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FRANCE, NORTHERN

the great majority of the once-famous fruits and vegeta- bles developed in the Île-de-France are now produced outside of the region, their names remain, reminding us of the past glory of the cherries from Montmorency, the champignons de Paris (button mushrooms first cultivated in the limestone quarries that tunnel under Paris), or the delicate, pale-green dried beans (flagéolets) from Chevrier.

All of this legendary produce, as well as the finest fish and meat from all around France, was sold for cen- turies at the equally legendary central wholesale market, les Halles, until 1969, when the demands of a constantly growing population and the paralyzing traffic jams it caused forced it outside of Paris, to Rungis. Neverthe- less, the bistros that grew up around les Halles still thrive and continue to serve quintessentially Parisian dishes like steaming onion soup (gratinée), calf’s head (tête de veau) with a tangy vinaigrette or highly seasoned mayonnaise (sauce gribiche), or the exquisitely simple but refined boeuf à la ficelle, beef tenderloin tied to a string, dipped for only minutes in an aromatic vegetable bouillon, served rare with the vegetables, and accompanied by coarse salt, mus- tard, and pickles or, for an even more refined presenta- tion, by béarnaise sauce.

In the past, much of the produce that arrived in les Halles came from Picardy, directly north of the Île-de- France and sandwiched between Champagne on the east, Flanders on the north, and the English Channel and Nor- mandy on the west. A rich agricultural province, Picardy’s main city, Amiens, is only 137 kilometers (85 miles) from Nôtre-Dame. Parisian connoisseurs could order excel- lent lamb from Beauvais, duck pâtés (pâté de canard) from Amiens, eels baked in pastry (pâté d’anguille) from Abbeville in the north, and a wide variety of vegetables long before the existence of modern transportation. Artichokes from Laon, beans from Soissons, peas, and even potatoes were once important “exports,” although today they can hardly compete with the same products shipped by train or truck from all over France. The small, moist macaroons from Amiens have been famous for well over a century, and few cakes can match the lightness of the Picard gâteau battu, a tall, fluted brioche shaped like a chef’s hat.

Camembert and Calvados

To the west of Picardy, green pastures and half-timbered houses welcome you to Normandy. A land long famous for the quality of its butter and cream, Normandy is also a land of great cheeses, and the little town of Camem- bert can lay claim to producing what is arguably the most famous cheese in the entire country. Curiously, most peo- ple don’t know that Camembert is a relatively recent in- vention, as cheeses go. Dating back to the eighteenth century, it is said to be a variant of Brie, and its popu- larity dates only from the nineteenth century, when rail- ways made it possible to ship the cheese to distant markets. An authentic Camembert is made from unpas- teurized whole milk and aged until its white crust is streaked with rust-colored stripes.

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Those who associate Norman cooking with butter and cream are often surprised when they encounter an- other specialty—tripes à la mode de Caen. One of the gas- tronomic glories of the region, the tripe is simmered for hours with carrots, onions, and condiments before a dash of calvados is added as a finishing touch. Made by dis- tilling apple cider (apples are another product indisso- ciable from Normandy), calvados is a popular digestive brandy (digestif) both in and outside the region. It is as common as (and generally cheaper than) cognac, al- though the finest old calvados can equal its more famous rival in both taste and price.

Another unusual Norman specialty is duck—not just any duck, but a special breed developed in Rouen and slaughtered by suffocation so that blood remains inside. Only this duck should be used when preparing canard à la Rouennaise. Young and tender, it is cooked and served in a complex manner—which involves crushing the car- cass in a specially designed silver press to recover the blood and juices for the making of a sumptuous sauce.

In addition, the Normandy seacoast is historically the site of intense fishing, and many ports are associated with specific fish. Fécamp, for example, was once an im- portant center for the fish-curing industry. Inexpensive and nonperishable, salt cod and herring were in centuries past a staple throughout Europe, particularly sought-af- ter during Lent when meat and poultry were banned. The curing industry has now vanished, but the fresh fish re- main. Other ports are known for other specialties: par- ticularly prized are the sole from Dieppe, the shrimp and lobsters from Cherbourg, and the oysters from Etretat and Granville.

Castles in France

As one travels south toward Orléans and the Loire val- ley, the culinary landscape changes. After the flat, wheat- growing plains of the Beauce around Chartres, game becomes plentiful, eel stewed in red wine is a popular dish, and white asparagus is abundant every spring. In Orléans, one can sample a delicious quince paste called cotignac, already famous in the sixteenth century, and the vinegar made in the city is considered the best in France. Some 37 kilometers (23 miles) south of Orléans lies Lam- otte-Beuvron, the birthplace of one France’s favorite desserts. It was here, in the modest Tatin hotel run by two sisters, that the famous tarte tatin, a rich and buttery caramelized apple tart baked upside down, is said to have been invented.

Nestled in the gentle hills along the Loire River from Orléans to Tours are the extraordinary châteaus built by the kings and high nobles of France. Rabelais was a na- tive son of Chinon, and his love of good food is no won- der in this idyllic region of excellent lamb and poultry, fruity and delicate goat cheeses from Chavignol, Sainte- Maure, and Valençay, and wonderful pork products, among which the rillettes de Tours, a creamy, spreadable pâté, has no equal. Not to mention the local wines—light,

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