Monday, 10 February 2014

Signatures: Gargouillou of Young Vegetables (Bras)

After six months in abeyance, a return for my occasional series exploring famous signature dishes, and the cookbooks where you can find them.

Salad Days

Robuchon's Salade Marachiere
aux Truffes. Fiver if you can
spot the novelty salad leaf...

Salad, it appears is staging a comeback.

Not just, of course, any old salad. Certainly not the limpid concoctions of lettuce and tomato you’d find at your local sandwich bar. Nor (alas) the glorious fin de siècle “composed salads” of the Escoffier era (primary ingredients: lobster, crayfish, as little shrubbery as possible). And not even the 1980s salade gourmandes of Guerard or Robuchon (primary ingredients: truffles, truffles and a little shaved truffle).

No this isn’t just any ordinary salad. In fact it’s more like a bonsai horticulture show. Imagine thirty, forty, fifty different varieties of shoots, roots and leaves: Each of them individually trimmed, blanched, and carefully arranged on the plate. To go with them no thuggish vinaigrette, rather a puree of this, a slick of infused that and a sprinkle of freeze-dried crunch.

The effect is overwhelming, and deliberately so. But rather than coming from expensive ingredients like truffles or lobster, it is the sheer variety on the plate that delivers shock and awe: The freshness of perfect shoots and tendrils plucked in their prime (preferably that morning, ideally about five minutes before the start of service). The painstaking work which has gone into preparing and cooking each little leaf. The glorious array of them laid out together…

It’s salad Jim, but not as we know it…

Salad modernista
David Kinch: Into the Vegetable Garden
This modern style of salad has become a recurring feature in some of the world’s greatest restaurants:
  • In California David Kinch has made Into the Vegetable Garden the high point of his nose-to-the-ground Californian cuisine.
  • In New York, Paul Liebrandt serves up at $48 entrée simply called “Garden”, a mix of 30-50 greens, tubers and roots dished up in a Le Creuset pot.
  • A world away in icy Noma, Rene Redzepi’s Vegetable Field applies the same idea to root vegetables, with their earthy connection emphasised with his famous trompe l’oeil malt soil.
  • Meanwhile in sunny Lancashire (that last adjective was ironic, by the way), Simon Rogan serves up signature “salad explosions” at L’Enclume and The French, adding his own touch to the dish with a sprinkle of lovage-salt.
  • And in sunny Spain (that last adjective was not ironic, BTW), chef Adoni Anduriz dishes up his Vegetables: Roasted and Raw, Sprouts and Leaves, Wild and Cultivated in two-starred restaurant Mugaritz.

Rene Redzepi: Vegetable Field
The genius of this dish is that it allows chefs to do is present a dish which showcases local produce cooked with the utmost simplicity, but also create an incredibly complex dish with variations of flavour and texture to challenge the most discerning palate. Remember, it is very easy to serve prime ingredients with little adornment (the Chez Panisse style). And it’s very easy, given enough gadgetry and work-slave stagieres (the El Bulli/Fat Duck/Noma model), to create incredibly complicated dishes with dozens of different elements. But it is very difficult to do both.

Of course this dish isn't just called a “salad” or even a “modern salad”. It has a very specific name and lineage.

Le Gargouillou.

The Dish

Michel Bras: Mountain Main

If there is ever a dish which is completely intertwined with its inventor, it's Michel Bras and his Gargouillou de Jeune Legumes. After all, the Gargouillou is all about showcasing the local terroir on a plate, and Michel Bras is the three star chef most closely identified with a certain sense of place.

That place is the windswept Aubrac plateau of central France, where Bras’ and his family run their eponymous three star restaurant. Locally-born and self-taught he has created a unique cuisine that is tightly bound with the rugged Auvergne landscape. Out on the hills he forages wild leaves and shoots for his Gargouillou. In the kitchen he prepares the hardy Aubrac beef which roams the neighbouring hills. In his dining room dishes he lays out traditional Laguiole steak names, made in the next village across. Indeed the whole restaurant complex – hewn from the peak of a lonely mountain with sweeping views across the hills, means the landscape is utterly inescapable for diner and chef like.

Dead Aubrac cow, in extreme close-up...

In short the food Michel Bras cooks is resolutely tied to his tradition and region. But at the same time, it is equally forward looking and willing to innovate. Nowhere is this contrast shown more clearly than the Gargouillou.

Le Vrai Gargouillou

The idea, he says, came to him during a long run in the countryside in 1978. It was June and the fields were in full flower. He wanted to capture the richness and the beauty, to translate it into a dish….

His starting point was the Gargouillou, a traditional and rather obscure peasant dish. The 1988 Larousse mentions it in passing as “a country ragout of vegetables” but adds no detail. It was actually so obscure that none of my traditional French recipe books (include Edisud’s Cuisine d’Auverge et du Bourbonnais!) even mention it. It was only a desperate query for “le vrai gargouillou” which turned up the elusive Pommes de terre en gargouillou.

