France’s borders have been penetrated by Italian food just as effectively as those of the UK, Australia, New Zealand and the US.
Even in south-west France, where Spain is by far the closer neighbour, there are signs for inexpensive pizza and pasta everywhere. And high up in the Corbières hills there is even a herd of buffalo from which the Antonini family are now producing their own mozzarella thanks to a wet winter, as well as dispensing typical Italian hospitality at their Bourdasso restaurant.
Certain top French chefs have been only too quick to borrow certain aspects of Italian cooking, in particular lightness and acidity. These two qualities have long been recognised among France’s leading chefs by the likes of Alain Ducasse, Yannick Alleno and Michel Troisgros.
It is in Troisgros’ style of cooking, both at his hugely ambitious new restaurant with rooms at Ouches, just 8 kilometres to the west of Roanne, and at Le Central, the quintessentially French-looking bistrot in the city centre, that this Italian influence is most obvious.
Perhaps this connection all began with Olympe, Michel’s Italian mother and the late wife of Pierre, his 88-year-old father. It is a strand that continues in the half-dozen young Italian chefs who now work in the kitchens at Ouches. And it is a debt that Michel continues to acknowledge in his approach to cooking and writing – his book La Cuisine Acidulée remains the one, he says, he has most enjoyed writing.
But it was after leaving Ouches for the home of some French friends nearby that I was reminded once again of how traditional French food, in this case a dish of fricandeau, a veal stew with kidneys and sorrel that I had never before seen or even tried, could go so well with Italian wine. En route to his home, my French host explained that he had decided to offer a Barolo with his wife’s fricandeau more in hope than expectation.
The wine was a 2009 Bricco delle Viole from G D Vajra, made from Nebbiolo of course, a grape variety that my host admitted he was so far immune to. ‘I understand and appreciate Sangiovese but I just don’t get this grape variety. To prove my point, I still have some 1989 from Gaja which is as tough as old wood', he exclaimed, thumping the steering wheel.
But we were all in for a very pleasant surprise and a very good lunch. The evening before when I had called in at my friends’ house I had noticed two large, orange Le Creuset dishes bubbling gently on their induction range. Fricandeau, a favourite of Inspector Maigret (offered to him by Julie, the waitress at the Restaurant du Triage in the 1946 short story 'The Most Obstinate Man in The World') and of my host’s grandmother, is a dish that simply gets better over time. Make it the day before, with as many rognons de veau as you can lay your hands on as they always seem to disappear on the first serving, and then serve it on the first occasion the following day. Either keep on serving it until it is all gone or freeze whatever remains. It is a dish that freezes very well.
But the ingredient that made this version so special, that distinguishes it from all others and complemented the Barolo so well, was our cook’s handling of the sorrel. This invariably bitter herb, plucked from the bushes that grow in their garden, was liberally added towards the end of the cooking. And what a difference it made, not just adding colour but also a chewy bitterness that was the perfect foil for the Italian wine.
So here is the recipe for this dish that makes a mature Barolo come to life. It was handed down by my friend’s great grandmother. (My photograph shows the chef leafing through an antecedent's recipe book.)
Fricandeau for six
Cooking time 90 minutes minimum but as long as possible.
A fillet of veal and one piece more
3 veal kidneys
1 kilo sorrel
6 large white onions
1 clove of garlic
1 litre crème fraîche, with a little more in reserve
Salt and pepper
Rub the meat with a little of the garlic.
In a large casserole, add the butter, then 2 carrots and 2 onions, then the various pieces of meat and finally add the kidneys.
Simultaneously, place the rest of the vegetables with butter in a frying pan and then add them to the casserole. Add salt and pepper, cover the casserole and leave to cook for an hour and a half, on a high heat at the outset then more gently – the meat will provide the jus.
Wash and trim the sorrel. Blanch it for five minutes in boiling water. Take it out. Put it in a frying pan with butter, let it cook for several minutes and then add a soup spoon of flour to absorb any remaining water. When the flour is cooked (the sorrel will expand gently) add the crème fraîche little by little, to the point where the sorrel has lost much of its acidity. Add salt and pepper. (Taste as often as possible, to make sure that the veal becomes slightly sweetened by the onions as they become mixed with the sorrel.)
To serve, place the well-warmed sorrel in a dish that is also big enough to receive the meat. Take the well-cooked meat out to cut it all into pieces, including the kidneys. Put all the meat on top of the sorrel, then add the onions and the carrots. Add the jus from the veal over the top, certainly enough that it covers the sorrel.
To accompany this dish, we had nothing at all. Neither potatoes nor rice nor pasta, and whether the salad we had before the fricandeau would have been better had it been served with the meat or after it, is a moot point.
The indisputable fact is that this very French dish went extremely well with a bottle of 2009 Barolo from Italy, thanks in no small measure to the presence of the sorrel and to the generosity of my hosts, now converted to the charms of top-quality Nebbiolo.
Our dessert was the type of dish I will long associate with my friends and Roanne, a mille-feuille from Pierre Clarissou. Clarissou is a first-class, albeit modest pâtissier (no website!) who runs his business in the centre of town, proof that many in this country still live to eat and do so extremely well.