Last Thursday evening, I arrived at the French Ambassadors residence in Hobson Street to attend a private dinner in celebration of the culinary festival which celebrates UNESCO socially responsible French cuisine, Goût de France or Good France.
A few weeks before, I had been approached by a lovely man named Arnaud, the Ambassadors communications officer, and her (the ambassadors) private chef, Fabien, who had kindly invited me to the festival. They explained that the festival occurs annually around the world and it is an opportunity for restaurants to put on a menu which is inspired by a different kind of french cuisine. This year, the theme was to be ‘Provence’. They asked whether I would like to attend the Ambassador’s private dinner. Naturally I said, “Zut alors - mais oui!’’
On arriving I was first struck by the beautiful house that is the official residency of the Ambassador. Painted creamy white with classical elements and the European Union flag and French flag erected outside, it looked warm and inviting in the evening light.
I was greeted with a glass of champagne (Veuve Cliquot), and stepped into the lounge. Around the walls were beautiful pieces of art, including a few by Matisse. The ambassador kindly introduced me to the visting film director, Bruno, who had recently made a film ‘Wine Calling’. Also in attendance were other officials, such as the former Ambassador to New Zealand in France. What particularly caught my eye though was that the Minister had a Cire Trudon candle on her side board - a beautiful range which hail from France. I wondered whether she knew that you could get these candles in Wellington? It turned out that she did not and asked for the address.
We were then called into dinner.
Dear reader, I must admit that I committed one or two faux pas that evening. I tried to pick up my table setting from the sheet showing where I was sitting “No, non mademoiselle. Zat is not fur picking up” said the waitress. I felt rather embarrassed but hey! I always knew I was going to be Jack on the Titanic dining with first class. I also used a fish knife to cut my cheese. Oh well! N’est pas!
Our first course was a delicious Terrine de ratatouille niçoise. It was hearty and laden with vegetables and accompanied by a small pile of leaves and a light dressing of vinegarette. This was matched with a lovely glass of rose, Château Robine Côtes de Provence 2017 (oh yes, my wine fast ended that evening and has since recommenced on Monday).
For our second course, we had Bouillabaisse aux quatre poissons which is like a beautiful turmeric-coloured stew with four kinds of fish in it (including Lobster - a delightful surprise). I enjoyed the perfectly prepared fish, still crispy skin on for some, and was glad I had opted to wear black so I didn’t splash it on myself. It was accompanied by a rich sauce on the side which was dolloped in. I was told that this is a very typical dish from Provence (which also happened to be where the Ambassador grew up). This was accompanied by a glass of Montvac Vacqueyras 2016.
Next, the cheese course: Banon de Haute Provence et fougasse olives noises. As you might expect, this was just aaaaaaaamazing. The cheese was SO runny and creamy. Heaven! The olive-bread just off-set this with a slightly bitter tang and again there were some fresh leaves on the side to balance the dish. With it, we drank a glass of wonderful red wine, Domaine de Sénéchaux 2015 - Mannifique!
Finally, a beautiful light desert - Nectarine pochée et sorbet aux agrumes. This was my ideal dish, day or night, because I love stone fruit and could happily eat them for breakfast, lunch and dinner - especially Nectarines. The Nectarines were perfectly poached and the sorbet was icy and refreshing. It was a beautiful finish to the meal.
At the end of the meal we had a gorgeously arranged plate of petite fours, which were served around with some coffee. I had decided by that time that I basically wanted to move in with Madam Ambassador. Alas, I had to settle for asking her for a quick photo together by the fireside. We were kindly given a little gift bag on leaving, and a copy of Bruno’s film ‘Wine Calling’. On my way out, the Ambassador noted my recently purchased handbag. “I’ve been meaning to tell you all night” she said “I love your handbag!” “Oh, thank you!” I exclaimed “I went all around Europe, and then I actually found it at David Jones in Wellington.” “David Jones!” she cried “Ahh but I have looked and they only have the little one!” I explained that I bought mine in November, feeling trés chic! I thanked her for a beautiful evening, and then scuttled out the door, and waited for my Uber to pick me up and take me home.
Visiting the French Ambassadors house felt like stepping into a fairy-tale and I was incredibly lucky to be asked. My visit, and learning about Good France, has inspired me to learn more about french cuisine and to seek out and try it around New Zealand. I would like to learn more about the different modes of cooking from different regions, as they’re all so unique. Perhaps it is time to dust off my copy of ‘The Art of French Cooking’ by Julia Child. I hope chef Fabien, and Madam Ambassador, would approve…