The original Gargouillou, it turns out, is completely different from the Bras version. It’s a simple stew made by frying some country ham with bay leaves and then simmering it with potatoes, onions and a little broth (the name “gargouillou” comes from the bubbling of the simmering broth – shares a root with the English “gargle”), before finishing with a dash of parsley, cream and lemon juice. The sort of humble dish you’d expect an Auvergnat farmer to have bubbling away on a cold winters night – filling, cheap but unremarkable.

Good enough to eat...
Of course Michel Bras’ version is nothing like that – moredeconstructed gargouillouthan peasant potage. He begins by replacing the potato with vegetables and flowers. In a hat-tip to the original recipe some of the vegetables are simmered first, although individually rather than all together. The ham remains, but is gently fried and added at the last minute. As Michel Bras said, the countryside on a plate.

Niac, niac niac…

Of course so far what we have described is nothing more than an extremely posh mixed salad. Shrubbery? Tick. Plate? Tick. All we need is a dribble of vinaigrette and they we’re done.

Of course that’s where you’re wrong.

What sets it apart is the deployment of Niacs to create contrast and flavour in the dish. Niac is Michel Bras own term for little condiments, techniques or touches which add excitement to a dish. It could be anything from a herb puree to a dash of local fire-water to a sprinkle of dried olive. As Bras writes:
… we enliven our plates with many different combinations that I call niac. Niacs are structures of visual, scented, and tactile elements that sharpen the senses and prepare for new discoveries. A niac livens up, energizes, stimulates and provokes inquiry. When placed alongside the dish being presented, I design them as “touches” or “traces.” Or the niacs could be an emulsion of sorrel leaves or sweet peppers, or mixtures made from dry black olives, combinations of unrefined sugar cane and fruits, vegetable structures-the possibilities expand every day… I can find niac in a coffee cup. When the sugar has dissolved, I drink it without stirring. A teaspoon of sugar mixed with coffee remains at the bottom of the cup-the combination of strong flavours is comforting.
In the Gargouillou a number of niacs are deployed. “Flavoured pearls” of cep braised with a little garlic, coriander and parsley are used as a garnish. Parsley oil is painted onto the plate. “Crystal leaves” (oven dried herbs, shiny and brittle as glass) add a crunch, fried slices of country ham a salty note. These are all little touches which seem insignificant in isolation, but together create the little crunches and flashes which elevate the dish.

The Recipe

First take one large French plateau…

The recipe for Gargouillou of Young Vegetables was first published in of Michel Bras’ Essential Cuisine (of which more later) but is now readily available from the Bras website. Actually it’s more an “instruction set” then a “recipe” per se; Unless you have access to a large French, mountainous plateau, a wide variety of its vegetation and a certain breed for French country ham, it is nigh on impossible to exactly recreate the dish. (That’s sort of the point – it’s a dish which is inescapably rooted in a certain place.)

The original Gargouillou recipe (pages 1 & 2)

Nonetheless the broad formula is definitely replicable, requiring little more than a pan, some water and quite a lot of vegetable matter.

Variety and freshness of ingredients are the key. The recipe recommends several distinct categories of vegetables: perennials (asparagus, fiddlehead ferns, artichokes etc), leafy vegetables (with flowers), bulbs, roots, vegetables with pods and fruits (by this it means vegetables with seeds like cucumbers, tomatoes and pumpkins, not sweet things). There will inevitably be some kinds of plant life he mentions that you don't have access to (e.g. bryony, pascal celery, geslu, crapaudine, conopode, saint fiacre green beans, chayote, burnet, yarrow), but please don’t despair. I guess that’s why Michel Bras is a three-starred Michelin chef and you’re not!

The recipe gives instructions for preparing and cooking each vegetable – a list that stretches to nearly three pages. Mostly it’s just blanching in salted boiling water, but there are variations. Artichokes, cardoons and garlic are cooked in a broth flavoured with coriander and orange zest. Some greens (e.g. beet tops or fennel bulbs) are sauteed in butter or oil; crosnes are also pan-fried. Onions are wrapped in foil and roasted. A number of roots (e.g. parsley root or turnip root) are prepared as a puree, which presumably adds a bit of textural variation to the finished dish.

The original Gargouillou recipe (pages 3 & 4)

The remaining pages covers the various niacs and dressings. Ceps (rather poetically termed “flavoured pearls and touches”) are blanched and then fried with garlic, coriander, parsley and thyme. There is also a parsley oil (the stems and leaves are simply macerated with the oil, rather than blitzed together as is more common). He also recommends sprouts which are gathered by soaking the seeds and sticking them in a dark place for a few days until they sprout.

To finish the dish an emulsion is prepared by frying slices of country ham and deglazing with vegetable broth and butter (note there is no viniger or acidic component, which you would normally expect). Everything is then tossed together – vegetables, sprouts, garnishes – and heated slightly before being plated “to give an impression of motion”. The recipe ends with the whimsical instruction to “Play with flavoured pearls and touches”.

