The fishing port of Douarnenez, on the far northern tip of Brittany, was made famous in the 19th century by its booming industry producing tins of sardines, enabling the world to enjoy the fresh taste of the sea. Local chef Gaël Ruscart uses this simple ingredient in a delicious pâté.
As one of France’s biggest ports for sardine fishing, the Finistère town of Douarnenez is inhabited by those who know how best to eat the small oily fish. The son of a fisherman, chef Gaël Ruscart remembers his parents’ advice: ‘Just fillet them, and eat them fresh and raw on bread and butter,’ he says. ‘That’s how they used to eat them.’ These days, however, chefs and home cooks are a little more ambitious with the town’s freshest catch and prefer to eat their sardines grilled on a barbecue or in a salad. ‘They just need a drizzle of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon. There’s no need to mess around with them too much.’
Yet, not all of us are lucky enough to enjoy the daily catch that lands on the Finistère coast, but a revolutionary canning technique made the town its fortune in preserving that fresh taste for a wider market. After the first conserverie (canning factory) opened in 1853, dozens more followed, and by the end of the 19th century Douarnenez’s 32 factories were supplying the world with canned sardines. These eye-catching tins, with colourful labels and designs, became the emblem of the town. Among the most famous producers is La Maison Chancerelle, which has remained in the same family for six generations and still produces canned fish under the label Connétable.
In the local shops, you’ll find dozens of varieties of sardines in different marinades and sauces – such as tomato sauce, olive oil and lemon – stacked in their neat, glossy tins. For this recipe, sardines canned simply in oil or brine are used, which, together with fresh herbs, tangy fromage frais and sharp mustard, makes an ideal topping for toasted bread or crackers. ‘It’s a little more sophisticated than how the fishermen ate them, and perfect with a drink of cider,’ says Gaël.
This warming dish of potatoes, cheese, cream and bacon, enjoyed all over the Alps, is a favourite among locals and visitors. Made with reblochon cheese, which originates in the Aravis mountain range, tartiflette is served by chef Gisèle Angelloz-Pessey at her cosy Alpine restaurant in Le Grand-Bornand.
After a few chilly hours on the ski slopes, or a breathtaking hike up a mountain, there’s nothing quite like the unctuous tartiflette to restore the energy levels. This creamy, oven-baked dish, layered with potato, onion and bacon, is food for the soul. Its key ingredient is the pungent, semi-soft reblochon cheese, mixed into the sauce and layered on top to provide a bubbling, orange crown.
Although tartiflette itself is a fairly recent invention, the reblochon cheese – for which tartiflette was invented in the 1980s – dates from centuries ago, as chef Gisèle Angelloz-Pessey explains: ‘Tartiflette is based on another dish called péla, which was cooked in a frying pan. The reblochon was invented here in the Aravis mountains in the 13th century when the seigneur [the lord or landed gentry] would come to collect the milk from the locals.
“The farmers wouldn’t take all the milk from the cow, and when the seigneur had gone away, they’d finish milking it and have some milk of their own. Then they’d make it into cheese almost straight away, to preserve it. In old French, blocher means to milk, so reblocher means do it again. That’s how it was born.’
High above the resort of Le Grand-Bornand in the cosy wooden rooms of Gisèle’s restaurant, which she runs with her two sons and husband, it’s easy to see how tartiflette is the perfect remedy for rosy-cheeked skiers in winter, and a hearty meal for hikers for the rest of the year. Once inside, the wood-burning stoves, antique skis and rustic furniture give you the sense that things haven’t changed for years. Indeed, the chalet itself dates from 1796, becoming a restaurant in 2009 after being the family’s weekend getaway for decades before. Through the windows, diners can admire the stunning Aravis mountain range, the perfect view to accompany a dish that was born in the very same place.
The iconic dessert crêpes suzette was invented by chance in 1895 at Monte Carlo’s Café de Paris. More than 120 years later, it is still the restaurant’s signature dish, with its sweet crêpes flambéed via a heady dose of Grand Marnier next to diners’ tables.
The creation of crêpes suzette goes down in history as one of French gastronomy’s most famous tales. The most popular story goes that in 1895, the Prince of Wales – the future King Edward VII of England – was dining at the Café de Paris in Monte Carlo, Monaco, but things didn’t go to plan, as the restaurant’s current head chef Franck Lafon (pictured) explains: ‘The chef wanted to create a special dessert, but when he poured the alcohol into the pan, it burst into flames.
The Prince really liked it and asked what the dessert was called. The chef quickly created a name and said, “Princely crêpes.” The Prince said, “No, that won’t do,” and as he was there with his copine [girlfriend], he said, “We’ll call them Crêpes Suzette.” And from then on, that’s what the dish was called.’
