PARIS – Recently, I had two extraordinary food epiphanies, and each time they included a slice of the creamy golden, blue-flecked cow’s milk cheese known as Forme d’Ambert.
The first happened this summer while I was both reading and rather absent-mindedly eating a slice of Forme d’Ambert as part of a dinner-time cheese course. I took a bite of cheese, a sip of a red Cotes du Ventoux and suddenly my mouth exploded with the welcome, wintry sensation of fresh black truffles! I paused, was stunned and amazed, inhaled and felt as though there was a truffle in my midst. It was of course the earthiness of blue cheese in combination with the almost truffle essence of the wine that triggered the sensation, but I didn’t want it to disappear. I savored the seconds of unanticipated pleasure and only wished they could be turned into hours. Alas, it was elusive, for a second morsel of cheese, another few drops of wine were pleasurable, but no greater than the sum of the parts.
A few weeks ago, Forme d’Ambert came into play again, this time at the very end of an extraordinary meal at Alain Senderens’ Lucas Carton. This time, the first taste, the second and on to the end were far greater than the sum of the parts. The creamy Forme d’Ambert was teamed up with a rich, rosy, fragrant, buttery toasted brioche laced with sweet cherries and spice and moistened with a glass rich but not overly sweet ruby Port wine. The trio was as good as a whole meal to me, perfection multiplied by many, like a symphony of rich colors and textures on the palate, as though each was destined to share company with the other. The cheese was just slightly chilled and its buttery coolness loved the presence of the warm toast with its hint of spice and sweet, the smoothness of the cherries, then the rounding out of the alcohol on the tongue supplied by Senderens’ choice of Rozes Vintage 1985 Porto.
Today much ado is made of food and wine pairing, which is both a science and an art. As my two experiences suggest, pleasure explosions can be accidental or planned, but when the pairing works it is hard to find more satisfactory gastronomic pleasure.
After 10 years of creating special food and wine menus, Senderens decided to put wine before food and his choices are thoroughly brilliant. They are not complicated or complex, nor are they traditional. He looks for notes in a wine – whether its one of fresh or dried fruit, of toasted nuts, of wood or the woods, of iodine or black cherries, herbs of the garrigue of Provence (fennel, thyme, bay leaf), a touch of curry, butter and vanilla, wet leaves from the woods and mushrooms, honey or a confit of oranges. So when you find these elements in wines, why not just match them up with the real thing? Sounds simple, but if it was really that easy, we might be dining that way every night.
The fireworks at the elegant Michelin three-star Lucas Carton start with the appetizer menu, and such uncommon starters as fresh Manzanilla fino sherry -- with its hints of hazelnuts and iodine -- paired with soft and elegant fresh anchovy filets marinated in olive oil, the bones deep fried to a brilliant crisp, and then a touch of salty, silken Spanish ham, Jamon Iberia Bellota. The second act to this sherry-loving introduction to the feast comes as a tangle of the tiniest bay squid, or chipirons, stuffed with red pepper and smoky pork lomo, and squid tentacles fried and lightly stained with squid ink. The sea, the salt, the land all come together here with felicitous agreement.
Equally amazing and satisfying is the white Savigny les Beaune, 1997 from Domaine J. Boillot, with its elegant hints of the woods, served with a tiny deep fried “beurreck” of pastry-wrapped package of tiny petoncle scallops set in a cream of wild mushrooms, all showered with lightly toasted almonds. Here, the second act arrives as a masterpiece of creamy risotto, laced with scallops, lemon zest and ginger. Oh so complex in execution, but so simple for our palates to understand.
And that is only the beginning.
What amazed me most about this multi-course feast was not only the thought and care that went into creating such a menu but the way in which we, as diners, react to it. Conditioned to an avalanche of flavors and sensations in a single meal, I realized that we rarely have time to pause and reflect. To stop and pay attention. When a single wine and single dish seems to merge as one, we ARE forced to pause, stop, listen, taste, reflect upon our reactions to the interplay of the wine and the food.
Weeks later, what my taste memory recalls most vividly (after the Forme d’Ambert explosion) is the puddle of creamy polenta laced with white truffles from Italy, a fireworks of smooth textures, intense fragrances, rounded out by the cool Corton Charlemagne 1990 from Domaine Bonneau du Martray, rich with truffle and woodsy essences of its own.
Such a meal is not given away, and shouldn’t be. But it reflects a lifetime of study for a chef who has not stopped creating at the age of 63. Go and take advantage of his research and the knowledge.
9 Place de la Madeleine
Tel: 01 42 65 22 90.
All major credit cards. Closed all day Sunday, Saturday lunch, Monday lunch. Lunch menu at 76 €, not including wine. Dinner, wine included, about 230 €.