As five strangers stand huddled against the wind and rain outside a metro stop on a chilly evening in Montmartre, the chef asks that all important question: “What do you want to make for dinner?” Awkward silence, as no one wants to assume the mantel of ‘that guy.’ I let it go on for about thirty seconds and then jump in with a tentative, “I’d love to try to make duck if others are open to it…..?” Rapid fire multi-lingual negotiations ensue and we agree to make final decisions once we’ve had a chance to peruse what’s available in the market.
First stop is the fromagerie, where our chef explains each category of cheese, from ripe orange brine-washed cow’s milk cheeses, to soft mild ash-sprinkled goat cheeses, to pungent porous blue cheeses, to hard nutty wheels of cheese from the foothills of the alps. We learned that cheeses, like everything else, have seasons that maximize their flavors, based on aging times and grazing diets. Animals produce the most flavorful cheeses in the summer, when they have the greatest variety of flora and fauna to graze on, rather than the winter, when they are sustained on grains and remain largely inside. A fresh goat cheese meant to be eaten young (within a month of making it) is best enjoyed in the summer; a semi-hard cow’s milk cheese that requires six months of aging is at its peak in front of a blazing fireplace with frost clinging to the windows.
Next up was the boucherie, where we witnessed freshly hunted rabbit and wild turkey hanging from the ceiling, and got to compare and contrast the size and shape of pigeon, guinea hen, rooster, and multiple varieties of chicken. We also swung by the poissonnerie where we saw sea urchin in its spiky shell, snails wandering around their styrofoam home, and scallops accented with their coral orange roe.
Once we had swung by the boulangerie for a baguette, the vegetable store for our side dish ingredients, and hiked up the hill back to the school, it was time to start cooking (and eating!). We started with herb crusted seared medallions of tuna and salmon, and learned how to trim the fish into a circle. We couldn’t let the perfectly good but unshapely trimmings go to waste and turned them into a tartar. We sautéed a side of wild orange and brown chantrelle mushrooms, after meticulously cleaning them with a paring knife, because washing them would waterlog the flavor. Everything was light and fresh and easy to make, a nice contrast with the heavier recipes of the previous classes. Luckily, there were still three more courses and many bottles of wine to go, so we were in no danger of starving from an overly light French meal.
Filet de canard (duck breast) won the battle for our main dish and we started by learning how to trim off the “silver skin” of tendon, trim the fat on the sides, and score the fat on the top (against the grain of thee muscle). We got two types of duck breast: naturally fed duck which was larger and leaner than the duck bred for foie gras, which is much fattier, richer, and a bit smaller. We pan seared the skin until it was crispy and then baked the breasts until they were light pink throughout. The chef suggested sweet side dishes to bring out the flavor of the duck and we settled on caramelized apples and onion confit. The duck was tender and flavorful without much seasoning and the side dishes gave the course an autumnal feel that matched the golden leaves falling outside.
We tackled an epic cheese course next and learned the proper order to taste (lightest to most pungent) and the proper way to cut (including the rind so that no one is stuck with only the hard exterior – cocktail parties should have similar instructions!). While I tend to think of myself as someone who likes robust cheese flavors, I was surprised to find that I like the milder ones much more in this case. I think the fact that all of these unpasteurized cheeses are so rich in flavor, even when mild, means that you don’t need in your face ripeness to feel satiated. The hands down table favorite was a seasonal wheel of soft double-cream cheese that is meant to be put in the oven until the top is bubbling and golden and then spooned unto your warm baguette.
We opted for a “light” dessert of chocolate soufflé. The chef taught us the delicate art of whipping together the ingredients and carefully buttering the ramekins and we watched impressed as the soufflés indeed rose to towering heights in the oven. With the first chocolaty bite the soufflés began to deflate, only encouraging us to eat them faster.
It was a delicious and satisfyingly-tiring seven hours of shopping, cooking, eating, and drinking. Definitely a good way to spend my second to last night in Paris.