The other Gargouillou:

There is also a second variation later in the book, the Gargouillou of Leaves, Roots, Mushrooms and Fruits in Autumn (p128). As the name suggests it’s a variation on the theme which focuses more on Autumn produce like roots, squashes and mushrooms. The flavours are slightly sweeter (on niac is a red wine, juniper and fig reduction, another step purees pumpkin with a slug of sugar). Also, rather than being dressed with ham butter he uses a more traditional hazelnut vinaigrette (the garnish is also raw prosciutto rather than fried country ham). The overall effect however is much the same.

The Book

Once upon a time in Connecticut…
Both recipes were originally appeared in Michel Bras Essential Cuisine. First published in French in 2002 we owe its existence in English to a remarkable outfit called Ici La Press. This is a boutique publisher was founded by husband-and-wife restauranteurs Bernard Jarrier and Carole Peck who ran the Good News Café in Danbury, Connecticut. In 2000 they teamed up with local typesetter Dennis Pistone to start a brand new publisher with a simply mission: to translate and published great European cookbooks for an American audience.

They had spotted a gap in the market for the treasury of world-class French chefbooks which never made it into English because their authors were thought of as too obscure or esoteric for an American audience. They basically took a bet that great food writing would sell whatever the audience.

Their modus operandi was to take the pick of French-language cookbooks, keep the existing design and layout but translate and update the text and recipes for an American audience. Notable coups included the first Spoon cookbook, Marvellous Recipes from the French Heartland by future three-star chef Regis Marcon, and Vegetables by Guy Martin of Le Grand Vefour. But their greatest triumph was, of course, Michel Bras’ definitive work, Essential Cuisine.

Time and Place in French Cuisine...
Even twelve years on the book feels remarkably modern. One reason is the design. Rather than the soft-focus “restaurant dishes on a plate” prevalent at the time, dishes are arranged in a flowing, vertical style and shot against a pure white background. This technique was unusual at the time, but is now widely used (e.g. in the Mugaritz and Coi cookbooks) to create an absolute focus on the food.

Another pioneering feature comes at the end of the book. At the time almost every cookbook finished with the Dessert section and acknowledgements. But in Essential Cuisine once you are through with the recipes it launches into a fifty-five-page travel-essay-cum-photo-montage which is basically a love-letter from Bras to his countryside. Today this sort of “mood and inspiration” essay is a common feature of any self-respecting chefbook (in Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine it pretty much takes up entire book). But in 2002 this felt entirely new.

Melting middles and monochrome monkfish

And the recipes aren’t bad either. Along with the two variations of Gargouillou, the standout dish is the recipe for Chocolate Biscuit Coulant (p166) - the original “melting middle” chocolate cake. Bras' version is unusual because achieves the molten effect by first freezing a ball of chocolate ganache which is then embedded in the cake batter and baked. This contrasts with most other recipes which simply part-bake the batter so the middle is half-cooked and runny. The advantage of the Bras recipe is a) you don't need to time it perfectly to get the middle right and b) the interior isn't laced with raw flour. 

Also check out the monkfish poached in black olive-oil (p74), a strikingly black/white presentation intended to evoke the light and shade of Aubrac:

Michel Bras' striking olive oil/monkfish combo. Shades of Heston's Salmon & Liquorice...

In short this book is well worth seeking out; even without the Gargouillou it would qualify as a minor classic on the basis of the Chocolate Coulant alone. Although the Ici La Press edition is becoming increasingly hard to track down (listing for well into three figures on Amazon), there is a 2008 reprint from the original French publishers which is easier to find (the restaurant website also has it for €59).

Unfortunately, the intervening years haven’t been as kind to Ici La Press. Despite their early success I’ve seen nothing new from them for ten years. My suspicion is that the globalisation of the online foodie world meant previously undiscovered French chefs suddenly attained a much higher international profile. This attracted bigger publishing houses like Flammarion, Phaidon and Ten Speed Press, leaving little room for a niche publisher like Ici La Press. Today the idea that a Rene Redzepi or Pierre Gagnaire would go with a small typesetting outfit from the backwoods of Connecticut sounds vaguely quaint. Commercial reality but, for lovers of fairy-tales, the food world’s loss.

Postscript: A few more spreads from the book (because it really is that good)

No self-respecting modern(ist) chef would be caught without a childhood-nostaligia based hors d'oeuvre...

Foie gras sandwiches. Because if you're a French chef no matter how many hydrocolloids you have,
some ingredients never go out of fashion...

Michel Bras is a man who would never mix his whites and his coloureds in the washing... :-p


  1. Worth pointing out that M. Point was the originator of the truffle salad- from memory the truffles were marinated in lemon juice for a bit. I imagine Robuchon owes Point a great deal, though- kind of like a Point-successor in a faux-Japanese sensei outfit.

  2. great blog for making new dishes. Thanks for sharing it !!
    Dried Country Vegetables