Other stories about the dessert’s origins, and the identity of Suzette, do exist but Franck asserts that the best-known is from the Café de Paris. While exact details of the story have been lost in time, it’s unlikely that Suzette – whoever she was – would have expected the dessert to still be so popular more than 100 years later.
But the Café de Paris is dedicated to recreating the spectacle of its creation with the use of a special trolley that harmonises perfectly with the restaurant’s belle époque decor, which features stained-glass panels and cosy booths with brass fixtures and fittings. ‘We prepare the crêpes and other ingredients in the kitchen, but it’s always flambéed by the waiter.
People see it being done on the next table and ask for it. Lots of places don’t prepare it in front of the clients, because it takes a lot of time and you need space,’ he says. ‘The secret is to have good products: good oranges, Grand Marnier (nothing else) and good butter. You can’t do a “light” version!’
Tartiflette - Reblochon, bacon and potato gratin
Preparation and cooking time:
1 hour 15 minutes
1kg (2¼lb) Charlotte/Amandine potatoes
Olive oil, for frying
200g (7oz) lardons/chopped bacon
450g (1lb)/1 wheel reblochon cheese
250ml (8¾fl oz) liquid cream, plus extra if needed
1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F).
2. Peel and steam the whole potatoes until tender.
3. Chop the onions and fry them in a pan of olive oil with the lardons until well browned, or even slightly burned. Add more olive oil if it sticks to the pan.
4. Cut off the cheese’s rind, and then cut half of it into slices (approx 3–5mm or up to ¼in thick) to cover the final dish, and then cut the remaining half into 2cm (¾in) cubes.
5. Pour the cream into the pan with the onions and lardons. Add the cubed cheese to the pan and stir until the cheese melts.
6. Slice the potatoes and arrange them in a separate dish, then pour the warm cheese and lardon mixture over the potatoes.
7. Arrange the slices of cheese on top of the dish and then bake for 30–40 minutes in the oven. Add more cream if the dish starts to dry up. Serve straight from the oven.
Rillettes de Sardines - Sardine pâté
Preparation and cooking time:
1 x 100g (3½oz) can of sardines in olive oil, or water
250g (8¾oz) butter
20g (¾oz) parsley, chopped
80g (3oz) Dijon mustard
660g (1½lb) fromage frais
150g (5¼oz) shallots, finely chopped
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste
Toasted rye bread or pain de champagne (country bread), to serve
1. Drain the sardines, then pull out the largest bones.
2. Melt the butter and combine it with the sardines and parsley, mashing together with a fork.
3. Add the mustard, fromage frais and shallots and continue mashing until it has a smooth consistency. Add salt and pepper, then refrigerate for an hour.
4. Remove the rillettes from the fridge and serve cold on rye bread or toasted pain de campagne.
Crêpe Suzette - Flambéed crêpes with orange butter sauce
Preparation and cooking time:
1 hour 30 minutes
150g (5¼oz) flour
2g (¾oz) finely ground salt
150g (5¼oz) sugar
1 vanilla bean
30ml (1fl oz) curaçao liqueur
500ml (17½fl oz) milk
50g (1¾oz) butter
+ 100g (3½oz) butter
8 sugar cubes
100ml (3½fl oz) orange juice
50ml (1¾fl oz) lemon juice
30ml (1fl oz) cognac
100ml (3½fl oz) Grand Marnier
Sprinkle of sugar, to serve
1. Grate the zest from half the orange and half the lemon, juice the flesh and set the juice aside. Reserve the remaining peel.
2. In a bowl, mix the flour, salt, sugar, eggs, vanilla, curaçao and milk. Sprinkle with a pinch of the orange and lemon zest, and then whisk the batter until it is smooth.
3. Pour the mixture through a conical sieve into another bowl to eliminate lumps, then let the batter rest for 1 hour.
4. Melt the 50g of butter in a small to medium sized pan and cook until it is golden brown, then pour in a ladleful of batter, turning the pan until the batter covers the base. Cook for 30 seconds on each side until lightly golden brown. Repeat with the remainder of the batter, then set the crêpes aside.
5. Rub sugar cubes on the remaining orange and lemon peel.
6. Melt the 100g of butter and sugar cubes in a pan to create a caramel, then pour in the lemon juice and orange juice and another teaspoon of orange zest.
7. Place the crêpes in the juice in the pan and soak, then fold the crepes into quarters. Add cognac and Grand Marnier to the pan.
8. Flambée and sprinkle with sugar before serving.
Reproduced with permission from From the Source – France by Carolyn Boyd
Photography by River Thomson © 2017 Lonely Planet