Friday, July 8, 2011

Languedoc: Cassolet in Carcassonne, Pastis en Provence, and Calissons d’Aix

Languedoc is the region of Southern France which is West of Provence. A specialty near Carcassonne is cassolet, and we dined in the old city at the top of a hill on an outdoor patio with the closest view being of the fortress, and behind that the Cathedral dating from the 400’s. I’m not sure if it was the best cassolet in town, but given the setting, it tasted pretty delicious.
Cassoulet with duck from Carcassonne.
From there, we were just a short train ride into Provence, where we spent time in Arles, Nimes, Avignon, and Aix-en-Provence. Our guidebook discussed a “gastronomic dining experience” at the restaurant of famous chef Jean-Luc Rabanel. Fortunately for our wallets, his expensive ($150/person) put-your-meal-in-the-hands-of-the-chef restaurant was closed both nights we stayed in Arles. However, his also recommended bistro A Cote next door was open where the 4-course dinner was 37E.

I ordered a seafood main which included a filet of white fish cooked in a single-serve paella-style pan with lots of mild, roasted garlic, carrots, mussels, and a prawn.

Will ordered the fois gros starter, lamb with potatoes and vegetables, the cheese plate which had three lovely selections – one local, and both others from France – a camembert and a goat cheese.

Everything was very delicious. I didn’t find it especially “experimental” like the guidebook had described it, except for possibly the dessert, which was awesome.  It was a layer of chestnut mousse topped with a “fromage blanc” (which our waitress described as “yogurt.” I would have called it “crème fraiche.”) That layer was then topped with a baked layer of carmelized tart sweet apricots. The combination of flavors and the thick creamy but slightly grainy texture of the chestnut mousse was outstanding.

In any case, it was fun to know we were experiencing the work of a renowned chef.

The untouched dessert, as presented in its ramekin. With such lovely layering of the custards,
I was surprised it wasn't served in a clear serving dish to highlight the contrasts.

After we scooped below the top layer of apricots - see the cream topping with the chestnut mousse on the spoon!
In Aix-en-Provence, we made a potentially risky choice of a near-empty restaurant with a nice-looking menu but prices that seemed “too good to be true.” We know when things seem that way, they often are, and we were nervous that our budget-consciousness would leave us disappointed with our meal. But we were in for such a treat! The menu was specifically called out as “specialities d’Aix” – items and preparations unique not just to Provence, but to Aix in particular. We each had a 3-course meal, so between the two of us, we sampled 6 different dishes, starting with salads. 

The two salads were basically the same base of fresh mixed greens, tomatoes, and a balsamic vinaigrette. One was topped with lots of tiny cubes of three different cheeses and the other topped with squid. I was boldy and bravely venturing for nearly the first time into squid territory (because of my positive experiences on this trip with octopus). Concerns about chewiness be gone! This squid were the silkiest, most tender salad toppings I could imagine. They were stewed in a flavorful broth, then served warm on a crisp bed of fresh salad greens and dressed with tomatoes and vinaigrette.

Salad with cheeses.

Salad with squid.

After that, we had a tenderized flank steak with an onion-cherry confit, and a duck breast with a yogurt-cheese sauce.

For dessert, we had a delicious stacked 3-chocolate mousse cake: three layers of chocolate - milk and hazelnut praline, white, and dark mousse on a thin butter pastry with crème anglaise. But the coup-de-grace was a Calisson Cream dessert of the house. Calisson is the name of a specialty confection from Aix. It is a thin, almost papery wafer, topped by a ground-almond paste similar to marizpan, and frosted with a thin layer of a sweet but otherwise rather tasteless frosting which hardens into a crust (sometimes, that is then covered in chocolate, which definitely improves the whole thing!) They are formed into an almond shape about 2 inches across. The overall effect is of a subtle flavored, slightly sticky but mostly smooth and not too sweet candy. If you don't like marzipan, you might not like these, and the wafer on the bottom that gives it all structure can be a bit off putting, primarily by its rice-paper texture. But they are unique, and enjoyable,and used in many different forms, like liqueur, gelato, and cookies. In this case, the chef used the ground almonds and almond flavoring in a whipped cream, which filled a yummy waffle-cone cup lined with chocolate - not at all rice-papery, but still waffle imprinted like the candy base.
Triple chocolate mousse cake.

Calisson confections interpreted as a dessert.

Actual calissons in their expected form from the confectionary.

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