The term “cuisine bourgeoise” has become very fashionable. I understand it as defining very good ingredients that have been lovingly, yet simply prepared. A “plateau de Fruits de Mer” is a good example of such food. The fact that in some seaside restaurants it may well be served in a grotesque ceramic boat is neither here nor there as the French have the extraordinary ability to display the alpha and the omega of style simultaneously. Food such as this defines itself by the quality and freshness of the ingredients, which qualities are doubly important in the case of seafood. The sight of several generations of a family sitting round a restaurant table covered in white linen, or even white paper, upon which are displayed the elevated trays of the freshest seafood is a defining moment. It suggests unity, harmony and the pleasure of a shared experience.
A good Fruits de Mer for 4 people would typically contain the following:
8 sea urchins
I’ve often seen families of sixteen people, or more, seated at a long table on the terrace of a restaurant. Parents, grand parents, children, grand children, uncles and aunts are all there. The group will be enjoying aperitifs of Pastis or Kir or any one of the aromatic drinks beloved by the French, such as Lillet. There is a sense of anticipation.
Waiters appear carrying large round metal dishes brimming with fresh seafood and carefully place them on the metal support frames that are already in position. Critical eyes are quickly appraising quality and quantity. The waiters continue to place small white china bowls of mayonnaise, with which to anoint the crabs and langoustines, or in which to dip the whelks. There are also the shallow bowls of red wine vinegar and sliced shallot for the oysters.
Chilled Muscadet, Sancerre or Charentais white wine will be poured into waiting glasses. Butter, which only makes rare appearances on a French dining table, is liberally daubed on slices of dark rye bread. There is laughter and chatter; the scene is set. Hands reach out to take their first choice of oyster, crab or langoustine and suddenly a sense of concentration pervades the gathering. Eating, and most importantly, enjoying seafood entails having certain manual skills. The ability to remove every edible part from a crab needs determination, and a clear knowledge of the beast. Which parts are to be discarded, and which to be savoured between asides to neighbours and sips of chilled wine. Releasing an oyster from its anchorage in the shell without reducing it into a grey mush, adding a spoonful of vinegar shallot condiment and raising the brimming shell to your lips for the final moment is another tour de main.
Corks studded with thick pins are placed at strategic places around the table. These will be wielded like tiny rapiers to extract the “bigorneaux” from their shiny black, convoluted shells. Bulots need a vigorous twist of the pin to remove them from their shell, before dipping them into a swirl of mayonnaise. More courageous souls will be using small spoons to carefully lift out the perfumed orange flesh from black spiked sea urchins. This theatre is acted out in near silence. Mouths are full and minds are locked into the problems of separating the delicious morsels from their submarine armour.
The once immaculately laid table is now scattered with the detritus of cracked claws and empty shells, surmounted by crumpled napkins. Strange implements, which are uncannily similar to surgical tools, protrude from the ruins of cracked pink shells, which were once crabs. The silence is now broken as animated conversation breaks out between the group. Here is the opportunity to talk about family before confronting the taxing decisions concerning cheese and dessert. There’s a long afternoon ahead.
To read and see more of Roger Stowell’s work visit the following:
Roger Stowell is an international food photographer. After a traditional boarding school education, he immediately left home to seek his fortune. After several years of acquainting himself with the world, from which boarding school had so efficiently shielded him, he returned home, penniless and ill, to a less than heartfelt welcome. Due to his mother’s diligence at searching for some sort of talent in the boy, he was accepted by Portsmouth College of Art where he enrolled to study for a DipAD in fine art and filmmaking. Having already tasted the delights of the capital’s fleshpots, he quickly found both the course and Portsmouth to be equally tedious. As chance would have it an acquaintance, from those seemingly wasted years, was now a leading London fashion photographer in need of an assistant. His tutor at art school breathed a sigh of relief and advised him with these sage words “Why play houses when you can do the real thing?” He took the advice and was soon in London assisting the multi talented Clive Arrowsmith who taught him more about creativity and photography in a year than he could ever have learnt in dreary Portsmouth in a lifetime. By 1968 Roger had set up as photographer in his own right. Over the following years he worked with most of the major magazines such as Elle, Marie Claire, Red, Olive the colour supplements of the Times, Observer and Telegraph and many more. He illustrated books such as Anna del Conte’s “The Classic Food of Northern Italy”, Vatcharin Bhumichitr’s “ Vatch’s Thai Cooking”, Terence Conran’s “Gastrodome” and a host of others. During the 90’s he joined Julian Seddon Films with whom he directed TV commercials for Nestle, Masterfoods, Kellogs and Danone. In 2001 he managed to persuade Jenny, his wife, to move from the pleasures of London to a tiny farming hamlet in the South Vendee, which was devoid of pleasure. Luckily, over the last 10 years, they have found great happiness in France where they run food photography courses from their home whilst Roger continues to take pictures and to write. Roger’s Blog: http://stowell.wordpress.com Roger’s website: www.rogerstowell.com and Roger’s food photography courses: www.camerahols.com