As a Welcome to France activity, my school hosted a day trip to the small city of Provins, located in the north-central region of France. Provins is a city frozen in time – most of the buildings date from the town’s heyday in 996. During the middle ages, Provins was the economic seat of the Champagne region and held large middle age fairs. Today, the town runs mainly on tourism and is famous for products made of roses.
Walking through the town, you feel you have stepped back in time to a world of stone ramparts, half-timbered houses, an unfinished gothic church, cobblestone streets, and, of course, a huge stone tower. My classmates and I were to dine on a medieval-inspired lunch at the Caveau du Saint-Esprit. The Caveau is one of the oldest buildings in the town, dating from the 12th century.
I was shocked upon entering the dining room – an immense underground cellar, with stone walls and arched ceilings. Round tables filled the room, adorned with white tablecloths, white cloth napkins (artistically folded), and elaborate place settings. Tellement romantique!
Right away les amuses bouche arrived, carried by a small, silent army of French servers. Each guest was served a small glass of Kir Sauvignon, a sweet alcoholic beverage made of blackcurrant liqueur and white wine. Les amuses bouche were a selection of salty puff pastries, some filled with cheese and some with ham. They were light and fluffy, and as you bit into them the layers of pastry dough snapped between your teeth, leaving your lips coated with a delightful buttery sensation – the perfect thing to leave you wanting more.
As quickly as our plates were taken away, l’entrée arrived – Croute fermiere with foie gras and chanterelle juice (fois gras wrapped in puff pastry, served in a mushroom sauce). The fois gras (ground duck or goose liver) melted in your mouth, leaving behind a lingering taste of butter and spices. The puff pastry, while flakey on top, was sadly soggy from the mushroom sauce. Luckily, the sauce was delicious, with a deep, delightfully earthy flavor that perfectly complemented the richness of the fois gras.
While everyone was stuffed, the meal had just begun, and in front of us appeared the main course: Brouet de canard avec miel et epices (duck with honey and spices). Supposedly a recreation of a medieval recipe, we were served a duck leg, topped with a mound of almonds, and round molds of broccoli and cheese and scalloped potatoes. Overall, as often happens at large banquets, the items in this course were either overcooked (the sides, which were rubbery and the duck, which was soggy on the outside and dry on the inside), or undercooked (the almonds, which were almost raw). However, there was still more to come.
After a slight break in service (much appreciated by our overly full tummies), we were served Brie fermier and salad. As soon as the cheese course was served the room filled with the wonderfully overpowering smell of cheese. The brie was strong and pleasing, but nothing special, and many people left much of it on their plate, untouched. The meal had taken a slight turn for the worse.
Luckily, dessert saved the day. Consisting of a thin layer of chocolate sponge cake, topped with extremely light chocolate and vanilla mousse, and a crème anglaise (vanilla) sauce. The cake was extremely delicious and perfectly executed, almost everyone’s favorite part of the meal.
The end of the meal had come, and the last course consisted of coffee and mignardises (bite-sized desserts). We all appreciated the coffee, as we were so stuffed we were practically falling asleep in our chairs. Nevertheless, we managed to scoff down the chocolate and pistachio macaroons (perfectly crunchy and fluffy), chocolate and pear petite fours, and pistachio sponge cake.
While not the perfect meal, it was extremely satisfying and left me with a strong desire to try more of and learn more about the regional cuisines of France.
Alexis ZK studies French and Food Studies at New York University. She has past experience as a line-cook, cupcake counter girl, food justice advocate and farmer. She loves travel, dinner parties, digging in the dirt, ballroom dancing, foodie adventures and creating tasting menus in the shower. She recently ran away to Paris on a mission to discover French through food.