The Grove's Michael Dearth Embarks On A French Odyssey
Michael Dearth, the dynamic force behind The Grove and Baduzzi, restaurants as renowned for their wine lists as their food, heads to France in search of inspiration
As a hopeless romantic and lover of food and wine, I can never resist the chance to visit France, and earlier last year explored Paris, Champagne, Bordeaux and Cognac.
After a quick stop in the City of Lights, we were on the fast train to Reims — the unofficial capital of the Champagne region. If you’re into cathedrals, the Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Reims has seen the crowning of many French kings over nearly 1000 years. There are more than 100 Champagne houses spread over the region of 32,000ha. Plus, I discovered, under Champagne is a labyrinth of caves created by cellars, or crayeres, that cut through the terroir of predominantly limestone and chalk.
We found ourselves at Krug, one of the most prestigious Champagne houses, renowned for its history and commitment to quality. I was not so familiar, however, with its progressive Champagne and music pairing. I make a living pairing food and beverages but pairing Champagne with music seemed one step beyond. I tasted the 2002 Krug Grand Cuvee first and was happy.
I then had mind-bending insight while tasting it and listening to obscure Swedish jazz music, which transported me to a forest of giant mushrooms lying on a bed of moss. It just got weird. Every bottle of Krug has its own ID on the label so the correct music to enjoy your beverage with would depend on the assemblage of that particular Krug. It’s a unique experience.
There’s no other city on this blue rock that is quite like Paris. There is art, culture and style oozing out of every inhabitant — even the children are dressed to kill on their way to school.
I love that any day of the week you can find an open market smack-bang in the middle of the city offering all sorts of delicious morsels — from fresh bread and artisan cheeses — and epic butchers and fishmongers. I had to resist gorging myself and sleeping under a tree on this beautiful spring day in Paris because we had reservations at Arpege, Alain Passard’s famous three-Michelin-star restaurant.
These reservations, made by a “friend”, turned out to be in the storage room adjacent to the restaurant — also the staff room. Brilliant. There were three tables in this small space next to hay baskets filled with onions, potatoes and garlic. The odd person would pop in, go behind a sliding door, then emerge with slicked-back hair, dressed in black and whites ready for work. Our food, every 16 courses, had to go out the restaurant, down the street, then enter our little room.
This adventure added a comfortable casualness to our fine-dining lunch. Most of our meal was a celebration of vegetables. The standout dish looked like a classic beef tartare, but was made entirely of vegetables — mainly beetroot, carrots and mustard. Heaven. The man himself, chef Alain Passard came to chat with us and, it turns out, visiting New Zealand is on his bucket list.
Next stop Bordeaux, where we stayed with friends and spent most of our time exploring the city with its beautiful gardens on the River Garonne, visiting wine bars, and shopping at farmers’ markets before going home to cook together. We found some glorious globe artichokes and I made my Italian grandmother’s stuffed artichoke recipe for a local Frenchman, Xavier. I love cooking with friends in their homes while I’m travelling, and the deep satisfaction on young Xavier’s face as he cleaned his plate fed my soul.
Our trip finished in the tiny commune of Cognac on the River Charente between the towns of Angouleme and Saintes. The world’s best-known brandy or eau de vie, Cognac is a unique spirit in that it is double distilled.
As we drove into town we couldn’t miss the House of Hennessy, where we were staying, looking like a citadel on the river’s left bank. Founded in 1765 by Irishman Richard Hennessy, a dreamer and astute businessman, he settled the Hennessy Founder’s Cellar along the Charente River and aged eau de vie for more than 10 years to create exceptional Cognacs.
There are times when travelling where you see history and art take a physical form. Giant stones in Machu Picchu whisper secrets whereas aged barrels of Hennessy Cognac to me scream “party”. Walking through the cellars of Hennessy reading the dates on barrels — 1910, 1937, 1800, I couldn’t help but be caught up in the alchemy and romance of capturing time in a bottle.
On the first leg of our long trip home to New Zealand, when flying over the mysterious sands of Abu Dhabi, I turned down any offer of airline food. Tea and water are my new diet as I try to burn off two weeks of French indulgence. My food memories of foie gras in Paris and cassoulet in Carcassonne are filling enough.
• The Grove was recently rated ninth best restaurant in the world and best in New Zealand by Trip Advisor.