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Stéphane Reynaud’s light touch

Joanna Weinberg relishes the earthy, peasant flavours of a traditional French chef

joanna weinberg | March/April 2014

Scion of a family of French village butchers, Stéphane Reynaud has spent his whole life surrounded by meat. He grew up in Saint Agrève in the High Ardèche, heartland of classic French provincial cooking and a place where it is said that summer lasts from August 14th to August 15th. At 14, he begged to leave school to train as a chef: he was certain he wanted to open his own restaurant. In 1990, aged 23, he did. At a time when Paris was still pinioned in the straitjacket of haute cuisine, his bistrot—called, with a typical spark of Reynaud humour, 14 Juillet, Il y a Toujours des Lampions—served the hearty country food on which he was raised. It was jammed from the day it opened its doors. After 12 years, he began to write cookery books, which have emerged, despite their girth, at a startling pace.

Open a Reynaud book and you’re never far from something meaty. He says his earliest memories are of the annual pig-killing, when the village gathered to cure hams and drink copious amounts of vin de pays. His first and most celebrated book, “Pork and Sons” (2005), is filled with line-drawings of pigs: idling over the morning papers, salivating at foodie calendars, accomplices in both their stardom and demise. It’s been followed by six more, all displaying an unabashedly classical take on French food that’s light on fuss, heavy on cream, and has plenty of earthy, peasant flavours cooked slowly in. Yet for all the richness, Reynaud maintains a light touch and a finesse that transfers confidently to the domestic kitchen.

INFLUENCES  His grandfather, Pépé the butcher, whose round-the-clock dedication to his craft and quiet respect for the animals he reared permeates Reynaud’s pages. This was a man who “could sell customers a slicing sausage, a leg of lamb and six quails when all they’d come in to buy was two slices of lean ham”. It was at Pépé’s shop that Reynaud would breakfast before school on ham or salami, make pets of the backyard suckling pigs whose fate was never in doubt, and learn the rich traditions of French cookery.

TABLE MANNER  Authoritative, yet whimsical. There’s joy in the village characters, be it Colette who “tends to sausage meat like others tend their roses”, or Jacquy, the king of pâté, who smokes sausages over fires lit with the local sports pages. The recipes? They’re clearly written, unapologetic about proper process, neither judgmental nor forgiving. Challenging cuts of meat—tripe, trotters, sweetbreads—get as much space, and the same nonchalant treatment, as the more obvious stars.

FAVOURITE INGREDIENTS  Pork in all its forms, often teamed with the holy trinity of white wine, shallots and cream. A whole, barbecued suckling pig is stuffed with smoked lardons, shallots, garlic and bread soaked in cream; a ham pithivier with leeks and shallots is scented by fennel.

TYPICAL DISH  Grandmother’s pig’s-cheek bourgignon. The cheeks, standing in for beef, are used without any suggestion that they are an unusual cut. To Reynaud, they are perfectly everyday. The recipe shows close observation of classic method while also nodding to Reynaud’s restaurant life: the carrots are sliced thickly at an angle, for elegance, and the butter whisked in at the end to produce a thick, glossy gravy.

WHAT WORKS  His sweet shortcrust pastry is short and buttery, yet easy to work with, and includes just enough polenta to add a rewarding crunch. And his version of carbonara tosses bacon, cream and garlic with pasta, then breaks the rules by finishing with an egg yolk cracked over the top.

WHAT DOESN’T  Some things get lost in translation. The larger books are dotted with occasionally amusing, but more often confusing, cod philosophising: ‘‘If in March the sun hibernates, the trout stagnates (and the sap as well)!”, or “Isn’t life’s meaning found in the tail?”. Eric Cantona could get away with this sort of thing; Reynaud can’t.

WHY COOK HIM? Authenticity. In these times of noisy culinary pastiche and arch cultural fusion, it’s rare to find a writer so grounded in tradition. 

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