If you go to France in April, you do not go merely to capture the charm of the horse chestnuts in bloom on the Champs Elysée, pleasant as that is. You are there at Easter, and in France, that is la première fête in the Christian year, really more of a feast than Christmas which, in America, we generally consider the year's most festive occasion. Offices and stores close Thursday night, not to open again until the Tuesday after Easter. City people can return to the country churches of their childhood for the Easter mass and to well-laden tables of regional specialties when they break the six weeks' fast. Mais oui, Easter is certainly a fête and no mistake.
Every gourmet owes it to himself to spend at least one Easter somewhere in France. It doesn't matter where. Any place you go, even the tiniest villages, you will find an almost unbelievable profusion of Easter specialties, The windows of the pâtisseries are overflowing with exquisite pastries from tiny petits fours to huge gâteaux, chocolates and bonbons at the confiseries are works of art, and the gray dawn finds every boulanger shaping and baking the holiday beads and brioches, every charcutier chopping and grinding, cooking and garnishing the scores of different pates and hams. The French housewife makes her own good soup, prepares an elegant pièce de résistance, tosses the salad for the Sunday and Monday feasts. But highly skilled chefs and bakers and pastry cooks will supply her with every kind of hors-d'oeuvre and all the different breads, cakes and tarts she might want. It's the same wherever you go, from big cities to rural hamlets, from the Belgian border to the Mediterranean coast line.
Last Easter when I was back in France, it surprised me to see how little the shops and markets had changed, There is a certain intimacy about the marketing habits of the French that survives in the midst of many changing customs. The same arguing about the freshness and the ripeness, the soundness and tenderness of the produce whether it is the chef of a fine Parisian hotel buying quantities of foodstuffs in the great pavillions of Les Halles, or a house-wife filling her tidy basket at the stalls in a village marketplace. Like preparing food and eating it, marketing is important, it is serious business. And once again, like cooking and eating, the French love every minute of it.
It was at the Plaza-Athénée hotel in Paris where my young brother Lucien is chef de cuisine that a group of us had a special Easter dinner in the hotel's charming Marie Antoinette suite. Here my American friends saw for the first time a real Easter boron d'agneau with the special garnish of spring vegetables. And this one was certainly true to tradition, as beautiful as it was delicious. Placed on a very long, narrow silver platter, the glistening, golden roast was banked with water cress and overlapping sprays of parsley—bright red tomatoes sprinkled with truffle were ranged down its back. All around it the carefully prepared bouquets of colorful, garden-fresh vegetables nestled.
L'agneau pascal, that is the Easter lamb, is the young, milk-fed spring lamb that is very tender, very white. It is not unusual to roast the whole lamb because some of them are quite small. But more often what we call le baron is cooked. This is the rear part that includes the saddle and the two legs. The best lamb in France is from Pauillac near Bordeaux and if you see l'agneau de Pauillac on a menu you can be sure you will be served most excellent lamb.
Although I know that in some parts of the country ham is the favorite Easter meat, noticed last spring that in most places your French gourmets still want both lamb and ham on the holiday table. The ham recipe which I am giving you here is a specialty of the countryside around the Burgundy wine trail.
Following the menu from beginning to end. you'll see that every course sings a gastronomic song of spring. The sorrel in the soup, the brook trout so long imprisoned in icy waters but now leaping in rushing streams, asparagus making its first appearance of the year. And the strawberries. Don't forget them, la reine des entremets—queen of desserts—or so the French think.
The tiny fraises des bois with (heir sweet, woodsy tang are my favorite although I must say 1 was very much impressed a( seeing in a food shop near the Madeleine strawberries so large that only three could be packed in a basket. This particular dessert, a combination of strawberries and vanilla Bavarian cream, is a traditional one. In this country ice cream is so popular and so easy to make or buy that you might prefer it to the Bavarian cream.
ET voilà! Dinner for la féte de Pâques, a fine meal to be lingered over for at least two hours. A hearty meal it is but if you study the menu you will soon see how thoughtfully it has been balanced. A rich soup, but the trout that follows is covered only with the simple browned butter of a meunière sauce. And no sauce at all with the roast lamb, nothing but its own juice. The heartiness of this pièce de resistance is in turn offset by a light, simple salad. Then (here is the clean coldness of a champagne-flavored sherbet to clear the palate and refresh the taste buds so that the parsleyed ham and asparagus may be approached with real anticipation. In short, the only rich sauce in the whole meal is the hollandaise served with the asparagus.
Wine, naturellement, with this dinner, and for such a traditional meal I would recommend the conventional white with the fish and red with (he meat. A Chablis 1949 with the trout or, even better, a Pouilly-Fumé 1947. Then try a Château Cheval-Blanc 1934, 1937, or 1945, or else a Château Cos-d'Estournel 1937 or 1945 with the roast. It isn't necessary to serve wine with the neige au Cliequot, but if you want one I'd suggest a Château d'Yquem. Then a red wine again with the ham, either a Nuits Saint Georges 1937 or 1945 or a Morey Saint Denis, possibly Clos des Lambrays or Clos de la Roches 1945 or 1947. And of course there is really nothing to surpass a good champagne with dessert and a fine cognac after the coffee.