This is a tale of chicken soup, a mainstay in many parts of the world. The gal was brought up that, English style, chicken soup made a sick kid feel better. In much of Asia too, chicken soup is the ultimate comfort food. In sensible, and thoughtful, luxury hotels around the globe, you find room service menus include chicken soup, along with such other comfort foods as fish and chips and, before Europe’s ‘horseburger’ scandal burst, hamburgers. At the 188-room Hotel Le Bristol, Paris, by contrast chicken soup is Michelin three-star.
Eric Fréchon is the most un-primadonna-ish holder of the coveted three-stars that you can imagine. He is a little shy, and more than a little creative. And when it comes to classics, he is among ZE best. At Epicure restaurant, which got its third star in 2009, his Poulard de Bresse cuite en vessie – Bresse chicken cooked in a bladder, is one of the best-sellers. First, of course, it was necessary to eulogise yet again about his French caviar, from Sologne, in the Aquitaine region. Just as he served it at a memorable Oetker Collection lunch at Hotel de Cap during the 2012 ILTM, here it was presented as though it was a filled tin of caviar. Dig in, however, and underneath the nutty black pearls of caviar from baeri sturgeon is a soft mash of smoked haddock and potatoes.
Now for the chicken, for two. A serving maestro presents the whole bird, in its cooking bag. He takes it out of the bag and places it on a silver stand atop silver chicken ‘legs’. A real Bresse chicken, by the way, has blue, or rather black, legs and the best, the Bény variety, also have a red crown which, with white feathers, means they are the colour of the French national flag. Bresse chickens have been Appellation d’origine controlée since 1957, they are strictly monitored, require at least ten square metres of land each and spend their final days in a hospice known as an epinette. When plucked and shorn, they come with a number attached to one leg.
The first time I had Bresse chicken cooked in a bag it was prepared under the supervision of the late Alain Chapel at a special foodie event in Melbourne. Oh dear, it had not been cooked enough, it was still red, not even pink, inside, and such Big Names as Mietta O’Donnell, who ran the divine Mietta’s restaurant in a little lane off Collins Street, and author and entrepreneur Elise Pascoe did not know what to do. Chapel had already studded his chicken, pre-cooking, or rather not-cooking, with black truffles. Eric Fréchon prefers to add the truffles when cooked. A box of truffles is presented as if it is gold, which, knowing the price of truffles, it is.
Here at Le Bristol the chicken, having been set on a giant shiny silver carving trolley, with rollover cover, has been skilfully carved, with the legs and wings popped into waiting silver pots to be taken back to the kitchen. We each get a chicken breast, with tiny shrimp and vegetables around, and truffle is grated over. I look around the glorious panelled Epicure restaurant, in the early 19th century a private theatre for the Count of Castellane. Gosh this place is full of history. The home of Madame de Pompadour once stood on this site, on rue Faubourg, and the present building is mainly attributed to Hippolyte Jamet, who named the hotel after the frequently-travelling Marquess of Bristol.
What a small world. I was in another Hotel Bristol only a few days ago, the one that the Sacher family now own in Vienna. But I must not digress. Finish the breast and the rest of the bird is not far behind. Individual bowls of soup are brought, under covers as shown above. Remove the cover and there is the most unbelievable aroma of chicken bits, and leek bits, and the rich broth. We somehow go on, to lemon concoctions, Menton lemon sorbet with pear scent, and lemon jam and limoncello. Now is the season of Menton lemons, I believe. We talk and talk, and enjoy the Louis Boillot Gevrey-Chambertin 2009, and as we leave this luxury hotel’s fine restaurant I am give a printed copy of tonight’s personalised menu, in a tasselled cover.