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Sunday, February 17, 2013

February is D&B chocolates month


     To say that I am a lover of chocolate does not even begin to describe how I feel about it.  To me, chocolate is all about elegance, debauchery, exquisiteness and uniqueness.  It is something worth anything and everything, one of the pleasures of life that make it worth living.

     I have always been in pursuit of the best possible chocolate I could lay my hands on.  Places like La Maison du Chocolat or Neuhaus, the ultimate Italian chocolates like Amedei and Pernigotti, etc.  It was not too long ago that I came upon a series of amateur detective stories named the Lady Arianna Regency Mysteries.  Written by Andrea Penrose and set in England’s Regency period, they supply the best of both worlds for an avid reader of mysteries like me, and each chapter starts with a bit of chocolate trivia and a recipe.

     The first installment, entitled Sweet Revenge, introduces us to the main characters – Lady Arianna and the Earl of Saybrook, who will become more than just partners in crime.  Arianna finds herself entangled in the possible poisoning of Prinny (a.k.a. the Prince Regent), and Saybrook is employed by England’s government to uncover the culprit.  The story also introduces one of the oldest, and most distinguished chocolate houses in the world – Debauve & Gallais.



     Ms. Sulpice Debauve started his business as a chemist in the France of Marie Antoinette.  He was the pharmacist to the Royal Household.  As chocolate made its appearance in Europe at the time, he devised a way to hide medicines into “pistoles”, basically chocolate coins embossed with the house’s logo, so that the Queen did not have to taste the unpleasantness of her medication.  Marie Antoinette liked the chocolate confections so much that she commissioned them regularly, and thus Debauve & Gallais was born.  By 1804 they had expanded to over sixty shops throughout France.



Debauve & Gallais store at Rue de Sèvres

     After learning all of this, I naturally had to see what all the fuss was about.  I have tasted some pretty good chocolate in my lifetime, so the reason as to why this particular chocolate house would make chocolates worth up to $600 for a few dozen piqued my curiosity to no end.

Shop-window with "Le Livre", on the top right-hand corner.
A huge box of about 3' X 2' which will set you back 300
Some of the selection available at the store at Rue de Sèvres, which is not sold in the U.S.
The aromas and subtlety of the flavors are unique.  Huge sizes too!

     I gladly found that there is a shop inside Barney’s in New York City that will deliver next day.  So being Valentine’s week and all, I ordered a modest two dozen for just over a hundred dollars.  The chocolate melts in the mouth unlike any other I’ve ever tasted.  In all reality, it feels as if one is sucking on a lump of butter but with the taste of chocolate, which, coming to think of it, is how chocolate should taste every time.  The dark chocolates are dark and opaque, the milk ones, creamy and unctuous.  The pistols of Marie Antoinette show the prominent house logo, and one can understand how the chic Queen would have had no problem in taking her medicines disguised in this way.  Mss. D&G made them in different cocoa concentrations for the Queen to savor.


The modest box I was able to acquire in U.S.

     Debauve & Gallais are chocolates for that rare special occasion.  You cannot just buy them for the sake of having some chocolate.  After all, they were especially made for royalty and they should be given their status.  With a nice liqueur they will round up your evening nicely, and will make your honey feel ultra special if given as a gift, all the more for Valentine’s Day.


Friday, February 15, 2013

Simple French cuisine in Winter Park

     Even though I have yet to visit, I am a Parisian at heart.  I love the French excellence in all its forms – fashion, food, their ideal of what beauty should be, etc.  I always have and always will.  Through my quest of all true things French, I have discovered it is not easy to find true representations of the French savoir faire outside of France.  This is especially true in what concerns food, and especially here in America.  Some ingredients readily available in France are impossible to find in the United States – such as true fresh cream and butter, bread that does not contain any preservatives, etc.  This makes it, to a certain point, impossible for French chefs to cook like they would at home.

     But during one of my strolls through Park Avenue in the neighborhood of Winter Park, I came across the Café de France.  This jewel of a restaurant was opened in 1982, and after over three decades, it continues to delight the locals with its quaint, yet distinguished, French cuisine.  The place has but a few tables, and the décor is reminiscent of the famous bistros in France, with prints of them on its walls – such as the Café de Flore, Le Napoleon et al.

