Raymond Blanc is a British superstar chef with an impossibly elegant, expensive, resort in Oxford called Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, with a 2-star restaurant (where a helipad is at your disposal--don’t think we’ll be staying, or dining there soon). But he’s also a Frenchman born in the Franche-Comté region, who ran away to England when he was 18 and taught himself to cook. In what is now our very favorite food program, The Very Hungry Frenchman (a four-part BBC mini-series), he revisits all his old haunts in France to rediscover his beloved French cuisine.
Blanc is a witty and a colorful character. Cruising about in his old Deux Chevaux, he even seemed down-to-earth for a superstar; he kept dropping things in the kitchen and once pulled the oven door off. And his 90-year-old mother, featured in the first episode, chided him for talking too much.
The show is culinary nirvana for foodies like us. In each show he takes over one of his favorite French bistros and cooks a big meal for friends. One of the bistros, Le Bistrot de Port Lesney (above & right), is a couple of hours from us in the Jura department of the France-Comté, so off we went, with friends, on a food pilgrimage and a visit to the region.
I was a bit nervous dragging friends to a destination restaurant we’d never visited. But it was everything we'd hoped it would be. The quintessential French bistro, with round tables and red-checked tablecloths and a big terrace. Our waiter had us laughing, hamming it up for photos, talking about “Mr. White”, as he called Monsieur Blanc, and puffing up to inform us that he had been un star in the TV show, serving the feast.
And the food, oh la la! Cream of mussel soup with summer vegetables, duck confit, and trout fresh from the river that ran by the restaurant. The best was their dessert de maison: that famous pastry, the Paris Brest, a giant one served for two (photo below).
I would like to tell you that you can snatch up the BBC series from Amazon.com, but alas, it only works on region two DVD players and so they don’t carry it. BUT, you can watch it online at Daily Motion. If you have a dual DVD player as we do, you can buy the DVD’s at Amazon.co.uk.
If you go: check out the Bistrot de Port Lesney's website here. We had lunch at another wonderful restaurant, more modern and fancy but still good value, called Le Grapiot. We stayed at a nearby inn that was a small château (more like a hunting lodge) next to two waterfalls and was reasonably priced, called Castel Damandre.
Now we are going to try to make something close to that fabulous saffron mussel soup they served, with some help from our beloved châtelaine.
RECIPE: Bistrot de Port Lesney Cream of Mussel Soup, by way of Nicole
Nicole makes a luscious mussel soup that is very close to the one we had at the bistro (pictured left). You can make her delicious version as is, or make the bistro version by adding a generous pinch of saffron when you cook the mussels, and when you serve it, adding a garnish of finely chopped steamed carrots, and finely chopped cucumber. Now I know what you're going to say: cool cucumber, in a hot cream soup? So did I. But in fact it adds a refreshing summer twist.
- 1/3 cup (70 grams) butter
- 4 shallots, chopped fine
- A generous pinch of saffron (optional)
- 3 onions, chopped
- 3.5 pounds mussels (about 1.5 kilos)
- 1 lb. potatoes (about 500 grams), peeled and chopped small
- 2 cups (50 cl) dry white wine
- 2 cups (50 cl) milk or light cream
- 3/4 cup (20 cl) crème fraiche or sour cream
- Optional: chopped cucumbers, chopped steamed carrots for garnish
Scrub and clean mussels. In a large deep pan, sauté the shallots in a about a third of the butter until soft. Add saffron if using and stir for a few seconds more. Add wine, boil 3 minutes, add mussels and cook until they're open (about 5 minutes). Remove mussels from pan, then remove from shells and discard shells. Stain the cooking liquid, pour it over the mussels, and set them aside.
In a saucepan cook the onions in the remaining butter. Add the milk and the potatoes; bring to a boil then simmer 15 minutes until they're done. Purée the mixture in a food processor or blender and return to pan. Stir in the crème fraiche until smooth. Add mussels and stir in juice until soup is desired consistency. Garnish as desired and serve warm.
In the COMMENTS: by email, Martin says the Queryras, an an Alpine region on the Italian border is a quiet, undiscovered area, great for a visit. For more info and photos, go to this link.
FAVORITE BOOKS VIDEOS: Even after researching fun language activites for my book, How to Learn a New Language with a Used Brain, I'm still finding new ways to learn French. The latest: the whole series of HENRI the existential cat youtube videos. In French with English subtitiles, they will crack you up, if you've ever known a cat, and this feline has quite a vocabulary.