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We’ll Always Have Paris

‘We’ll always have Paris’ drawled Humphrey Bogart to Ingrid Bergman in the closing moments of Casablanca. I have always believed this to be true, especially as I have long nurtured the fantasy of a second life in that city. As each decade has passed so my plans have evolved from being a Parisian chef (my 20’s), to pursuing the day job in French (my 30’s), to retirement plans.

Many romantic trips to Paris have come and gone and my love of the city has grown with each visit. Whether travelling with partners, parents or children, each time I have found a new nugget to take home and savour.

One of my favourite meals in Paris is the ubiquitous Cote de Boeuf, which, for a foodie on permanent cholesterol watch, is both a pleasure and a rebellion. My favourite memory of this dish harks back to our first visit to Paris with our young children. Having spent a long morning at Centre Pompidou, we emerged hungry and late for lunch by French standards. We had earlier stowed our luggage at Gare du Nord where we were to catch the late afternoon train and so had a few hours on our hands. We wanted to end our trip on a high culinary note but where to eat? Whipping out the map I realised we were in fast walking distance from Chez Denise (5 Rue de Prouvaires). This restaurant is a Parisian treasure that fed legions of meat workers in the days when Les Halles was still a market, before it became a spirit-draining, characterless mall into which shoppers descend below ground into the Hades of consumerism.

We arrived, breathless, at the restaurant door, fully expecting to be turned away by the patron . Was it the cuteness of the children or my imploring look that persuaded him to lead us to a table bedecked in its red checked cloth, during the closing stages of the lunch sitting? We enjoyed a frisson of victory in being invited to eat when we had anticipated hungry disappointment.

A bottle of Brouilly was brought to the table and, shortly after, a magnificent cote de boeuf with a veritable mountain of frites behind which the children could hardly be seen. Not for long. The maitre d’ looked down upon our hungry troupe and waited to see if all was well. ‘Puis-je avoir de la moutarde?’ I asked, not sure of the mustard etiquette. He paused, weighing up my request. Would an angry chef emerge from his kitchen and turf us onto the street? The jar of Dijon that swiftly arrived set me to rest.

We emerged very full and very happy, weaving our way cheerfully to the station. The Brouilly played havoc with our fine motor coordination and we almost missed the train due to our inability to get the key to open our luggage locker. But that’s another story.

A couple of years later my husband and I celebrated our 10th anniversary in Paris and tried to book a table at Chez Denise. It was mid August. It was Ferme. If we had known that most restaurants in Paris close for the summer we would surely have taken the precaution of having a winter wedding. Fortunately my parents had been more forward thinking and we were able to celebrate their 50th anniversary over cote de boeuf. Once again we emerged filled with bonhomie and swayed, singing into the Parisian night. Do they put Prozac in the Brouilly I wondered? Perhaps they do or maybe it’s the pleasure of one ingredient expertly cooked and enjoyed in a convivial environment. This is not a restaurant for the claustrophobic or the antisocial as one is seated so close to the next table that elbow movements need to be synchronised. There is a certain elegance to sliding one’s steak knife in contramotion with a stranger. In Paris.

So what happens when Paris has got to you but you can’t get to Paris? Could I attempt the holy of holies and prepare my own cote de boeuf? The idea began to germinate on a recent summer holiday when the beef at the local market gave me the come hither. As we usually exist on seafood during these summer holidays, my suggestion that we barbecue a cote de boeuf was met with a distinct lack of interest. I had to bow to the democratic process as each day I was outvoted by piscine pleasures.

Once we were home, I visited the local organic butcher to enquire about the cost of a piece of cote de boeuf for 4. ‘It costs what?’ I gasped and left. Now, coming up to the Christmas holidays and in expansive and expensive mood, I turned up once again at the butcher. My request for ribeye on the bone was translated into ‘so you want a forerib’ and the meat was duly set to with a large meat saw. And so it was that a large piece of marbelled magic landed up in my fridge. I took it out to show the family – the kids looked at each other as if to say ‘she’s gone a bit weird again’. A sleepless night ensued while I debated whose recipe to follow. Google cote de boeuf and you will find that too many chefs spoil one’s equanimity. Should I salt before or after? Use the griddle pan or my stainless steel? Sear for 2 minutes a side or 3? Dauphinoise potatoes or mash – I draw the line at home cooked chips. And most importantly – would the local supermarket have fresh tarragon for the béarnaise sauce, mine in the herb garden having bolted months ago.

Proceedings got off to a decidedly wobbly start with the bearnaise curdling into a grainy puddle which no amount of whisking could remedy. I had ignored Paul Bocuse’s warning to the inexperienced chef and allowed the bowl, in which the egg yolks were added to the vinegar, to get too hot. Too much hubris. When I made a start on the meat, the kitchen became more overheated than my ego when the pan caught fire! I dashed onto the patio with flaming pan in hand. The rain did the rest. It was not an auspicious start. Fortunately the meat had not yet been added to the pan so all was not lost. I gathered my now shredded nerve and began again. This time I oiled the meat, not the pan, and was rewarded with a beautiful caramel crust and meltingly tender, rare beef. We ate the cote de boeuf with a simple pot of Dijon, a bowl of pomme puree and a green salad. We toasted our good fortune, at having saved our home from the pyromania of the chef, with an excellent Cabernet which had been awaiting a meal befitting it.

I will have to attempt this all again one day if only to rescue my reputation with the Bearnaise. But in the meantime there will, I hope, always be Paris.


For the recipe, click here , or visit the recipe section of the website.

Copyright Madeleine Morrow 2012

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All images taken by Madeleine Morrow. Images are protected by international law.