I spent the last weekend of November in the kitchen of Philippe Gaertner, the chef proprietor of Aux Armes de France at Ammerschwihr near Colmar in Alsace in Eastern France.
I mention Thanksgiving because Philippe (unlike many other famous chefs) is open to all sorts of gastronomic influences. Although I was keen to learn what I could about Alsatian cuisine it was not a one way learning experience. I had picked up skills and knowledge over the years that appealed to him and during my stay I cooked several dishes for him and his team that they devoured with relish. A local journalist Philippe Marchegay of the Dernieres Nouvelles D'Alsace put it well when he wrote: "Gita, a star in England, has arrived in Ammerschwihr with an appetite to learn and a suitcase full of spices."
Alsace is one of the great gastronomic regions of France. It differs from the others in that it has many German influences. Place names such as Ammerschwihr, Kayserberg, Turckheim, Wintzenheim and Zimmerbach are Germanic. Alsatian, which is closely related to German, is still heard from time to time. The region's most famous dishes; choucroute, tarte flambée and kouglof are enjoyed on both sides of the Rhine. The grape varieties of Alsace - Gewurztraminer, Riesling and Sylvaner - from which the great wines are made are also grown in Germany. Bordered by the Vosges mountains to the West and by the Rhine to the East the region produces plenty of game. Wild boar and venison are often on the Armes de France's menu. Smallholdings in the Munster valley in the Vosges produce the region's most famous cheese, to my delight served with a good sprinkling of roasted cumin seeds.
As those who read French can see from the history page of its website Aux Armes de France traces its history back to 1920. Philippe's father, Pierre, who had trained under some of the greatest chefs in France built up the restaurant's reputation after the Second World War. His most popular dishes were le Foie Gras, les Filets de Soles aux Nouilles, la Salade de Homard Fernand Point (a dish that bears the name of the chef who taught him how to make it), la Volaille au Vinaigre and les Crêpes Flambées Framboise. Philipe entered the business in 1980 and gradually took over its management from his father. Together with his wife Simone, the daughter of another well known restaurateur, Philippe has consolidated and extended his restaurant's fame. Somewhat controversially, Philippe and his family handed back the restaurant's star to the publisher of the Michelin Guide in 2005 as they found the conditions for inclusion increasingly irksome. They now serve great Alsatian food that combines tradition with modernity.
The kitchen of Aux Armes de France is divided into sections specializing in meat, fish, sauces and patisserie and I worked on all of them. I spent some time with Eric the sommelier which was a first for me because I had hardly touched wine before this visit. I learned how to make sauces, including a port and veal sauce that took eight hours to prepare, how to work under pressure when the restaurant was at its busiest and how to make the most delicious desserts with Anna, the artisiere. Everything was good but if I had to pick a highlight of my visit it was my time with Anna. For my part I introduced my hosts to samosas, Kochori ( pea peanut and coconut parcels and a good old Yorkshire apple crumble with almonds and cinnamon - all of which they loved.
One of the differences between Aux Armes de France and just about every other catering establishment that I had ever visited before was the camaraderie. It is, of course, a commercial enterprise but it is also like a family. The staff are there out of choice and not because they have to be. Everyone in the kitchen from Philippe downwards had his or her place and was liked and respected for what he or she could do. It was gruelling work but we had fun. Hugging each other after delivering a particularly heavy order. Even though I have no more than schoolgirl French I felt very much at home. I was very sad to leave when the time came to say "au revoir."
And I hope it is "au revoir" and not "Adieu". Philippe and I developed a real rapport. I made my samosas deliberately mild because I did not know how he would take to Indian food . "Not hot enough spice" he said. "I thought it would be too spicy for you" I replied. "I like it spicy" he replied so I bunged in some more chilli's to complement some other spices. Another time I prepared a special starter that is one of his signature- frois grais because he wasn't available when the the order came through. He appeared just before they were due to be served. "Oh you can't do that!" he exclaimed. "It takes 20 years to learn how to prepare those dishes". with a big smile. But he gave the dishes to the waiter and as far as I am aware they never come back from the customers.
I have so much to say about my four days in France but that will have to be the subject of other posts.