Letter From Paris
Spring Brings Caviar in a Pod
Peas from the garden at L’Oustau de Baumanière, a restaurant-cum-hotel in Provence. More Photos »
· Petits Pois de L’Oustau de Baumanière (April 25, 2012)
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 Baumanière, the two-star Michelin 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.-Rémy-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 or slept here, or did both.
Jean-André Charial, Mr. Thuilier’s grandson and L’Oustau’s owner, showed me his old photos, including ones of a young, up-and-coming Arab leader named Saddam Hussein who stayed here for three days in 1975. There are photos of Mr. Hussein and Jacques Chirac, then prime minister, chatting at a table in the L’Oustau garden, and of Mr. Hussein in a double-breasted suit with wide stripes seated with Bernadette Chirac, the first lady, at a bullfight in nearby Nîmes. He is smiling.
But back to peas. Mr. 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 as emperor of France, 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 a letter in 1696, Madame de Maintenon, his spiritual adviser, mistress and secret second wife, described court conversations about the “impatience” of eating them, the “pleasure” of having eaten them and the “anticipation” of eating them again. Some women in the court, she wrote, “having supped and supped well with the King, have peas waiting for them in their rooms before going to bed — at the risk of indigestion. They’re fashionable, all the rage.”
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, the chef Sylvestre Wahid set a shallow, oblong, pea-filled wicker basket on a table and offered a tutorial. He began by breaking open the pods and urging me to taste.
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 filets with tomatoes, basil, thyme flowers and a vinaigrette served with a 2008 white Domaine Hauvette of the Alpilles. We ate roast pigeon with beets and turnips in lavender honey served with a 2006 red Affectif from Baux, made by Mr. 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.
Midway through the meal, the waiter brought out V-shaped bowls in thick tinted glass filled high with glistening peas made the old-fashioned way: swimming in a buttery froth and seasoned with tiny squares of poitrine paysanne (pork belly). 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,” Mr. 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.”
Back in Paris, I was ready for a lesson in advanced pea preparation. I headed to Guy Savoy, the Michelin three-star restaurant near the Arc de Triomphe, where the executive chef Laurent Soliveres was puréeing, skinning, juicing and boiling peas in the basement 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 color bright green. He showed me how to skin a pea by pressing down gently on each and rolling it between my fingers.
He taught me how to make pea pods edible by painstakingly peeling away the tough, thin, translucent inner-membrane with a sharp knife. “I learned this from my mother and my grandmother,” Mr. Soliveres said. “It’s a work of patience.”
The results? First was a dish that Mr. Savoy calls “tous les pois,” or “all peas,” that blended three different pea textures and tastes. A slightly gelatinized 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 purée topped with a small poached egg and garnished with watercress sprouts and purple Japanese shiso.
Then, for fun, Mr. Savoy and Mr. Soliveres turned pea pods into tiny, crisp, edible boats and filled them with peas. They were served alongside quail in soy sauce.
There are other marvelous possibilities for peas, they said: cold pea soup with mint, of course, and the pea ice cream made famous by their fellow chef Guy Martin.
What about the abracadabra of molecular gastronomy that plays with dehydrators, flash freezers, aerators and smoke guns to deconstruct and reconstruct food and even make small, round, green balls out of emulsions and gels?
“It’s the destruction of nature,” Mr. Savoy said. “It’s not a pea.”
Elaine Sciolino’s Letter from Paris will run monthly in the Dining section. Ms. Sciolino is a correspondent in the Paris bureau of The New York Times and a former Paris bureau chief. She is the author of “La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life,” and in 2010, was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.