     I came in and sat down to a simple table covered in a white linen cloth and a single rose (it was Valentine’s Day after all).  The waiter came after a minute or two and provided me with a menu that immediately denoted I was inside a true French restaurant – only a few dishes but classic and with simple ingredients.  This could only be good.  I was going to order the comforting coq au vin (being a rainy, sort of chilly day and all), but the waiter recommended the special of the day, seafood crêpe.  My instincts told me this was a place of knowledgeable waiters, so I went with his suggestion and ordered a glass of fruity rosé to go with it.




     While I waited for my order I visited the toilet.  For one, I always like to wash my hands before eating, but from my table I could also see that if I did so, I could get a good peak into the kitchen.  And I’m very glad I did.  It had a look of a country, yet professional cooking space, small but with all that is necessary accoutrements to make it impeccably efficient, yet cozy; a place where a chef would look forward to coming to work every day.  The fact that I got an invitation to go into it for sure next time I visit can only increase my confidence in what I would see happening in it.

     The seafood crêpe was heaven.  I could taste every single piece of fish inside it and the silky Mornay sauce enveloped the filling beautifully.  Scallions were added as a garnish, just sautéed, which rounded the flavours without overpowering them.


     For dessert I let the waiter choose for me as well.  Again, it was a wise decision.  The chocolate trio provided the much needed chocolate element for the day in question, with a foamy but not at all soggy chocolate mousse, espresso ice-cream – which was not melted when it got to my table, thank God (I HATE melted ice-cream) – and a tiny espresso.  



    The warm days of Spring offered an opportunity to taste a unique delicacy - steak tartare.  The origin of this dish goes back to the Mongolian hordes, who used to spend most of their lives on horseback.  As they went along pillaging from village to village, the soldiers of Genghis Khan carried chopped raw meat in their saddles in order to tenderize it.  After several hours of "grinding", it was quickly seasoned and eaten raw.  The French version tops the heap with a raw egg yolk, providing for a hearty dish.



     Although some people may have reservations about eating raw meat and raw egg all at once, I'm certainly not one of them.  As long as one is using quality product, like the best rib-eye, grass fed one can find and farm fresh eggs, there is absolutely no problem.  We must also remember that meat, especially when grilled, shouldn't really be cooked too much.  At Café de France, the dish is accompanied by crusty baguette slices, slightly grilled (heaven!) and paillés frites, the thinnest of French fries.  A light Beaujolais or a fruity Côtes du Rhône will pair beautifully with this rich dish.

     A light dessert was all that was needed after the the hearty steak.  A selection of sorbets both aided digestion and cleansed the palate.


Sorbet flavours from top, then right: mango, lemon and strawberry


    The service was superb, both friendly and personalized and I commend the use of the freshest of ingredients in a restaurant that has remained incorruptible for over three decades.

     A third visit to Café de France proved average, although no less enticing.  It was Saturday night and the place was quite busy.  I ordered guyères as a starter.  These are basically savory profiteroles which are offered as an "amuse bouche" with an apéritif.  They are made with gruyère cheese and are quite addictive.  Café de France serves them with crème fraîche seasoned with sea salt and freshly ground pepper.  One spoons it into the guyère and pops it into the mouth.  The savory combination bursts into the palate and definitely opens up the appetite.  Ideal to accompany with a glass of champagne.



     The main course I chose was - finally, the Coq au vin, a dish I've always wanted to try.  It was a very chilly evening, and this dish, which Café de France chooses to serve with a slab of mashed potatoes, did wonderfully its work of warming me up.  The pieces of chicken were tender and pulled apart from the bone.  They were not reddish on the inside, so I'm not sure they were marinated enough time in the wine, but the dish was tasty nonetheless.



