The year was 1994 and I had just completed my law degree. I had studied French in high-school and for my under-grad, but I longed to talk, think and dream in French and so I enrolled at our local branch of Alliance Francais. One time before class I was looking haphazardly at the student notice board and an advert jumped out at me from a young, French woman who was visiting Johannesburg and looking for part-time work. I contacted her hoping she would consider ‘conversational French tutor’ as part-time employment. What I didn’t realize was that Adele would become a dear friend of mine. Sure, we spoke French (to help me) and English (to help her) but what actually happened is her employment prospects dwindled as we became fast, firm sister-friends. Adele was dating Bruno (who had a fantastic sense of humour). We introduced him to my husband David and very quickly we were quite the little foursome. When they returned to Paris we maintained our friendship through our visits between France and South Africa. It just goes to show….you should read the notice-board!
Adele is from Brittany. A wilder, more rugged part of France, that runs along the Atlantic coastline. Brittany is a land where turkeys run wild and cows lick their lips on salt-rich grass that grows along the sea. It’s a place where everyone wears a navy Breton with distinguished golden buttons and most important for Ooh La La, it’s the home of salted butter caramels! One summer, we visited Adele and Bruno in Brittany at Adele’s childhood home. As you might know, it is my favourite thing to play at being French, mostly so I can explore their gustatory world more intimately. If I had to describe French people’s attitude to food in a word, it would be ‘reverence’. Living with Adele’s family for a summer and being up close and personal in their French kitchen was nothing short of sacred: going to the market and having freshly shucked Breton oysters while we chose our dinner ingredients, or having Adele’s father quietly slip away during the meal and emerging from the cellar with vintage wines he had selected for each course. Adele’s parents were the heads of Brittany’s organic turkey association. They took this job very seriously. After I tasted their turkey, I understood why. I proclaimed with utmost enthusiasm and sincerity: ‘ “Oh my God”, this is the BEST turkey I have ever eaten.’ That summer was the best of many things. But seriously, back to the turkeys: a turkey that is encouraged to run wild on the windy countryside of Brittany, kept far away from hormones and other beastly things…is bound to be the best turkey you have ever tasted.
From them on , no French trip would be complete without spending a lot of time with Adele and Bruno. Often it was in their tiny, hausman style (swoon) apartment in Paris. What wasn’t there to admire? I loved their wooden floors, their white moldings, their antique locks. Of course, when I visited them in Paris, we got down to the very serious business of eating.
I care deeply about French food culture. But, what I might not have emphasized until this point is my deep respect for and love of… roast chicken. Ok, I admit, it’s more than a love….it’s an obsession. I take the business of roast chicken very seriously. My children have sampled roast chicken around the world and they have proclaimed our family roast chicken to be the very best. My roast chicken starts by obtaining the very best organic or free-range chicken available and there are treatises that can be written about this step alone. You see if you start out with the wrong chicken, I can’t be held responsible for what happens next. Then again, if you live in France, obtaining the very best chicken is a much more realistic goal because chickens of outstanding character are par for the course.
In France, chickens are treated with utmost seriousness. From the time my children were born, my favourite holiday would be to rent an apartment in Paris or a house in Provence over the summer. It was my chance to live my dream of being a domestic goddess, shopping at the markets, cooking in a French style kitchen, eating around a farm-sized table and living like a local. I wanted this more natural, farm-to-table culture to be part of my girls’ DNA. On these holidays, a prized activity was for us all to go to the butcher to choose my chicken for that evening. You see in France, the origin and provenance of chicken matter. Each chicken comes from a different organic farmer and their chicken is numbered accordingly. You could say that if a chicken wants to go places, it needs to attend a good finishing school (excuse the pun).
While chickens around the world suffer the indignity of factory farming, in France, chickens are individuals. There are chicken pattes rouge, or chicken pattes noir. And the king of chickens is a Bresse chicken complete with its own quality control board. These are very serious people doing very important work. These white chickens roam around the beautiful Bresse countryside before qualifying to enter the finest Parisian restaurants (no comment vegetarians, you were warned). Alongside the sought after Bresse chicken is the historic breed coucou de Rennes, from the beautiful Breton countryside and you guessed it they also have their own quality control board called the AOC. They are now a protected species, raised free-range and organic. So before you roast your chicken, start by going out to buy your chicken, and choose your chicken wisely.
My best kind of evening is a cold night with the fireplace crackling, my family all together in our authentic farm-style kitchen, eating my roast chicken served with good French wine. But there is another little place in the world that holds to my expectations of what a good roast chicken should be. In fact, theirs is slightly better. Yes, just this one.
If you wander into the third arrondissement in Paris and you find yourself walking up a small, cobbled alley on Rue Du Vertbois, you might be so lucky as to see number 32, a little restaurant with pretty red and white checked curtains blinking through the windows. If you walk inside, you will find a space steeped in history, old-world grandeur that has aged gracefully – for me it is nothing short of perfect. The history-seeped walls are still covered with the same interior wooden paneling that has been lacquered again and again to form a layered patina. There are only twelve tables in the warm lit glow. In the middle of the room is a cast iron stove and behind it a table cascading with local, daily produce. Tucked away in the corner is a little kitchen. The waiters, in their crisp, cream jackets, stand to relaxed attention, in a perfect kind of arrogance. At the centre, with a commanding presence is Louis who started his career as a waiter in the restaurant and inherited it as a co-partner from the founder. Now the waiters give me a hug on arrival (which I have earned through my unwavering devotion to their food and my earnest conversations with them, in French of course) and I smile to my self when I see them displaying their arrogance to newcomers. Welcome to Chez L’ami Louis, opened since 1930.
