I'm sitting in the cold at the bottom of an empty swimming pool eating horse meat. At this same swimming pool in 1946, Micheline Bernadini donned two bits of fabric and introduced the bikini to the world. But now the walls are covered with graffiti and people here are talking about food not flesh.
To get here, I waited in a long line in the stinging cold to be inspected by a frowning bouncer who checked my name against his list. But the Piscine Molitor, in Paris'16th arrondissement, is not a nightclub. It's the temporary home to Le Fooding, a movement shaking the dusty world of French gastronomy. This year, its event "La Semaine du Fooding" explores the age-old French notion of propriety in food.
The place is deserted, apart from the chefs still laying out their dishes. I watch people arrive. A couple in their early forties--the man in his long brown cashmere coat over a dark gray suit, white shirt and red tie, she in her severe dark blue skirt and matching jacket, perfectly brushed bob, and sensible heels. Next to them is a group of hipsters in their thirties--a mixture of vintage clothes, designer accessories, and thick black oversized glasses. An old man passes by, elegant in his jeans, black turtleneck, and tobacco corduroy jacket, a petite woman at his side, younger by 15 years I'd say and dressed with as much care as he.
Each night Le Fooding invites famous chefs to cook a dish they'd never serve in their restaurant.
The horse tonight is prepared by Tonino Simbula, chef at Sardegna a Tavola, in the 12th in two ways: a carpaccio with olive oil, parsley, a mixture of five different peppers, and shaved pecorino; and marinated then grilled, with onions and bell peppers. Judging by the number of abandoned plates, it seems the idea of eating horse still finds resistance, especially when raw. I'm more bothered by the reality of trying to eat the grilled piece with wooden spork and no knife.
On to the cheese. I am handed a plate of six from the prestigious Quatrehomme and a toothpick--a challenge in itself given the almost liquid state of some of them--and a glass of Veuve Cliquot Brut. Unusual as it is to serve Champagne with cheese, I find it very pleasant with the aged Mimolette and the Mont d'Or affiné au vin jaune, as the wine allows the cheeses to reveal new flavors.
Photo by Pascale Brevet
Most of the others are very strong, from Maroilles and Epoisses to a surprising goat Charolais that knocks me out. Champagne brings a nice freshness that cleans the palate between tastes. But I feel it's a waste: I would have liked to hold on longer to the flavors and aromas. The cheese kills the Champagne. The Champagne kills the cheese. I can spot a few guests resisting the unconventional combination, their plate in one hand and a glass of red wine in the other--sticking with the correct (and perhaps in this case right) rather than the incorrect.
More people have arrived and their voices fill the air. They eat at the communal tables, start conversations with their neighbors, and exchange impressions and memories. Like the memory shared by many French people in their thirties who were force-fed horse meat in their childhood--victims of a trend from the eighties, which extolled horse for its iron and calf's brain for its phosphorus. I laugh with my neighbor at the idea of all the French mothers mixing calf's brain with mashed potatoes to slip it undetected down their children's throats.
Each night Le Fooding invites famous chefs to cook a dish they'd never serve in their restaurant. Tonight for his dish Antoine Heerah, chef at Le Chamarré, in the 18th, chooses a central ingredient ignored by French gastronomy: monkfish liver. There is no recipe for monkfish liver in the Larousse gastronomique. It is mentioned after the long list of possible cooking methods for calf's or heifer's liver--and soberly called "edible."
The liver is pressed into a terrine with marinated salmon and served cold with a tangerine purée and a pineapple and chili compote; the sweetness and spice nicely balances the bitterness of the monkfish liver. I feel uncomfortable liking it so much, as Le Fooding claims, in English, that it's "an almost freak experience," whatever that means.
Perhaps the "freak" part was more obvious another night, when Stephane Jego (L'Ami Jean, Paris 7th) cooked his lièvre à la royale with Haribo Tagada candies. The hare was prepared in the classic à la royale style: marinated in wine for two weeks, cooked for hours, the sauce thickened with foie gras. The resulting stew was then topped with a cream infused with the candies, and little pieces of the candies.
The last transgression on the evening's menu is of a nutritional kind--or is it only a reward for the brave tasters? Half a kouign aman--a sweet, extremely buttery pastry from Brittany--is served lukewarm by Sébastien Gaudard himself, formerly of chez Fauchon and Pierre Hermé. The only impropriety here was being served only half of the crunchy sticky wonder.
The pool empties. The chefs relax. I see a young woman flirt with one of them, trying to get the secret behind a recipe. People drink a coffee before going back into the cold night. The sound of conversations is slowly fading away. Molitor is going back to sleep until tomorrow's Fooding show.