Piquant paths through Europe

Spices, we’ve said, entail travel, and the trend of deploying spices has travelled even to Burgundy, amongst France’s most conservative regions

Spices, we’ve said, entail travel, and the trend of deploying spices has travelled even to Burgundy, amongst France’s most conservative regions  

Spices find their way into Continental cuisine — inspiring Michelin-starred chefs like they did the explorers of yore

Spices evoke exoticism and epicureanism, travel and lucrative trade, even buccaneering. While European adventurers quested afar for them, spices have rarely found favour or flavour in Continental cuisine. Of late, however, Europe’s Michelin-starred chefs have sniffed out the spice of life.

Spices upgraded themselves from exotic to elegant when Olivier Roellinger smattered the maritime cuisine of his native Brittany in north-west France with these redolent condiments. Attacked as a teenager and left for dead, Roellinger revived and survived. Illness aborted his voyaging ambitions, so he took to cooking and got whisked away into the wonderful world of spices. He reminisces about his grandfather, who had a delicatessen selling spices; it would seem that the lure of spices inspired travel, and before their discovery, Europeans had to contend with awfully insipid cuisine.

Roellinger rose to starry heights, but given his ill health, he shut his 3-Michelin-starred restaurant and established himself at the romantic Château Richeux, whose suites capture astonishing views of the chequered, oyster-encrusted shores.

At Château Richeux, Roellinger swiftly received one Michelin star for delicate cuisine with spiced nuances, which fetched a following from across France, Europe, and even America and Japan. The integration of spices into Occidental cuisine thrilled him so much that Roellinger opened a spice shop, which showcases 120 spice varieties from the world over, including 22 sorts of pepper alone, in the enchanting village of Cancale.

The chef expresses himself with poetry on the plate and in conversation. When we meet, he says that all he has concocted these 30 years are “stories, adventures and dreams that I want to relate, for each spice, each type of vanilla or flavoured oil has a story to tell”. Intent on presenting an epicurean epic of Brittany and the high seas sailors ventured for spices, he elaborates on his own journey into far-flung and fabulous spice gardens — which brought him to India, which he visits frequently, enthralled, in particular, by the spice gardens of Kerala.

Spices, we’ve said, entail travel, and the trend of deploying spices has travelled even to Burgundy, amongst France’s most conservative regions. Chef Jean-Michel Lorain, at La Côte St Jacques, tosses spices into signature creations such as blue lobster with the flavours of the ‘Thousand and One Nights’, served with spiced vegetable quinoa. There’s coriander couscous, and the chef even extemporised for me a risotto with turmeric.

In Beaune on Burgundy’s famous wine route, young Michelin-starred chef Christophe Bocquillon at Les Jardins des Remparts serves avocado mousse in clove pickle and panacotta with spiced wine chantilly, besides chardonnay jelly with cinnamon and vanilla apple compote. As for Château de Vault de Lugny, they’ve a Mauritian chef implementing spices in exoticised French cuisine; there’s even a Mauritian-Indian chef who unleashes ample, spice-tickled Indian menus to titillate their Indian guests.

Parisians have also demonstrated a penchant for spicing cocktails and desserts. The Mandarin Oriental does the smartest cocktails in town, including concoctions like Samba smarting with cleverly insinuated chilli, whilst Fabien Berteau, who Gault Millau declared Paris’ finest pâtissier, hasn’t forgotten Chennai, where he opened the Park Hyatt, and recalls his idyllic voyages in South India with his dessert Le Lien, comprising Grand Cru Équateur and ganache of écorce de bois d’Inde from South India.

Portugal’s chefs today evoke colonies by invoking curry. José Avillez, the only 2-Michelin-starred Portuguese chef, presents dégustations that have hints of spices and expect spoon-tender veal curry, kurmas and tagines at his informal restaurant Cantinho do Avillez, inspired by his own voyages.

For those who thought Geneva insipid, this is incidentally Europe’s only city with an Indian restaurant by a Michelin-starred chef — Vineet Bhatia’s Rasoi at the Mandarin Oriental, where the menu is like a spice-heaped corsair. That it’s Geneva’s most sought-after restaurant, pulsating with a cosmopolitan crowd of locals, international diplomats and businessmen and sweeps of Arabs, attests to the universal allure of spices. The restaurant has even got Geneva’s most exclusive chocolatier, who supplies jewellery houses to customise spice-encrusted chocolate for them. These delicacies are spiced with cardamom, cumin, fennel seeds, saffron, and more.

Newsworthier still is that the iconic Rasoi has just engaged a deft young Tamil chef C. Baskar, who says playing with spices at a gastronomic restaurant in Geneva exhilarates him, especially when you have an expert sommelier like Fabien pairing complex spiced cuisine with fine wines. But Baskar declares there’s nowhere like Chennai, where he hopes some day to open his own gastronomic restaurant, and nothing headier than a Madras filter kaapi.

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Printable version | Jun 2, 2020 11:21:27 AM |

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