Six restaurants in the town offering authentic French cuisine as part of the gastronomy week…Olympia Shilpa Gerald says Puducherry continues to be a destination for foodies
Every time I have requested an appointment with a French artist, writer or anyone remotely connected to Paris, it has always ended up as a discussion over food — a snack or a drink, at the least. “Not the stuffy office, the café is better any day,” one prominent figure told me. What is it about the French and food? The ongoing gastronomy week in restaurants scattered around the town provide a peek under the lid.
“Food is an important part of life for the French. Their conversations, business talk and discussions about the news all happen around food,” explains Marie Joelle, course director at the Alliance Francaise de Pondichery, who spent many years in Paris before moving back to Puducherry. Little wonder that French culinary schools, Parisian cafes and gastronomic tastes have a legendary reputation.
“During family gatherings and special occasions, we may start eating at 1 p.m. It goes on for hours till midnight,” grins Tom, interning in Puducherry. “It is usually during Sundays that we gather around for large meals.” If you are the type who grabs a plate, gulps down the contents and grunts contentedly, you may only be frowned upon. It is all about relishing the experience. As Jean Hue, chef from Reunion Island, who has created the recipes for the gastronomy week, says, it is more than tasting. Even savouring every morsel will not do! “When a dish is put on the table, it is a French tendency to let the eyes travel all over the plate, taking in how the food looks and how it is presented. After that, they take in the smells. Only then, do they appreciate how the dish tastes. That makes a French chef’s obligation more exacting.”
What is the secret of being able to taste so much? As Kumaran, chef at Café de Flore, explains, “The portions in a French meal are bite-sized — there are a lot of canapés.” Hue jokes about it, clutching his neck, “You put a pyramid of rice on the plate and you are so full! The French way of eating is to run through as many exciting dishes as possible in smaller portions.
Puducherry, by virtue of being a former colony, has been promoted extensively outside the town for its offering of French cuisine. True, it is easier to get baguettes, croissants and quiches by the dozen. But a more authentic French food experience is still wanting in Puducherry, feel connoisseurs. “The climate and the choice of ingredients here also play a role,” admits Geraldine Humeau of La Maison Rose on Romain Rolland. Meat, chicken and fish, for instance, are central to many dishes and the taste of the meat must be distinctive, not smothered under spices as in India. The gastronomy week, though part of the Indo-French festival, has been an annual affair for three years. “Only this time, we have six restaurants joining us and some of them are run by Indian owners,” says Fabrice Mongiat, director of the Alliance Francaise here. “We need to get more Indian restaurants on the list and hopefully, the Department of Tourism will help sustain the initiative every year.”
The idea behind the gastronomy week is to build on Puducherry’s reputation for good food and cement its reputation as a foodie destination. “The idea is to draw Indian travellers and gourmands to Puducherry for a taste of authentic French food.” Like Chef Saravanan and his team from Villa Shanti, many local chefs have not only discovered new dishes but also perfected techniques under the supervision of Jean Hue.
An entire week of French food offered in six different restaurants across town adds to the charms of a tourist town, proffering another avenue to sample food from a different land.