There is no more glorious way of ending a good lunch on a sunny spring day than with a vacherin. I am not thinking of the famous Alpine cheese, but the pudding named after it. One of the best, if not the best, vacherin I have ever eaten was in a busy, noisy, unpretentious bistro in a Paris flea market. It was a classic: layers of crunchy meringue, beautifully soft inside, placed on top of a magnificently pungent pink grapefruit sorbet and covered with Chantilly whipped cream.
My second-best vacherin was at the much snootier Lasserre, which has two Michelin stars and is one of Paris’s most venerable gastronomic establishments. The meringue was also nice and crusty outside and soft inside, the sorbet was raspberry, and there was an abundance of berries to help digest the whipped cream. It was, of course, three or four times the price of the flea market version.
The other day, I decided to extend the vacherin test to two fashionable new-look bistros at opposite ends of the same street in the well-heeled seventh arrondissement of Paris. Both are the ventures of two former super-starred chefs; both have also become popular celebrities as judges of French MasterChef.
At one end of the rue Saint-Dominique, Christian Constant has set up his own little gastronomic empire with three restaurants next to each other. Le Violon d’Ingres is his chic one-star gastronomic brasserie, and next to it is Café Constant and another bistro, Les Cocottes, where you need not book. At the other end of the rue Saint-Dominique, Jean-François Piège has taken over the old Thoumieux hotel and brasserie and transformed it into a trendy gastro empire. He has tried to keep some of the old character, but has not been able to resist some rather unfortunate flashy, not to say vulgar, touches. Upstairs he has opened a two-star restaurant where the concept is that the chef treats you as a familiar guest in his house. And if you feel in need to sleep off your lunch, you can always check into one of the designer hotel rooms.
The food at Le Violon d’Ingres was generally impressive, but when it came to the vacherin I was disappointed, and regretted that I had not gone for a slice of the mile-long vanilla and caramel millefeuille sitting invitingly on a sideboard. The ice cream was OK, but the meringue was rock-hard, and there was simply not enough whipped cream. As for the vacherin at Thoumieux, it was a dreadful deconstructed effort with lumps of meringue that were equally rock-hard and ice cream that was melting by the time the waiter brought the dish along.
Rather than torturing keen young chefs on French television, Messrs Constant and Piège might be advised to go out to the flea market and taste the vacherin there. If they still insist on deconstructing this most classic of puddings, they should perhaps contemplate a week’s internship in the Eton school canteen to learn how to make Eton Mess – the ultimate deconstructed vacherin. And if they find Eton a little too rough to handle, they can always go to Le Caprice in London, which makes a perfectly respectable stab at this great British interpretation of a French classic.