In France, pursuing the perfect pea
I WAS not the kind of person to travel 400 miles to pursue the perfect pea. But in search of spring, I found myself tagging along with Jean-Claude Ribaut, Le Monde’s food critic, on a day trip from Paris to L’Oustau de Baumaniere, the Michelin two-star restaurant-cum-hotel at the foot of the medieval hill town of Les Baux in Provence.
Driving from the train station at Avignon, we passed the Gallo-Roman mausoleum and triumphal arch near St- Remy-de-Provence. We cut through seas of olive trees and made our way up and down narrow winding hills of calcified rock to our destination.
Long ago, when L’Oustau’s founder and master chef, Raymond Thuilier, was alive, the restaurant had three stars.
Back then, people like Queen Elizabeth, Deng Xiaoping and Pablo Picasso dined and slept here.
But back to peas. Ribaut had explained to me that we were at the peak of the season, and that’s why we had to make an early morning pilgrimage to the source.
L’Oustau has had its own vegetable garden for 30 years, long before it became fashionable in the United States. The peas go from garden in the morning to table at lunchtime.
Peas have a special place in French culture and cuisine. They were one of the earliest cultivated food crops, and Charlemagne planted them in his gardens.
In the 17th century, peas achieved a special status at Versailles in King Louis XIV’s famous “potager du roi,” or royal fruit and vegetable garden.
There, the king’s gardener, Jean-Baptiste de la Quintinie, developed a green-pea hybrid known as petits pois.
King Louis was obsessed with his garden and liked his peas raw.
In France, January signals the arrival of endives, cardoons (artichoke thistles) and root vegetables like rutabaga, beets and topinambours (Jerusalem artichokes).
March and April bring spring: petits pois, asparagus and Gariguettes, the small, shiny, old-fashioned first strawberry of the year. The best tomatoes come in June, July and August.
In the L’Oustau garden, long rows of pea vines heavy with pods awaited picking.
In the kitchen, chef Sylvestre Wahid set a shallow, oblong, pea-filled wicker basket on a table and offered a tutorial.
I learned that the smaller the pea, the sweeter and more tender they are; that fat, stuffed pods can mean that the peas have become tough and mealy and past their prime; that one way to test the freshness of peas is to press down on a pod and gently move around the peas inside. (Fresh peas will squeak when they are rubbed together.) All I craved for lunch that day was the simplicity of fresh petits pois.
But we started with frogs’ legs in a Parmesan mousse, then red snapper fillets with tomatoes, basil, thyme flowers and a vinaigrette served with a 2008 white Domaine Hauvette of the Alpilles.
We ate r o a s t pigeon with beets and turnips in lavender honey served with a 2006 red Affectif from Baux, made by Charial, and finished with raspberry-sorbet-filled meringues garnished with strawberries, raspberries, mango, grapefruit and coconut, and an apple and banana tart with banana ice cream.
M i d w a y through the meal, the waiter brought out Vshaped bowls filled high with glistening peas made the old-fashi o n e d w a y : swimming in a buttery froth No need to balance these peas on delicate forks. We ate them with spoons and gusto.
“There’s nothing exceptional in the cooking – it’s all about quality and freshness,” Charial said. “Petits pois are emblematic of France. They announce the coming of the sun, the spring. You can be served caviar anywhere. New York, Hong Kong, London. For me, petits pois are my caviar.” I headed to Guy Savoy, the Michelin three-star restaurant near the Arc de Triomphe, where executive chef Laurent Soliveres was pureeing, skinning, juicing and boiling peas in the kitchen.
He plunged peas briefly into boiling salted water and then into a bowl of ice water to cook them al dente and keep their colour bright green. He taught me how to make pea pods edible by painstakingly peeling away the tough, translucent inner-membrane with a sharp knife.
The results? First was a dish that Savoy calls “tous les pois,” or “all peas,” that blended three pea textures and tastes.
A slightly gelatinised base made with freshly squeezed pea juice covered the bottom of the plate.
Emerald-green peas cooked al dente circled a dollop of velvety pea puree topped with a small poached egg and garnished with watercress sprouts and purple Japanese shiso.
There are other marvellous possibilities for peas, they said: cold pea soup with mint, of course, and the pea ice cream made famous by fellow chef Guy Martin.
Petits pois de l’oustau de baumaniere Time: 10 minutes Ingredients: 1 1/2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil 1 tablespoon unsalted butter 2 ounces sliced beef bacon, cut into 1/4-inch dice 3 scallions, white and light green portions only (reserve remainder for another use), thinly sliced crosswise 8 ounces fresh green shelled peas, peeling optional (see Note) 2 to 3 tablespoons veal or chicken stock Salt and freshly ground black pepper 2 romaine lettuce leaves, sliced crosswise into 1/2-inch ribbons.
Method: 1. In a medium skillet over medium heat, combine olive oil and butter.
When butter is melted, bacon and saute until browned and beginning to crisp, about two minutes.
2. Add scallions and peas, and stir for 1 minute. Add stock, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover, reduce heat to low and cook just until peas are well heated and barely tender, one to three minutes depending on the freshness and size of the peas.
3. Add lettuce, stir to combine and remove from heat. Serve immediately.
Yield: 2 to 3 servings.