Chef crusades to revive Parisian 'terroir'

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Indy Lifestyle Online

From his three-star kitchens in the heart of the French capital, Yannick Alleno is working to put Parisian cuisine back on the map, reviving lost recipes and working with farmers to showcase local produce.

Typical Parisian dishes like mackerels in white wine, vegetable macedoine salad or the humble "jambon-beurre", ham on a buttered baguette, are ubiquitous today on French dinner tables and bistrot menus.

Up until the 1960s, party-goers would head in the small hours to Les Halles market in the heart of the capital, to tuck into a bowl of hearty onion soup, with cheese and croutons - one of many Parisian specialities.

But the dishes have become so much part of the everyday food landscape, that they are often taken for granted.

Alleno, the chef of the Meurice luxury hotel, believes Paris needs to cultivate and defend its "terroir" - the distinctive produce linked to its soil and climate - as much as famed foodie regions like Perigord or Provence.

Two years ago, he created a lunch menu on the theme of "Parisian terroir" "and it's a real success, especially with foreigners," he told AFP.

His recipes, from souffle potatoes to black pudding or a Saint Honore - balls of caramel-topped chou pastry filled with whipped cream - are picked straight from the repertoire of Paris pre-World War II.

And to bring them to life he turned to the vegetable growers, poultry farmers and other producers who have survived the urban sprawl and still ply their trade in a network of fields and farms around the capital.

- 'Pick up where we left off' -


On his shopping list for the Meurice, there was cabbage grown in Pontoise or asparagus from Argenteuil, both west of Paris, fattened chicken from Houdan farther west or Brie cheese from Meaux to the east.

Alleno, who revisits and updates dozens of Parisian classics in a pair of cookery books published last month, says he is not interested "in a backward-looking cuisine".

The 41-year-old chef says he simply tried to "pick up the story where we left off and take it into the 21st-century."

After all, he explains, France's first ever restaurant was founded in Paris, on the Rue des Poulies - since renamed the Rue du Louvre.

"After the French Revolution in 1789, as the aristocracy fled the country, their chefs stayed behind and opened up restaurants. By 1820, there were close to 6,000 in the capital," said the food critic Jean-Claude Ribaut, who worked with Alleno on the books.

But many typical recipes were all-but-lost to a combination of "World War II, urbanisation and the arrival of nouvelle cuisine which relegated them to the back shelf" in the 1970s.

For a Parisian whose parents ran a bistro and who spent his childhood moving from suburb to suburb of the capital, researching the local terroir was also a way for Alleno to reclaim his roots.

For months he zipped around the region meeting producers, and working with two young entrepreneurs whose firm Terroirs d'Avenir (Terroirs of the Future) links up quality local food suppliers with restaurants nearby.

"When I met them, they were offering produce that everyone else had. I told them about my idea - they travelled around the suburbs and found the wildest things," Alleno told AFP.

As a happy side-effect, Alleno's project helped relaunch production of Houdan fattened chicken - which had long lost out to its famous rival from eastern Bresse - by ensuring a daily order of five or six birds.

Now he has set his sights on the once-famous peaches and figs of Montreuil, a working-class suburb on the eastern rim of Paris.

"We'd have to clean up the pollution and replant" the orchards," he admits. But why not, he says, citing plots of industrial wasteland in Detroit where concrete has made way for vegetable patches.