The restaurant offers a small menu but every single item is easily the best. Even if the dessert is fruit, the fruit of the day could be the subject of a still life painting. And what is the role of the customer at Chez L’ami Louis? I would say it is simply to be filled with a genuflecting gratitude. ‘I don’t drink wine’, ‘Can you substitute the goats cheese for the camembert’ and ‘can I have a half portion please?’, said no customer here ever. The waiters, who have been here for years, are also not waiting for compliments from you, nor is the owner Louis. They are gracing you by allowing you to eat their food. The customer is here not to order or to command, not really to pay or to tip but simply to eat and be humbled at the perfect magnificence, the utter perfection of food that is crafted to its fullest potential. No further comment needed.
Every time I make my L’ami Louis pilgrimage, I always order the chicken (and whoever is with me complies) and their superb house-wine (the wine list is dauntingly the thickness of an old-fashioned telephone book.) The food starts to arrive: First the toasted baguettes, piled high on the plate like a perfectly proportioned jenga tower, with a block of the finest, farm butters. After the baguette, the green salad arrives with a simple, perfectly proportioned vinaigrette. Then out comes a pile of French Fries, the thinnest and best and crispiest match-stick fries you have ever tasted, also served in a mountain of generous verticality. But as a Catholic Mass circulates around the Priest, the salad, the baguettes, the French Fries are there as but an extension of support and a show of glory to the centerpiece. In a slow and important ceremonial build-up, they then bring out the chicken; a coucou de Rennes. Slicing into the succulent chicken feels like a hallowed experience, each mouthful heavenly as it nests gently in the sacred gravy waters. At the end, I am utterly sated. The love of my life is to visit Chez L’ami Louis with my kids and my husband but I can just as easily go on my own and order AND EAT the roast chicken for two all by myself. It’s just that good.
And so of course once I met Adele and Bruno I had to introduce them to this restaurant and tell them very, very seriously that this was the best roast chicken they had ever or would ever taste. When we went together, Bruno was able to decipher the wine menu and order a superb Burgundy wine. That particular night the roast chicken took us to even greater heights.
The story continued. Whenever I was in Paris, I would go with Bruno and Adele to L’ami Louis. They loved our little chicken tradition, although Bruno would tease me about my claim that this was the best chicken in the whole world. Then one day in October 2011, I received an unexpected vindication. La Figaro came out with the top twenty roasted chickens in Paris. That night, I received a message from Bruno: ‘Karen, you were right!’ Chez L’ami Louis had been voted the number 1, indeed the very best roast chicken in the whole of Paris. I knew it!
It was hard to remain humble. La Figaro had proved itself to be a very good judge, matching its assessments with a verdict I had long known. But I thought to my self, if La Figaro was bulls eye in their assessment of the best chicken in Paris, I was willing to trust their assessment of numbers two through twenty!!!! Suddenly, there were more roast chickens available to my purview and a life time of chicken tasting opened up for me. Since then, I have been faithfully following their list and trying out the remaining 19 top roast chicken Parisian eateries, often bringing my family along from Allard to the Relais Plaza to La Rotisserie D’Argent to La Rotisserie de la Tour and L’Auberge D’chez Eux. There is no doubt that Chez L’ami Louis continues to hold centre place in my heart. We will be returning to France this summer for my birthday celebration and I’ll be roasting some chicken of our own in our holiday home in Provence where Adele and Bruno and their children will be visiting. Maybe I’ll see you at Chez L’ami Louis. I’ll be the one in a chicken reverie saying…you guessed it, ‘This was the best roast chicken I have EVER tasted.’
Recipe for the best chicken you will ever taste (and here’s to my first shared recipe)
A quick note: I have been a foodie for as long as I can remember eating. I made my husband fall in love with me when I cooked him my bouillabaisse. And my children love me for being their mom, but my roast chicken certainly helps. Finally, I have decided to share my recipes. This comes with a lot of heart and soul.
half a meter of kitchen twine
a solid bottom roasting pan (I use a copper mauviel or a cast iron Le Creuset)
the best whole chicken you can get (choose a nice, big chicken about 1kg in size)
1 whole head of garlic
1 small to medium lemon
a large handful of fresh rosemary
freshly ground pepper and salt
Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius
Place the chicken breast side up with the legs facing towards you
Grind salt and spread generously all over the the chicken and in the cavity.
Grind a sprinkling of black pepper and spread similarly around the chicken and in the cavity
Place the head of garlic on its base and slice it in half through its diameter, parallel to its base so a cross-section of the cloves is exposed
Slice the lemon in half at the diameter as in the picture.
Stuff the cavity of the chicken in alternating layers, starting with the garlic, followed by the rosemary, then the lemon and repeat.
Loop a piece of kitchen twine around each chicken leg and then tie the chicken legs together with the tail bone by criss-crossing the string twice over and around the legs. Tie the kitchen twine in an firm bow. The trussing keeps the flavour contained in the hollow and allows the chicken to cook evenly. When tying, be careful not to pierce the skin as the skin preserves the juices and the flavour.
Cook for an hour, to an hour and a half uncovered until the chicken becomes golden and crispy. Then, take it out and let it rest for ten minutes before you touch it.