Gourmandistan

Soft-boiled eggs, soldiers and slightly overdoing Michel Bras

Soft boiled eggs

We first found the Relais & Chateaux resort hanging above the Aubrac plateau in 2004, as we fled the food desert known as the Minervois that had been our lovely home for almost a month on our first annual “let’s spend our mythical child’s school tuition” flex-time sojourn to France. While we were utterly charmed by our house, we were almost equally devastated at the discovery all French folk did not necessarily look at food the way Patricia Wells had seemingly promised they did. Some of our longtime readers may be familiar with the story of Michelle breaking into tears at the sight of the meat in a local grocery, and many have heard us say that the gastronomic highlight in Caunes-Minervois was the weekly pizza truck visit. At the very end of our stay, balancing between Michelin ratings and geographic reality, we decided to venture several hours north to the Aubrac. There, we were introduced to the mystical, methodical genius that is Michel Bras. A year later, when we rented a home not far away in the cow-filled Aveyron, we ate at Bras four times in one month.

Cows

It is possible that, like former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin, Bras is an android constructed in the French-myth-fortifying bowels of the Académie Française. (A snobby prime minister that’s also a poet? A bit too “on the nose,” if you know what we mean.)  Quiet, soft-spoken and self-taught, never venturing far from his tiny town of Laguiole, Bras somehow became the inventor of the molten-center chocolate cake, proponent of perfect, simple and staggeringly amazing dishes, and legendarily influential chef and owner of a place “bathed in light, with an uninterrupted view of infinity.”

Aubrac

Runner in and fierce advocate of the Aubrac terroir, Bras had such an influence on us we actually searched for a particular Rowan tree that he had written about. (We never found it, but we enjoyed pretending we did.) We loved staying there, enjoying the rooms with spectacular views and to Steve’s delight the mini-bars stocked with surcharge-free stuff like elderflower soda. (Steve is constantly tempted by mini-bars.)

Aubrac

As this is a food blog we will leave the cows and countryside of the Aubrac to talk about the food—in short, it was amazing. Our tasting menus were simple, modern and surprising in various ways, from an edible centerpiece to an admonition to carefully tend to our Laguiole knives. Eating at Bras always included aligot, a traditional sticky, rich cheese and potato purée that’s a hat-tip to Michel’s mother (and the appetite-killing bane of Michelle’s meals there). We also enjoyed the astonishing gargouillou (you can find a .pdf of the recipe here), a plate of 50 to 60 individually prepared vegetables and herbs that compares to a composed salad the way the Pietà contrasts with your kindergarten pottery project. Bras said in a New York Times article that the culinary world-shattering dish

came to him during a run in the countryside in June 1978, when the fields and mountains were in full flower. “It was beautiful, it was rich, it was marvelous,” he said. “I decided to try to translate the fields.”

Aubrac flowers

Steve remembers a slice of butter-poached beet, rendering it absolutely delicious (and remaining the only way he’s ever liked beets). Michelle remembers the bits of Romanesco broccoli and the scattering of tiny local flowers. It’s the kind of thing you have once and never stop talking about. Or even twice, or three times—to be honest, we’ve sort of forgotten how many gargouillous we had. What began as a fun, fiercely extravagant idea became a lesson in overdoing it, as the always excellent experience actually started to be a bit tiresome by the end. (We believe our somewhat confusing array of party combinations and reservations involving various visiting family and friends was a bit tiresome for Bras’ staff as well, if the truth be told.) However, we never tired of the gargouillou and were always enchanted by a truffle-laced egg custard cunningly served in a cleanly-topped eggshell cup with buttery brioche soldiers, an amuse-bouche we enjoyed with our cocktails in the Frenchily-futuristic glass box of Bras’ waiting area.

Bras

We may never get back to the restaurant, and such excesses as weekly 3-star restaurant meals are out of the question in the current economic climate.  We certainly don’t have the chops to make gargouillou. But our autographed Essential Cuisine cookbook (possibly marking the first level of the Bras frequent diners club—a dozen dinners gets you a Rowan tree, perhaps) does include a variety of egg dishes, and we decided that was as close as we could come to recreating our Bras experiences.  While we still won’t say soft-boiled eggs are our favorite things, we did enjoy both sweet and savory versions of this playful, tasty snack. But if Steve ever stumbles across a reliable supply of young Laguiole cheese, our next homage to Bras will probably be aligot.

