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Young chef wows northern France with sensual cooking

Eating at Alexandre Gauthier's restaurant should put customers in the mood for making love "otherwise it didn't work," said the young chef whose cuisine is luring foodies from far and wide to the north of France.

Young chef wows northern France with sensual cooking

The 32-year-old, perhaps better known abroad than at home, offers the unexpected at his Michelin-starred La Grenouillere (The Frogpond), with gently cooked foods designed to arouse customers with their fresh, “wild” flavours.

Though he took over the inn from his father only eight years ago, Gauthier quickly won attention and is listed among the the top 100 restaurants in the world in the British restaurant guide “Restaurant”.

“I am in the north of France, but also south of London, Brussels and Amsterdam,” he joked.

The establishment itself, in a cosy village in France’s northernmost Pas-de-Calais department, plays a role in Gauthier’s vision. Open since 1900, it used to be “a bit of a naughty” venue, he said, where customers were more likely to dine with their mistresses than their wives.

His own menu is edgy, with focus on the purity of ingredients and textures. He shuns all spice except pepper.

Typical is his lobster barely smoked over juniper branches. As it’s brought to the table, a few branches are set alight to create a sensual, pungent aroma. He also combines diced avocado and raw monkfish — a fish the French rarely serve raw — without the traditional lemon but steeped in a
seaweed-infused broth, redolent of seaside holidays.

“You’ve got to be ready not to please everyone, but that’s the choice we’ve made,” said the chef who darts about everywhere with spoons tucked into his jeans pocket, ready to taste and mix his dishes.

Gauthier says his aim is to bring out the “absolute, precise” essence of an ingredient, as in one dish where peas are cooked in every fashion from crunchy shoots to foamy broth to melt-in-the-mouth gnocchi.

He does not shy away from playing with ingredients, “using certain produce where you wouldn’t expect it, going against the grain”. He did this with one of his signature dishes — pigeon served “bleu”, meaning hot but nearly raw, which both horrified and impressed some of the country’s top chefs at a workshop for young chefs at Paris’ elite Hotel Plaza Athenee in 2005.

Before returning home, Gauthier — who admires and often cites Michelin-starred Michel Bras, a compatriot also known for his minimalist approach — worked in other kitchens for only three years, including the Michelin-starred Regis Marcon in south-central France and Lasserre in Paris.

“At the time it seemed short. Today I’m glad as I avoided getting stuck in a mould,” he said.

He broke with his father Roland’s classical fare — frogs’ legs, crepes suzette and such — when he took over La Grenouillere in 2003.

“I didn’t want to do the same traditional food as my father but I realised quickly that I had to find a style, a certain way of doing things,” he said.

His approach earned him a Michelin star — out of a maximum three — in 2008 and the title of “creative” chef of the year in 2010 from the French food bible Omnivore, which looks for up-and-coming stars.

To complete his changes at La Grenouillere, Gauthier recently hired French architect Patrick Bouchain to extend and “reinvent” the inn. The result is a modern, open kitchen and new accommodations in six rustic yet luxurious huts at the edge of the garden.

The chef said he applied the same credo to cooking and decor: “Don’t use overstatement to make a name for yourself; free yourself from ostentation and excess.”

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Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

One thing everyone can agree on is that France has a lot of cheese - but exactly how many French fromages exist?

Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

Question: I often see a quote from Charles de Gaulle talking about ‘246 different types of cheese’, but other articles say there are 600 or even 1,000 different types of cheese and some people say there are just eight types – how many different cheeses are there in France?

A great question on a subject dear to French hearts – cheese.

But it’s one that doesn’t have a simple answer.

Charles de Gaulle did indeed famously say “How can anyone govern a country with 246 different types of cheese”, but even in 1962 when he uttered the exasperated phrase, it was probably an under-estimate.

READ ALSO 7 tips for buying cheese in France

The issue is how you define ‘different’ types of cheese, and unsurprisingly France has a complicated system for designating cheeses.

Let’s start with the eight – there are indeed eight cheese ‘families’ and all of France’s many cheeses can be categorised as one of;

  • Fresh cheese, such as cottage cheese or the soft white fromage blanc
  • Soft ripened cheese, such as Camembert or Brie
  • Soft ripened cheese with a washed rind, such as l’Epoisses or Pont l’Eveque
  • Unpasturised hard cheese such as Reblochon or saint Nectaire
  • Pasturised hard cheese such as Emmental or Comté
  • Blue cheese such as Roquefort 
  • Goat’s cheese
  • Melted or mixed cheese such as Cancaillot

But there are lots of different types of, for example, goat’s cheese.

And here’s where it gets complicated, for two reasons.

The first is that new varieties of cheese are constantly being invented by enterprising cheesemakers (including some which come about by accident, such as le confiné which was created in 2020).

The second is about labelling, geography and protected status.

France operates a system known as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC or its European equivalent AOP) to designate food products that can only be made in a certain area.

As cheese is an artisan product, quite a lot of different cheese are covered by this – for example a blue sheep’s milk cheese is only Roquefort if it’s been aged in the caves in the village of Roquefort.

There are 63 listed AOC cheeses in France, but many more varieties that don’t have this protected status.

These include generic cheese types such as BabyBel and other cheeses that are foreign in origin but made in France (such as Emmental).

But sometimes there are both AOC and non-AOC versions of a single cheese – a good example of this is Camembert.

AOC Camembert must be made in Normandy by farmers who have to abide by strict rules covering location, milk type and even what their cows eat.

Factory-produced Camembert, however, doesn’t stick to these rules and therefore doesn’t have the AOC label. Is it therefore the same cheese? They’re both called Camembert but the artisan producers of Normandy will tell you – at some length if you let them – that their product is a totally different thing to the mass-produced offering.

There are also examples of local cheeses that are made to essentially the same recipe but have different names depending on where they are produced – sometimes even being on opposite sides of the same Alpine valley is enough to make it two nominally different cheeses.

All of which is to say that guessing is difficult!

Most estimates range from between 600 to 1,600, with cheese experts generally saying there are about 1,000 different varieties. 

So bonne dégustation!