[Alain Passard’s Garden]
I have never dined at Alain Passard’s restaurant. The closest I ever got to it was my lunch at La Végétable, but that doesn’t really count — the proximity of the escalators and the neon lighting cancel out the stars.
It’s not that I don’t want to go, I do, but L’Arpège is one of those restaurants I’ve read so much about — Passard’s love of vegetables, his running a biodynamic garden to provide for the restaurant’s produce needs — that I fear I may be disappointed when I actually go*. So up until now, I have contented myself with the hope and possibility that, some day, I shall make it there.
But when a friend of mine hinted that she might be able to arrange a visit to said vegetable garden, it was all I could do not to pester her with daily emails and twice daily text messages, reminding her that I was absolutely, positively, and superlatively interested, and when when when could we go?
The visit was scheduled for a weekday in mid-June — yes, I’ve been sitting on that story for a little while. Passard’s property is located in the Sarthe area, some 200 kilometers to the south-west of Paris, so my friend, her son, and I met with Julie Coppé — Alain Passard’s right-hand woman — at the Montparnasse train station, from which my dear TGV propelled us to Le Mans in under an hour; a taxi ride took care of the remaining kilometers.
Few things provide as concentrated a dose of happiness as a daytrip to the countryside. This is when the contrast between clamor and quiet, between exhaust fumes and morning mist, is the clearest. When every detail feels like a gift (a swing set! a donkey! fresh mud!), and when you know you had better fill your lungs and eyes and ears now, while you can, because it will all have vanished come nightfall (and don’t lose that slipper again please).
Once at the castle, we were joined by Cynthia Sandberg, who runs a similarly inspired produce farm for David Kinch’s restaurant in California, and who was travelling through France in a motor home (camping-car in French) with her son — sounds almost too film-worthy to be true, I know.
Our little group thus formed, we proceeded to tour the grounds, zig-zagging from patch to patch, crouching to get a closer look at this root or that bug, peeking through the leaves to spot the strawberries, rubbing herbs with our thumbs to release their scent, and asking a gazillion and a half questions.
In the meantime, the gardeners were hard at work, tending to the plants and harvesting what would be delivered to the restaurant later that day, to appear on diners’ plates in the evening — peas, pois gourmands, fava beans, radishes, multicolored turnips, potatoes, kohlrabi, a few early tomatoes, zucchini blossoms, various herbs, rhubarb, berries and currants…
Much to my delight, part of the crop was set aside for lunch — a vegetable spread fit for a king, cooked by Julie and served at the long communal table in the castle’s dining room.
We spent a few more afternoon hours hanging out in the garden, enjoying the faint sunlight, chasing the chickens, and discussing the makings of a good compost pile. Soon, it was time to head back, but I came home on a cloud of fresh air, with a bunch of photographs and a box of canelés, bought at Gare Montparnasse.
* A year ago, almost to the day, I wrote about one of those high-expectations dinners; that one was at El Bulli. It did not disappoint.