Pierre Troisgros, 87 and the baldest diner in this picture but still pretty hale and hearty despite a couple of minuscule hearing aids, entered the ultra-modern house of our friends in the small village outside Roanne, south-east France that has been their family home for over 50 years just after midday last Sunday. He and the three other couples who live nearby and had also been invited left just as dusk was falling shortly after 5 pm.
In the intervening period they had drunk extremely well, as you will see when our Burgundy compilation is published and you key in the tasting date of 15 November. There were at the end 14 empty bottles, starting with Bollinger 2004, and a rather soft Leflaive Puligny 2009 for those who don’t like bubbles before their food. Then came three extremely serious Meursaults, all 2008, from Ente, Coche-Dury and Javillier; three Musignys; and three Griotte-Chambertins; a bottle of Hermitage La Chapelle 1989 from Paul Jaboulet Aîné in the Rhône, which brought back happy memories of the late Gérard Jaboulet who died so young; a bottle of Rieussec 1995, that was for me at least the star attraction; and, finally, a bottle of Taylor’s 1985 vintage port which even the French admitted was 'an English wine'.
With the exception of the port, a last-minute addition, and the Jaboulet brought by a friend, all the wines had been decided the previous afternoon when Jancis and our host had disappeared into his cellar with a couple of panniers. The debate over what I was to cook as the main course for such an esteemed guest as the veteran three-star chef Troisgros had begun 12 hours previously, shortly in fact after we had arrived.
It had to be a main course that could easily serve 11. Our hostess, with her husband a keen shot, described some hare that they had shot a few weeks back that remained in their freezer. ‘Hare with a cream sauce?’, she proposed enthusiastically. This was turned down by her husband, who countered with a gigot d’agneau. Perhaps because I knew that on the intervening Saturday night our hosts had booked a table at Troisgros restaurant, and I remembered that on the last occasion there I had eaten hare cooked wonderfully well, I supported our host’s suggestion and then found myself saying, ‘I'll cook it if you like’, an offer that was promptly accepted. With, I hasten to add, the following proviso: there was to be no garlic involved with the lamb.
This proviso was insisted upon by our hosts for purely personal reasons but presented me with a dilemma. How to cook a leg of lamb without garlic that would still taste delicious for someone as esteemed as Pierre Troisgros and 10 others? And, just to provide some background, Pierre and his late brother Jean won their third Michelin star back in 1968 and have held on to it ever since, with Pierre providing the staying power after his brother’s tragically early death and the subsequent handing over to his own son Michel, who is now cooking so well with his own son, César, alongside him in the kitchens.
Pierre certainly hasn't lost his appetite. The day before he had been in the same village, he reported with a twinkle in his eye, eating the boudin that had been made by the local butcher. It was a good job that the gigot weighed over 2 kg!
On the Saturday morning we set off for Les Halles Diderot, the modern single-storey marketplace in Roanne where, on the morning after the tragic shooting in Paris last weekend, everything seemed so very French. We stopped at Étienne Chantier for some scallops for our first course, a simple salad with lots of lambs lettuce, and watched a father and his small son of about eight years old polish off a plate of oysters at 11 am. Then we headed to the butcher’s, collected the leg of lamb, and shared a few words with the owner, whose business had been put up for sale but had received nothing concrete in the form of interested buyers, a reflection I was told of the long hours involved in the butchery business and the growing diminution in the number of young people in this town.
Our last two stops were to be the most important. I had long remembered the colourful impact of cooking Piemontese peppers from Elizabeth David’s Book of Mediterranean Food whenever I had served lamb before and was heartened to see that the peppers and the tomatoes were excellent at the vegetable stall nearby.
Then on to Mons, the cheese stall that also has a branch in London’s Borough Market, and has benefited from the friendship established here between the man responsible for ripening all the cheeses, Hervé, and Michel Troisgros. I bought what I believed was sufficient cheese for 11: a Vacherin, some Comté, a large St-Félicien and half of a Fleur de Maquis, a ewes’ milk cheese coated in herbs and spices from Corsica. I also bought some of this Corsican cheese and a Vacherin to take home in my carry-on suitcase – only to find they were confiscated by airport security. (You can never be too sure whether a bomb is lurking in a Vacherin...)
We then staggered back to our car and drove off the five minutes to see Pierre Clarissou, whose pâtisserie on the rue Jean Jaurès in Roanne is unquestionably the best in the town. Young, highly talented and extremely determined, Clarissou had come to London three years ago to meet restaurateur Marlon Abela and myself as he was somewhat despondent at the prospects Roanne offered him at that time. We had lunch at Caravan in King’s Cross and there was a real glimmer of excitement at the prospect of his coming over here with his family. But in the end he decided to stay and, fortunately, his business has improved significantly since then. Our hostess wanted to check on the dessert he had in mind, an extraordinary gateau that comprised a ring of puffed rice that surrounded a cake of caramel with blackcurrant laced through it and topped with thin layers of chocolate. It was delicious – at both lunch and dinner the following day!
The following morning, after I had walked to the local bakery in glorious autumn sunshine, it was time to cook. First, the peppers that, when they were cool, went on to a large round white plate and stayed for a couple of hours in the warming drawer underneath the main oven. Then the lamb, laced with shallots, the rest of the juices and the olive oil from the peppers over the top of it. Into an oven at 200 ºC for half an hour and then at 160 ºC for the following 45 minutes. Then, crucially, wrapped tightly in silver foil for the next 20 minutes and kept warm. Finally potatoes from the garden, cut into halves, were parboiled without salt and then roasted for the first 30 minutes underneath the leg of lamb and at the end, with the lamb removed, returned to the oven at 200 ºC until they were brown and crisp all over.
As the photos reveal, all good enough for Pierre Troisgros.