“The lentil is one of my favourite pulses,” said Arnaud Schon. “Puy lentil hummus is terrific.” My second conversation with the freelance French chef who cooks at The Economist concerned an evening meal he made for the magazine’s board of directors. It turned out that we were both great fans of the Puy lentil. Since I once visited Le Puy-en-Velay, south-west of Lyon, to report on these tiny AOC-protected treasures, I was able to chip in—or, to be more accurate, show off.
“It’s the volcanic soil that makes them different. You can see the volcanic cones of the area on the label of Volvic water. It’s ironic, but Puy farmers are not allowed to water their lentils—the plants have to fight for nutrition. It’s what gives them their flavour.”
“Really?” But Arnaud was keen to get back to his starter. “I sautéed them with a mirepoix [finely chopped celery, carrots and onion in the proportions 1:1:2] until they were al dente. Puy lentils are different from ordinary lentils—they keep their shape while cooking.”
“Yes, did you know that our word ‘lens’ came from ‘lentil’?”
“Ah. Then I finish them with a light dressing of red wine vinegar with salt, pepper and a little oil. Vinegar and lentils are a fantastic combination. Try it. I had it a lot when I was a child. When I taste it, I’m five years old again.”
An amateur chef might have the idea of combining the strong, gamey flavour of fried red mullet with earthy lentils but he wouldn’t think of using a ring-mould to shape the pile of pulses. At least this one wouldn’t. And he wouldn’t dream of sprinkling cubes of acidic Granny Smith apple between the disc of lentils and fillet of mullet. “I discovered a few years ago that raw apple goes so well with fish or shellfish,” Arnaud explained.
The main course prompted an admission. “It’s the first time I’ve done beef fillet in two years. I’m not too keen on this piece of meat. It should have great marbling of fat and be dry-aged [hung unwrapped in a cold store]. The fillet from my supplier was OK but it was wet-aged, in a vacuum pack.” Suppliers prefer wet ageing because dry-aged beef loses 30% of its weight over a month. “It’s already an expensive piece of meat but it’s still more when it’s dry-aged. The quality is massively different—and I try all the time for quality. It’s hard to find really good fillet.”
The potato-and-celeriac galette presented less of a problem. “You just grate and mix the two vegetables, squeeze out the water, season and fry in clarified butter, like a rosti. It should be crunchy on the outside and a little bit mushy inside. Butter is essential.”
I was reminded of the great French chef Fernand Point, who explained “the secret of good cooking” in a New Yorker article from 1949 as “Du beurre, du beurre, du beurre.” But this being 2014, Arnaud is somewhat more restrained. “The thing about butter is it tastes great. Every morning, I have my toast and the butter oozes and smears over my face. It’s fantastic but it’s the only fat I eat all day, more or less.”
A week before we met, I mentioned to Arnaud that I’d never had apple Charlotte so he surprised me with one specially baked for our chat. But, ever the perfectionist, he tutted at the result. “It’s not cooked quite enough,” he said, peering at the pale brown dome of cooked sliced bread with its filling of sautéed apple. “Coxes are a bit sweet. I usually use a mixture of Bramleys and Coxes.” It tasted fine to me; but I admitted that I’d made my first apple Charlotte only the previous night. It had the right, dark-brown colour—or at least, it matched the photo in Arnaud’s battered college textbook, “Travaux Pratiques de Cuisine”. I let slip the secret of my accidental success: “I used sliced brioche for the crust—I think the sugar in the loaf caramelised a bit.”
Arnaud instantly saw the possibility. “Yes. It could be really good, like using panettone in a bread-and-butter pudding.”
“God that sounds good. Bread-and-butter pudding is my favourite.”
“I top it with a marmalade glaze. You just brush it over, including the peel, when the pudding comes out of the oven.”
“Hmm. Sounds a bit like gilding the lily.”
It could have been the phrase “gilding the lily” that puzzled Arnaud. Or it might have been my inbred Yorkshire preference for plainness. I couldn’t say.