We had sped across the flat countryside, the black throat of the tunnel fast receding, the drizzle we smugly thought we’d left at home catching up with us. As G had put it, this part of Northern France, arguably good for tank warfare, was perhaps less successful in terms of window-gazing. No matter, our minds were already feet-up, drinking and watching the world in a Paris bar. Somewhat prematurely, I had sung the praises of the new high-speed rail link to the BSG, telling him how astounded he’d be at the shorter journey. However, two coffees, a KitKat and several murderous glances at the chatterbox across the aisle later, after almost an hour’s delay, we were stopped a matter of 100 befuddling metres from our platform. Needless to say, we were parched.
The Paris we arrived in was humid and grey, the closeness of the impending storm mirroring our excitement at the weekend ahead. We were here for the wedding of a very elegant and sophisticated friend of ours, so of course I had vastly over-packed with outfits for every eventuality. Luckily, we were staying in Rosie’s sister Kate’s beautiful apartment only a stones’ throw from the Gare du Nord, and it was high time for an aperitif, so we got to her local bar and ordered some drinks, just in time to miss the opening of the heavens. Kate wasn’t so lucky, but still managed to turn up for her pre-ordered Viognier looking the kind of rainswept chic only a Paris-dweller can carry off.Then on to supper at Chez l’Ami Jean, a bastion of Basque cuisine in the heart of the 7th arrondissement. Sparkly new sister-in-law Rosie had told of the wonders produced within, so we were excited (un grand understatement) at the prospect. Charging through the downpour from taxi to door we were met by a flood of welcoming light and noise, kissed by the maître’d, and presented with boards invisible under delicate petals of saucisson sec and chorizo – now that’s what I call a welcome. There was only one thing for it: a generous glass of buttery champagne to kick off the weekend.
Furnished with these goodies, it was an absolute pleasure to wait at the tiny wooden bar, the place was rammed but nonetheless ran with clockwork precision. From the tiny and fully exposed kitchen, surrounded by copper pans of all shapes and sizes (not a microwave in sight), the chef Stephane Jego skipped about in his headband, quick on his toes like a prize fighter, insisting upon and attaining perfection in every dish that left the kitchen. There were some re-calls and reprimands for dishes that had eluded his eagle eye, and boy, did you hear them – the temper was as fiery as the busy stovetops.
The menu read like an inventory of the autumn countryside: game birds of every kind, chestnuts, mushrooms, root vegetables, and beautiful creatures plucked from the sea. Keen to try as much as possible, the seven of us opted for the tasting menu, a palette predominantly of burnt siennas and umbers, punctuated with the odd shot of electric green, not in leafy vegetal form (you don’t see many of those on Paris plates), but in the surprising yet hugely flavoursome granny smith sorbet served with our hare stew. A lifelong Marmite lover, I was in heaven, the stocks employed were rich and intense reductions, the jelly lacing my delicate pork and foie gras terrine the essence of the purest mushroom, the soup we started with transported me straight to the forest floor. Like a contented truffle pig foraging amongst the leaf-litter, I am sure my nose didn’t come out of the bowl, though I would like to hope I lent a touch more elegance to the process…
The atmosphere in this tiny buzzing place was one of camaraderie, everyone eager to see what others had chosen, and to hear it being vociferously enjoyed. It was the perfect place for a group of friends to be, just like having supper at a friend’s house, the eponymous Jean, for example. The pudding was in fact a trio of puddings, which followed the cheese course; yup - there was cheese too. This was Act 5, the denouement , and we weren’t sure we had anything left to give. That changed, however, when we tried the riz au lait. Yes, the minty chocolate thing and the pear tatin were all very well (read absolutely delicious), but there was something about this rice pudding that made you want to eat it for the rest of your life, even though you were already full. The rice was plump and silky, enrobed in unctuous cream swirled with constellations of tiny vanilla seeds. It was so enticing that I took one look at the wooden serving spoon and wondered if anyone would mind if I used that instead of my rather mean-looking spoon. As we all fell silent at this miraculous finale of cream and rice, our French friends on the table behind became more and more animated, excited at the prospect that we rosbifs were sharing in their adulation of this humble-sounding yet utterly celestial pudding. I will be back for many reasons, but mostly to taste this again. Joyous.
The following morning, after a breakfast (what fast, exactly?) of boiled eggs fresh from a farm in Emmanuel’s parents’ village, with copious amounts of torn baguette and yellow Normandy butter (ok, a bit of pain au chocolat too – this was France), we headed out for an amble up the hill towards Montmartre, to breathe in a bit of this wonderful city. It seemed that everyone was out, it was the most beautiful shimmering October day, the leaves on the chestnut trees had burned bronze but not yet dropped. I found myself wishing that we had an extra day to wander. But it’s Paris; we’ll be back.
The wedding was perfect, and the beautiful bride, being a foodie herself, had made sure that we were fed and watered to the highest standard. She was exposed as a fellow bedtime-cookbook-reader by her new husband. “At least we know that there are other food nerds around”, the BSG had delightedly whispered. There are some things that you remember being good, and there are others so good that you remember the taste of them. The canapés played out like French hits; tiny tartes à l’oignon and croque-monsieurs amongst the favourites we munched on at the reception between sips of champagne, the top of the Eiffel Tower twinkling above the trees. For the main course, fillet of beef, flawlessly cooked, yielding like warm butter under the slightest touch of the knife – tremendous. The BSG is still talking about the late-night cheese board, adamant that we will go some way to a reverent nod at it for our wedding next May….on a vraiment jeté le gant.
Ps: We dined at the old Arsenal Stadium on Thursday – a shrine for the BSG and many other nutcases devoted to the game of two halves, now converted into some very sleek flats. It was really rather impressive, but the Spanish-themed banquet that awaited us eclipsed even this wrapping; a lovingly made tortilla with asparagus, padron peppers (I got 3 hot ones in a row – a tastebud-searing record,) chorizo and manchego were just a few of the wonders on offer. I think it’s got to be Barcelona next for the BSG….