesOur perception of Mexican food has been blighted by years of overstuffed burritos, nacho pyramids, and a scourge of chimichangas and fajitas. Yet authentic Mexican cuisine is a fusion of indigenous MesoAmerican staples like corn, squash, and chiles, influenced by the domesticated meats and cooking techniques of the (primarily) Spanish occupation. It’s one of the world’s great cuisines, holding it’s own against both France and China in my humble opinion. (Don’t believe me? Try your hand at making one of the complex regional moles.)  To a large degree that’s what part of this week in Mexico is about: tasting traditions old and new. Like escamoles, or ant larvae – a dish native to Central Mexico and considered a delicacy by the Aztecs. Insect caviar, if you will. As far as traditional foods go, it’s a lot better than it sounds. The light-colored eggs, harvested from the agave plant, resemble pine nuts and have a slightly nutty taste. Often pan-fried with butter and spices, escamoles can be found in tacos, eaten with chips and guacamole, or here at El Cardenal, turned into a no-pun-intended Spanish omelette.

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the five foods you can eat with your fingers in france

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côté mas (in the kitchen with taïchi)

beef tatakiThe daily menu at Côté Mas is short, seasonal and mostly locally sourced. San Miguel cured ham is sliced to order on an antique slicing machine; Aveyron beef and lamb are cooked Mediterranean-style and served with garden vegetables; desserts, such as Ile Flottante, are all contemporary takes on French classics. The surprise comes in the subtle use of Asian ingredients, such as in tuna tataki, marinated with garden herbs and served with black radish, wasabi spaghetti, soy jelly and yuzu. The reasoning becomes clear as soon as you notice Taïchi Megurikami leading the kitchen. A Japanese chef at the helm has long been part of proprietor Jean-Claude Mas’ plan. “They will take something as inspiration and make it better,” he says. “They will create something sublime.” Like spheres of duck foie gras with very three distinct flavors: soy sauce, honey, and red mulled wine. Then again such an unorthodox approach to French cooking is in keeping with Mas’ attitude towards making wine, full of the spicy, new world aromas and flavors of the Languedoc.

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tête de veau

tete a veauTête de veau is one of those delicacies you don’t find outside of France too often. (and when you do it’s more often than not something best skipped.) As the name implies it’s the head of a veal calf: boiled, braised, and roasted until the meltingly tender flesh literally falls from the skull. Often the meat is then moulded into a terrine and sliced before frying, so you get that idyllic interplay of a crispy exterior enrobing a layer of buttery soft veal. At Restaurant l’Entre Pots in Pezenas they take it further, pairing the tête with grilled squid, which mirrors the texture of the terrine and manages to create a complex dish that tastes of both land and sea.

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a town built on cheese

roquefortRoquefort – both cheese and town – owes its success to a natural disaster. A series of landslides in the plateau some million or so years ago left behind a chaotic heap of rocks riddled with fissures and natural caves, which were ingeniously adapted into cellars for the purpose of making cheese. These cellars lie at the tip of fleurines, or long faults that channel the air flow, creating a constant temperature and humidity year round. (At Societe des Caves – the oldest and largest producer of Roquefort in town – the cellars go eleven stories deep, with fleurines on every level.) To make this King of cheeses, fresh ewes milk is mixed with penicillium roqueforti spores at the dairy and the resulting curds are shaped into large rounds. Before heading to the cellar, each round is needled to create small cavities, allowing for aeration. Deep underground, the cheese is dusted with salt and left to ripen in the bare caves. And here’s where the fleurines works their magic, fostering the growth of microorganisms like the penicillium roqueforti as well as other naturally occurring flora, which slowly ferment the cheese from the inside out, raising its temperature and causing the salt to melt and penetrate down into the cheese. Once ripened, the rounds are wrapped in tin foil by cabanieres, aka “the ladies who wrap the cheese,” and left to mature. Between affinage and maturity, the entire process can take up to twelve months, and the result, if you’ve ever tried real Roquefort, is a uniquely complex and creamy cheese. Little wonder then that Charles VI granted the inhabitants of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon the monopoly on cheese ripening and turned the cellars into a protected landmark. There’s gold in them there fleurines. And it’s blue.