Soft boiled egg

SOFT-BOILED EGGS AND SOLDIERS

(adapted from Michel Bras’ Essential Cuisine)

“For a mise en bouche”

Make bread fingers out of wheat or country bread, sliced about 3/4″ square and about 3″ long, and toasted in the oven.

Top the bread with onion compote (very thinly sliced onions, caramelized in butter and salt, with a little sugar and fresh thyme leaves added at the end), then with a slice of blue cheese.

Serve with a soft-boiled egg topped with more of the onion compote and garnished with fresh thyme sprigs.

“For a treat”

Make bread fingers out of brioche or challah, sliced about 3/4″ square and about 3″ long, and toasted in the oven.

Top the bread with a layer of apricot jam, then with a slice of hard cheese (preferably Laguiole, though a cheddar would do).

Serve with a soft-boiled egg topped with a bit of butter, some Demerara sugar and ground almonds.

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34 comments

    • Thanks! I’ve always been partial to that cow photo—though careful readers will note that they’re not the famous Aubrac breed, but rather some longer-haired variety living nearby.

  1. Lovely! I’ve always admired Bras for his intuitive and inward-looking approach, and of course for his ability to translate postcard-worthy scenes onto a plate. (Not that I’ve had the pleasure of eating at his restaurant — just deducing this from photos, essays, etc.)

    • Was sad to see a number of pissy recent comments on some of the travel sites about the hotel and the restaurant. We found it magical. And if David Chang and others call him the best chef in the world, who am I to argue?

  2. Eha

    Oh, sheesh , , , did you have to give us all this homework for Christmas? – Seven bits of ‘blue extensions’ ere some of us dumb Colonials can make an intelligent comment! Apricot jam with cheddar . . . well, I’m game 😀 !

    • Thank you so much, John. It is fun to go back through old travel photos and try to repurpose them. And, if the truth be told, I may go for the soldiers next time and skip the eggs entirely!

  3. A) I love aligot and dream of making it in the not-too-distant future. At a Vichy restaurant in Paris I like called L’Ambassade d’Auvergne the mustachioed owner has told me it’s all in the elbows, meaning presumably elbow grease. Beat it until it gets all stretchy. B) I’ve been advised by Reliable Sources that in Auvergne aligot is made with nice stinky Cantal. C) Surely you can find Cantal in KY? D) Let the race to aligot begin!

    • Oh, yeah, we can get generally get both Laguiole (though usually fairly old) and Cantal. The problem is that I feel guilty enough eating Steve’s regular old mashed potatoes (which rival Robuchon’s in terms of butterfat quotient). If I let him use the cheese, I fear we’d never get up from the table. But I can’t wait to see what you do with aligot! (I’ve always meant to go to L’Ambassade d’Auvergne, but haven’t yet made it.)

  4. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. My dissertation reader (mentor maybe) calls Michel Bras his fetish restaurant. He wrote this wonderful chapter about the restaurant, its food, the location, and the landscape in his book on gardens. Let me know if you are interested and I will try to see if I can send a pdf! It’s really a great chapter. He also wrote a bit about Bras’ gargouillou . . .

    I have never been, but I really, really, really want to go. Good for you for being able to go several times a week! Lucky duckies!!!!!

    • Would we? Oh yes! That sounds so interesting!

      I hope you make it there someday. We returned to the region in the Fall of 2009, but we didn’t try to get another Bras reservation until it was too late to do so. Though a bit of a pain to get to, the Aveyron (of which the Aubrac, I think, is technically a part) remains our favorite part of France. There is so much wonderful food and the scenery is just magnificent.

  5. Well, isn’t that just the prettiest soft-boiled egg and toast soldier I’ve ever seen. What a delightfully extravagant upgrade from the version I’m used to. I’ve only been to France once, for a very short period, but boy do I miss aligot.

  6. Indeed it sounds like a culinary adventure of a lifetime and with such stunning scenery to recreate on a plate, I’m sure it was the ultimate dish. I’m a tautly a fan of soft boiled eggs and when you say truffled collars with blue cheese (me & my tummy) swoon!

  7. Loved loved loved your post, pictures.
    Love your blog.
    And I’ll have to browse every single pictures of yours…otherwise I won’t be able to sleep tonight 🙂
    I love your country self.
    Hugs.

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