The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais

August27

This book published in 2008 has recently been made into a movie with Helen Mirren.  Because I have not had the opportunity to see it, I do not know what parts of the book are detailed in the movie and so you may want to consider this a spoiler alert.

My name came to the top of the wait list at the library for this book just in the nick of time.  I was preparing for my week at our beach house and much as I like uploading (or is it down? I can never keep it straight) books on my tablet, I am hesitant about lugging my Toshiba to the beach which is my favourite place to read).  I have this amazing back pack beach chair that I found on line a number of years ago.  It includes a pillow and foot stool and I can easily have a comfortable nap in it, let alone devour a long anticipated story.

The story as you might have seen in the movie trailers is about an Indian restaurant opening across the street from a classic French one and the stand off that ensues.  But more than this, the novel is a dissection of what makes a chef tick and this I think is what makes the book a foodie must read.

Here is an excerpt (page 151), photos are from our time dining in France:

“Chef, is there any particular way that you want me to cook the hare?”

“Yes. I want you to astonish me.” she said, and without further instruction, she and Monsieur LeBlanc were out the door.

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Well, you can imagine, no sooner had they left than the three of us went to work, lips pursed, brows beaded with sweet, keenly aware that each had been given an exam to determine how flexible we were in the kitchen.  Jean-Pierre was soon dusted with flour, whipping up mille-feuille with preserved citrus cream made from Menton lemons, while Margaret, stern-faced with concentration, made a crayfish-and-sherry saffron sauce to accompany meaty chunks of pike grilled perfectly on metal skewers.

If I am honest, most of the day is lost to me in a blur of relentless hard work conducted at a furious pace.  I do remember that after I butchered the hares, I marinated the pieces in white wine, bay leaf, crushed garlic, malted vinegar, sweet German mustard, and a few crushed and dried juniper berries, for that slightly pungent and piney aftertaste.  Suitably softened, the hare then spent several hours cooking slowly in a cast-iron pot.  It was nothing grand.  It was simply my take on an old-fashioned recipe, fleetingly glanced at during a study session up in Madame Mallory’s attic library, but it just seemed right for a chilly day and windy autumn night.

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The side dishes I prepared were a mint-infused couscous, rather than the traditional butter noodles, and a cucumber-and-sour cream salad dashed with a handful of lingonberries.  I thought together they would make soothing and light counterpoints to the heavy mustard tang of the stewed hare.  Of course, now, looking back I realize the cucumber and cream was, conscious or not, inspired by raita, the yoghurt-and-cucumber condiment of my homeland.

Madame Mallory and Monsieur Leblanc returned in the early evening, as promised, and we watched anxiously as the chef took off her overcoat an donned her whites, and made the rounds, inspecting what each of us had prepared. I recall that she actually had fairly kind words to say about all of our efforts, for her, albeit she never missed an opportunity to point out how each of us could have improved our dishes, with this adjustment or another.

Jean-Pierre’s red fruit tarts, for example, had a very respectable crust, firm and the lip-puckering crème de cassis filling also had the right balance of fruity sweetness and tart acidity.  But when everything came together it lacked somewhat in originality, she sniffed.   A little grated nutmeg on the crème fraiche would have elevated the dessert into something special, as would have a few wild strawberries from the woods, sprinkled around the rim of the plate.

Margaret, meanwhile, had besides the grilled pike, made rouget stuffet with asparagus, and simmered in a grapefruit boullion, before wrapping the fish in a filo jacket that was lightly baked in the oven.  “very unusual, I grant you Margaret.  But the pastry ruins it for me.  It is a nervous tick with you, always wrapping everything in pastry dough.  You must be more confident and leave your comfort zone. Such strong flavours-rouget and asparagus and grapefruit-they do not need a pie crust slapped on top.”

By now she had wandered over to my station, where I stood nervously, a greasy tea towel hanging from my shoulder,  Madame Mallory inspected the gigot-the spring lamb, its skin perferoated with garlic slivers, dusted in cumin and herbes de Provence, all ready to enter the oven-but didn’t comment.  The pork joint was already roasting in the oven, but as still too raw for tasting, and pigeon avec petits pois simply received a head nod.

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Madame Mallory was, however, drawn to the cast-iron pot bubbling on the stove, pulsing and filling the air with a vinegary steam.  She lifted the heavy lid and peered inside at the game stew.  She sniffed, took a fork to a joint of hare, and the meat broke off easily.  Chef Mallory then snapped her fingers, and Marcel rushed over with a little plate and spoon.  She tried the hare with some of the mustard gravy spooned over the minty couscous and the accompanying sour-cream-cucumber salad.

“A bit heavy-handed -handed with the juniper berries, I would say.  You only need three or four to feel their presence.  Otherwise, the taste, it’s too German.  But really, other than that, very well done, particularly the untraditional side dishes.  Simple but effective.  I must say, Hassan, you have the right feel for game.”

The explosion was immediate.

Kath’s quote: “The hare has always been game, not an adjunct of feudal economy, and highly regarded as a richly flavoured food. That’s really the difference – the hare rich and gamey in flavour, the rabbit (good wild rabbit) fresh and succulent. The hare makes one think of port, burgundy, redcurrant jelly, spices and cream; the rabbit needs
onions, mustard, white wine, dry cider and thyme.” –
Jane Grigson

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Love-that is all.


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