Last week my concert schedule took me to the south of France, to the beautiful Mediterranean city of Montpellier. Musicians who travel often develop a keen appreciation for fine cooking; away from home, all meals are in restaurants and socializing after concerts naturally focuses around the artistry of the local chefs, always deeply appreciated.
France, needless to say, is home to one of the world’s great cuisines. French cooking is possibly the most technically rigorous style in Europe, and naturally the chefs compete to please diners with their skill. Yet after a handful of meals emphasizing meats, fish, fowl, cheeses, baked goods and desserts, with vegetables included only as decorative flourishes (albeit deliciously prepared), I yearned for a simply cooked, ample supply of fresh green plant foods.
I wandered away after a theater soundcheck by myself, ready for a quiet, solitary lunch, and found a fine-looking bistro with a promising menu posted in front. Not too expensive, but serious enough to signal that the cooking staff were taking care and pride in what they were doing. A table for one in the corner, a book, and an order of the lunchtime fish, selected by the chef, the greens of the day, and a bottle of mineral water.
The waiter brought a dish of local olives in oil with herbs and a basket of bread. The fish arrived as two small, squarish filets of a local white fish, very lightly dusted with flour, cooked in a fairly hot iron pan skin side down, then flipped carefully, served over a small bed of tossed frisée lettuce and small lentils, with an olive oil mustard vinaigrette. Wonderfully simple, carefully done. Although not expensive, the principles of Mediterranean living were all present: we eat because we become hungry for nourishment, and lunch is a chance to be civilized and cultivated without any loss of earthiness. Excellent without undo fuss.
The greens of the day arrived in an individual cast iron mini-pot. I was equally amused and frustrated when I opened it: within was a beautifully cooked, high-cuisine version of the same dislike of vegetables I’ve seen so often in America. Beautifully cut zucchini and asparagus, cooked in a cream sauce, generously topped with sliced truffles. Truffles, of course, are mushrooms that grow underground among the roots of oak trees, and they give a dish a superb fragrance and depth of flavor—white, black or these seasonal beige truffles are each unique—but here I saw them as apologies for the ‘plainness’ of the zucchini and asparagus. The taste and texture of the vegetables was nearly entirely masked by the cream sauce, as were any benefits that might be gained for my digestion from eating them. The truffles, thankfully, are useful in handling dampness or phlegm (caused by the cream sauce), yet it was a mixed pleasure to eat them. I couldn’t help but think that this was the same distaste for green vegetables that plagues so many people in America, sending them to take-out eateries for fried protein, sweetened refined flour and salted deep-fried starch.
As a guest in France and in that lovely bistro in Montpellier, I politely ate the vegetables, and thoroughly enjoyed the expertly cooked white fish, but as a traveller, dependent upon restaurants for well-being, I needed something more health-supportive. Here’s how that meal could have been constructed more wisely:
The olives were perfect: olives have a descending energy and help prepare the stomach for new food, especially if one has been eating a lot, eating late, or eating difficult foods to digest.
Wheat is the staple grain of France, but as bread, it is difficult to make it the center of a cooked lunch. It’s role was therefore not very clear. I chose to skip the bread, not to lower calories but to simplify digestion, especially since the bread wasn’t a truly integrated part of the lunch. In France, have bread with breakfast, deciding to eat it or not later in the day depending on context.
The fish, with cooked lentils and a bit of fine raw lettuce, hardly could be improved. The raw lettuce was integrated in a cooked meal and seemed fine to me. The mustard in the dressing aids stomach fire, supporting the digestion of the proteins in the fish and lentils.
The zucchini and asparagus would have been much tastier and healthier without the cream (the tongue can’t get a direct taste of anything when coated with a creamy sauce). It would also have integrated much better with the fish dish. Cooked in a hot pan, with a good oil, splash of water or stock, sprinkle of salt and herbs, with half as many truffles shaved on top, it could have been perfect. More than perfect, it could have been exactly what a traveller needed.