Thursday 24 July 2014

The critic, the chef and the fake tomatoes - Part 2

Chef Alain Passard of three-Michelin-starred restaurant L'Arpège in Paris revealed a story from the opposite end of the spectrum of humankind's relationship with the tomato. It was published in La Depeche of 11th July, At Passard's, haute cuisine takes root in the vegetable garden . This article also appeared in the NR on 11th July but has been removed from their archive, presumably for reasons of copyright.

Picture by Virginie Clecka
The headline picture is of a middle-aged man sniffing a tomato, variety Marmande de Brécenne. "This garden has saved my life. Without it, I probably would no longer cook." Alain Passard is celebrating the first tomato of the season ripening (in open ground, of course) in the market garden at Le Gros Chesnay, Sarthe, 20 minutes from Le Mans. This four-hectare potager, with two others in Eure and la Manche, keeps his restaurant supplied 24/7, 365 days a year, with all its fruit, vegetables and herbs, except citrus. That's about a tonne and a half of produce a month, and about four tonnes of tomatoes which never see the inside of a chiller, between now and the end of October. And nary a hydroponic, neither!

Head gardener Sylvain Picard is cultivating 3,200 tomato plants of 78 varieties, which puts our 70 plants of 18 varieties well in the shade. I need them all, the chef says, pointing out the acidity or astringency of a fruit, the colour and consistency of the flesh of another. Not all the varieties are recorded in the seed merchants' official register of about 100 of the estimated 12 to 14 thousand known varieties in the world. Nor, I surmise, is any of them a fake.

Seasonality is the only fixture in his menus. The pressure of that degree of uncertainty over what may be available and good enough for L'Arpège forces the restaurant and its customers to respect the times and seasons of nature. Sylvain Picard is constantly searching for new varieties, and sometimes finds things he thinks are really good but the chef will have nothing to do with them. Chefs, eh? The potager is 100% organic, but Sylvain Picard has not sought official accreditation, for reasons of cost. "I'm not saying we have the best produce in the world, but the curiosity value and the diversity that makes the difference" he says.

The chef has removed his white gloves and taken out his knife to shape the Marmande into a cobweb-thin carpaccio. Then, waving a slice of tomato so thin it's transparent, he exclaims "how beautiful it is!" Scarcely a dribble of olive oil, a smidgen of salt - stay simple. "Before having a garden", Alain Passard confides, "I had lost all idea of seasonality. Today I love this encounter, you wait for things. In summer, when it's good weather, you are in clover and you eat tomatoes. In winter, when it's cold, you are in the cellar and you eat roots", he summarises. Simple.

But why not go to the Arpège, try its Dégustation Legumière? HOW MUCH????

There is evidence that the tide is beginning to turn in favour of the Real Tomato. In Super U this week, Tim observed a shopper at the fresh produce shelf which bore a display of purse-shaped ribbed tomatoes of the sort we have to come to call "Liguria" for want of a better code name, and a pile of brown-and-green, lumpy, mishapen tomatoes labelled "Noire de Crimée" which for once appeared to be accurate. She picked up a Liguria, examined it, sniffed it and put it down. She did the same with a Noire de Crimée - and began loading them into her basket.  Lidl is now labeling Liguria as tomates côtelées - ribbed tomatoes - where perhaps it might have used another name. And these are just fine for filling with a tasty stuffing and baking.

Hoorah for diversity, but not at any price.

Anyone out there seen the film  Ratatouille? Could the plot line be as twisted?


Carolyn said...

Another very interesting article. I hope more chefs get into freshness.

In our experience, vegetables get very little space on French restaurant menus. They're described in general terms (say, legumes de saison) so the chef is free to strew the plate with a few token carved, colorful, mismatched vegetables alongside the meat. Most of them seem to me to be from a mix of frozen veg.

Please show more photos of your garden. It must be huge.

Pollygarter said...

The Dallais family at La Promenade seem to like fresh seasonal veg. I know exactly what you mean about the rest though. The ones that aren't frozen come at random from a wholesaler, regardless of season. With this kind, physalis berries complete with paper bag feature heavily.