The ranks of the locavore movement, which promotes the use of locally grown produce, have been swollen in recent years by green chefs hoping to reduce their carbon footprints. But in famously gastronomic France, the trend has been surprisingly slow to catch on. In Paris, where restaurant menus boast langoustine from Madagascar and caviar from Iran, few gourmets imagine it possible to compose a meal from produce grown within 50 miles of the capital. But today, born-and-bred Parisian chef Yannick Alléno and a handful of others are doing just that. Their rhetoric stresses exclusivity and the revival of forgotten flavors rather than the reduction of greenhouse gases, but the end result is the same: both diners and the environment benefit.
The new Terroir Parisien menu at Alléno's three-star Hôtel Meurice restaurant is the product of two years of collaborative research with Le Monde food writer Jean-Claude Ribaut and fine-food suppliers Alexandre Drouard and Samuel Nahon of Terroirs d'Avenir. Scouring archives and the surrounding countryside, the quartet has rediscovered many of the recipes and produce upon which Paris' culinary reputation was built.
For Alléno, French gastronomy "was born in Paris," thanks to the myriad produce once widely grown in the city's immediate region, the Ile-de-France. But with postwar urbanization and the arrival of Nouvelle Cuisine in the late 1960s, with its emphasis on unusual and often foreign ingredients, the produce and recipes of Paris were all but lost. "There was a kind of brutal halt to la cuisine Parisienne," Alléno says.
Some dishes were best forgotten: "There are recipes preserved in the Tour d'Argent archives from the period of the Franco-Prussian War for cat, even rat!" says Ribaut, referring to the records of the celebrated Parisian restaurant that claims over 400 years of history. But the overall loss of recipes deprived modern Parisian chefs of a precious base for creativity. "Composers like Bartók or Stravinksy composed variations on old, traditional airs, and cuisine is the same thing," adds Ribaut, who has personally unearthed many forgotten dishes.
To make the old recipes sing again, Alléno and Terroirs d'Avenir found the last producers of many of Ile-de-France's traditional vegetables, spices and meats: l'aspèrge d'Argenteuil, a sublime variety of violet-tipped asparagus, today produced by a single family; champignons de Paris, the mushrooms first grown in Paris catacombs (but today more often imported from China); Gâtinais saffron, once considered the world's finest; Mereville watercress; Pontoise cabbage; and Meaux-brie cheese.
Now with produce in hand, says Alléno, "we try to imagine what Parisian cuisine would have become today if it hadn't been abandoned." One wonders why it ever was after tasting his fillet of sole with Paris mushrooms, based on the Normandy sole first served in the 1830s on Rue Montorgeuil; his lamb chops Champvallon-style, said to have been created by a mistress of Louis XIV to seduce him; or his fricassee of Gâtinais chicken with artichoke and potatoes, a modern take on the dish served in 1790 at Le Cabaret du Père Lathuille, the establishment immortalized by Manet.
Alléno has started something of a trend. At the chic Café Moderne, Normandy-born Jean-Luc LeFrançois serves Parisian delicacies like Gâtinais-rabbit farci with Poissy-cherry chutney and fricassee of Brie-Comte-Robert escargots with girolle mushrooms. "Like Alléno, I believe that, as Paris chefs, it's our responsibility to work with the produce of our region," he says.
For Frédéric Hubig of Restaurant Astier, where Montmagny-dandelion leaves are married with chicken livers, and Gâtinais pork with the violet leaves of Pontoise cabbage, that goes without saying. "With his project, Yannick is showing us we have extraordinary culinary riches at our doorstep," Hubig says. Change has even come to Cowgirl Tacos, Paris' sole Tex-Mex cooking school and caterer. Ever since chef Ellise Pierce tasted true Paris mushrooms grown in 19th century quarries, she has been stuffing her enchiladas with nothing else. She also plans to fill her Texas chili with Ile-de-France's centuries-old beans, the haricot de Soissons. The 18th century cultivators who made them famous could never have imagined the dishes the beans would end up in, but they'd be happy to know that Parisians are eating local once again.