     Last but not least, the dessert was another classic, Tarte Tatin, served with homemade vanilla ice-cream.  Of the ice-cream all I can say is that my homemade vanilla ice-cream tastes better.  I can see the speckles of vanilla when I make it and, since I use only pasteurized cream (and not ultra-pasteurized), it tastes very natural and light.  Café de France's wasn't bad, but I feel they should've done better.  As far as the tarte, I was hoping for a base of pâte briseé instead of millefeuille, and a more homogeneous dessert.  Still not bad, but could've been better.  




     Regardless, I hold Café de France as one of Orlando's best restaurants and one of my favorites, where I can see myself coming again and again.  It's good food, cooked like one would at home but with a refined twist, which makes it worthy of coming to this restaurant.  Reservations, especially on weekends, are highly recommended.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Il Carnevale di Venezia

     One of the things in my bucket list pertaining to travel is to attend the Venetian Carnival.  Ever since I read Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of Read Death I’ve been fascinated with images of a grand masquerade ball, although not necessarily ending as gruesomely as Poe’s story.


"And thus was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death..."



     The Venetian Carnival, or Carnevale di Venezia, started on 28th January and will run till 12th February, 2013.  For some it may be perceived as an ode to the grotesque, for others – like me – is yet another occasion to fully indulge the senses.  The feast dates as far back as 1162, when Venice flourished as an independent city.  The Carnival was very famous during the Renaissance but its spirit dwindled in the 18th century.  Then in the 1980’s Venetians started celebrating it again.

The opening night of the colourful 2013 festivities.

    The most distinguishing aspect of the Carnival is the attendants’ highly ornamented costumes and the masques.  In the olden days, they were manufactured by highly skilled craftsmen called mascherari, who enjoyed a position of privilege in the Venetian society.

Masques at Disney World's Epcot.

The masques were worn throughout the holiday season, well into January and February, right up to Ash Wednesday, when the season of Lent – and the end of debauchery – was to end.  Masques were also particularly welcome during the plague that decimated Europe in the Middle Ages, with doctors specifically wearing a white one with a hook-like beak, appropriately named medico della peste – or “Plague Doctor”. 


      My dream of visiting Venice is of attending a ball in costume with a floor-length cape, a beautiful masque, and being photographed at dusk running through one of its bridges across the canals.  In the meantime, I’ve decided to celebrate at home by making Sanguinaccio, a typical sweet of these festivities. 

     The original Sanguinaccio included, as its name disturbingly implies, blood.  It was the blood of a freshly killed pig.  The Neapolitans, not the Venetians, were its creators.  They used to make it for the Lent festivities and disguised the blood with chocolate because, let’s be honest, how else would you dare someone to drink the warm blood of a pig?  Yet as disturbing as it sounds, the fame of the pudding spread quickly throughout Italy.

     In any case, mine did not include the blood – although for the future it would prove an interesting experiment (after all, I do love morcilla).  I substituted it instead with milk and a touch of liquore Strega Alberti, a sweet aromatic elixir made with saffron and a bouquet of herbs which pairs great with chocolate.  It can also be drunk on its own as a digestif after meals.






     The recipe I found was in Italian and not a good one.  Hence I ended up with a Sanguinaccio that look more like a cold soup than a pudding.  Still, it was creamy and tasted gloriously, but a little goes a long way (and that’s without the blood!).  Perfected however, the recipe should be as follows:

Ingredients:

  • ½ liter of whole milk (but if you are really adventurous you may want to try ¼ liter of whole milk and ¼ liter fresh pig’s blood.  Ouch!)
  • 1 cup of sugar
  • 1.5 oz. cornstarch
  • 3.5 oz. unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 2.8 oz. semi-sweet (60%) chocolate, melted
  • 1 oz. unsalted butter
  • 1 vanilla pod, seeds scraped
  • 1 pinch of cinnamon (Vietnamese style)
  • 3 oz. semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 3 Tbsp. liquore Strega Alberti
  • A few candied orange peels, chopped

Preparation:

Melt the semi-sweet chocolate on a bain Marie.  Add the milk (or milk and blood!), cornstarch, sugar, butter, cocoa, vanilla seeds and cinnamon and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until it thickens – about 15 to 18 minutes.  

Place in small pots and chill in the fridge until ready to serve.

My first attempt at Sanguinaccio.  Great flavor, not great texture.