Wednesday, March 23, 2011

French Hanoi

One of our regular followers, the delightful CJ, recently remarked on one of our posts that she was not that familiar with French cooking. This, we have to say, took Agent Triple P somewhat by surprise, as French cuisine has been a part of his life for as long as he can remember.  His main influences being his father, his family holidays and the only French cookbook you really need; Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961) by Julia Child, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, which was actually designed to teach Americans about French cooking.

Agent Triple P’s father was an enthusiastic amateur cook but several of his friends were professional chefs. This interest in cooking was passed on to Triple P at a very young age and he was soon recruited as sous chef at home. When he was small, all of the family holidays were taken in France. A friend of Triple P’s father owned a house in the south of France and we used to go there for three or four weeks every summer. There were no autoroutes down to that part of France (Languedoc-Roussillon) in those days so our journey down there was a leisurely three to four day tour of interesting local restaurants and hotels. It was during these overnight stays in places such as Poitiers, Figeac, Sarlat, Limoges, Rocamadour, Cahors and Castelnaudary that Triple P was first made aware of the regional nature of French food. It was also where we had our first grenouilles, cassoulet, escargot, cheval, ris de veau  and many of the other foods that made many of our school friends recoil in horror when we told them about them later.

Much of the glamour of French cuisine in the nineteen sixties was because of the appalling state of food at home in England. Since then food in Britain has undergone a revolution that has left us with one of the great restaurant and food cultures in the world. If you eat out in Paris you will largely be confined to French food and wine. If you eat out in London you will be faced with a bewildering selection of cuisines from around the world. When Triple P was small, however, his father had to source many ingredients from specialist shops in Soho in London; ingredients that are now easily available in every supermarket. Classic French cooking in Britain is now seen as rather a retro taste. Primarily it has suffered because of the perceived heaviness and unhealthy nature of much of the ingredients: alcohol, butter, cream etc.  French restaurants have become less popular over the years just as the almost total dominance of French wine in the nineteen sixties has been reduced by the presence of wine from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, America and, latterly, Chile and Argentina. Less and less people would take a bottle of French wine to a dinner party these days and very few would cook a traditional French recipe.

Answering CJ’s question would take a blog in itself and probably several years but we shall endeavour to discuss French dishes as we encounter them in the future.

The very French Metropole Hotel, Hanoi


It is, therefore, nice to be able to occasionally indulge in some classic French cuisine and where better than where Triple P is at present, in the capital of the old French colony of Indochina. Triple P is enjoying the colonial splendour of the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi. Built in 1901, the year before the French shifted the capital of Indochina from Saigon (where we will be travelling later in the week) to Hanoi. The Metropole is one of the great hotels of the world and, indeed, Triple P has not enjoyed a hotel so much for some time. No doubt the added presence of his particular friend S, from Vancouver (currently ensconced in the spa) has something to do with this.

Into the bath, you dirty girl!

S had arrived at the hotel at about 20.30 after a rather gruelling 26 hour voyage from Vancouver via Hong Kong. Surprisingly perky on arrival (the advantage of First Class travel) we immediately dunked her into our splendidly colonial bath for a good scrub (the hotel thoughtfully supply rose petals for the bath which were received with considerable delight).

As it was now 10.30pm we slipped down to Le Club bar and were then shown to the delightful L’Orangerie pavilion at the rear of the bar where rather more substantial food than bar snacks were available. It is something of a coincidence that the last French restaurant we ate in was also called L’Orangerie!

We had already decided to go for typical French items, if available, purely for the purpose of this post although other options, including oriental (Vietnamese food is superb), were available.

Triple P decided to start with that prototypical opener, soupe à l’oignon. Onion soup is an ancient dish going back at least to Greek and Roman times but the modern French recipe, made with caramelised onions, dates to the eighteenth century, if not earlier (the first bouillon appeared in the seventeenth century). Oddly, Escoffier, who essentially codified, in that particularly Gallic way, French food did not include it in his Guide Culinaire (1903); possibly, because he considered it far to much of a peasant’s dish. By 1913, however, the current version with bread and Gruyere was included in Edmond Richardin’s L'Arte du Bien Manger. Elizabeth David, who did much to bring proper French cooking to the rest of the world through her book French Country Cooking (1951) could not abide soupe à l’oignon with its "sodden bread, strings of cheese and half-cooked onion floating about". The biggest challenge is eating it decorously, as the pieces of onion, sodden bread and part melted cheese all conspire to escape the spoon at every opportunity. This was an excellent, piping hot example and the only criticism we had of it was its sheer size. Fortunately, S passed on a first course, other than a green salad, and was able to assist Triple P in disposing of it, although we got some odd looks from a couple on a neighbouring table at our actions in mutually licking off the inevitable spills from each other’s chins.  We can only plead the effects of long absence...

For our main course we both had the coq au vin.  Cooking meat slowly in wine in order to tenderise it is another ancient technique but, again, carried with it the stigma of poor peoples' cooking.  Cocks, unlike hens, were kept alive longer and so their meat tended to be tougher; hence the need for tenderising.  Nowadays, of course normal high quality chicken is used.  Unlike soupe à l’oignon, coq au vin is a comparatively recent dish first beinbg mentioned just before the First World War.  Coq au vin was the very first dish that Triple P cooked on his own and the mixture of chicken slow cooked in red wine, button mushrooms, shallots and lardons of bacon has been a favourite ever since.  The Hotel Metropole version, which was very popular with Noel Coward, who stayed at the hotel, dispenses with the mushrooms. 


We had cheese afterwards but S stole most of Triple P's.  It was eaten, as is the French way (S is half French), with a knife and fork, of course.

So, a most enjoyable meal in lovely surroundings.   We will have more on Triple P's adventures at the Metropole hotel shortly: including some Italian food, some history, a beauty queen, big breakfasts and the inevitable Martini!

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