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cassole/cassoulet

cassouletIf you’ve read this blog for a while you’ll know that cassoulet ranks as something of a minor obsession of mine. Named for its traditional cooking vessel, the cassole, a deep, round earthenware pot characterized by slanting sides, this rich, slow-cooked, casserole of meat and beans has its origins in Languedoc. Especially the towns of Toulouse, Carcassonne, and Castelnaudary, which each claim ownership of the dish and invoke minor variations on what is essentially a peasant stew assembled out of leftovers: Toulouse substitutes a local garlicky saucisson, while Castelnaudary trades duck confit for the more traditional mutton, and in Carcassonne, as I learned onboard le bateau yesterday, duck gets replaced with partridge. In the end it’s six of one: all are made with white beans, confit, sausage, and additional meats. And all soothe the soul on a cold winter’s evening like good comfort food is supposed to do. The only hitch yesterday was the weather. A heavy stew isn’t quite as inviting when the thermometer inches up into the 80’s. Not that I let that stop me.cassole

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canal du midi, or all aboard le bateau

bateauxThe Canal du Midi is considered one of greatest construction works of the 17th century. It spans 150 miles from the city of Toulouse to Lake Thau, near the Mediterranean, and links with the Canal de Garonne to join the Atlantic Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea in a grand feat of imperial engineering. Curiously the canal never quite lived up to its intended purpose, which was to transport goods on barges pulled along by horses. The arrival of the railroad put paid to that. Now used primarily for recreation and river tourism, the towpaths make for particularly good bike lanes. Today, I boarded a private barge in Carcassonne – not the one pictured above, thank you very much – and spent a few languorous hours cruising through the double leaf locks at a snail’s pace. The wine flowed freely, a memorable lunch was served (more on that later), and plane trees framed every idyllic view. Though the manual opening of the sluices and lock gates has long ago been replaced by electrification, the collection of tolls remains refreshingly antediluvian: each lock has its own local keeper, who won’t let you pass until you pay up.

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spoils of war

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the stir at la scene

IMG_2268Chef Stephanie le Quellec is causing quite the stir at La Scene, her debut Paris boite inside the newly reopened Hotel Prince des Galles on Avenue George V. The first female winner of Top Chef France, Quellec is no shrinking violet – neither while commanding her small staff in a pristine open plan kitchen, nor when it come to composing multi-textured, intensely flavored plates. (This is France after all: to be taken seriously as a upper-echelon female chef one must engage in a bit of bark as well as bite.) Embracing the farm-to-table ethos of her native Provence and the current trend for responsible sourcing, as well as employment of methode ancienne, Quellec has created a fine dining experience that’s altogether familiar yet radically new at once. Pearl oysters are simply opened, paired with a fragrant matcha foam, white beans and nori; blue lobster from Normandy is roasted and succulent, with chanterelle, juicy apricots, and a silky sauce of old mimolette; sweetbreads so inviting that I blanched and forget take a photo, supple and toothsome, paired with golden apples, white asparagus, and a mousseline of dates; parfait of verbena: crisply herbaceous, with cherry and fluffy egg white presented with an artistic flourish. The tablecloths at La Scene may be starched, but the food – generous and sensual – is most definitely not. Let’s hope Quellec is at the forefront of a new gastronomic trend. I’d call it the new nouveau.IMG_2272

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food crush

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prelude to a kiss

IMG_2239Across the road from The French Laundry is what appears at first glance to be a public park. On closer inspection, however, it reveals itself as the restaurant’s extensive chef’s garden. Interestingly, it’s neither gated nor guarded, giving anyone and everyone free rein to roam the planted beds and see what a handful of lucky diners might be feasting on that evening. Tonight, one of those lucky diners is me – turning my early evening stumble into a serendipitous aperitif.

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in the garden with cindy

IMG_2224Chef Cindy Pawlcyn is one of the original Napa Valley trailblazers. On the eve of her pioneering eatery Mustard’s Grill celebrating it’s 30th anniversary of dishing up heaping plates of honest American fare with worldly sophistication, she took time out to take me through her gardens and sound off on what it’s like for a one-time hippie to suddenly find herself part of the establishment, the importance of educating diners about what’s on their plates, and why she can’t stand reality shows like Top Chef. Alas, you’ll have to wait until the story is published later this year; I can’t give away everything here for free.

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i am going to the laundry, i am so glad

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big gay road trip

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