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My resolution this January is to go to Paris more often. It is quite shaming: last year I went for a long weekend with my son in February and for the day in September. The year before that I did not even go to Paris once. And yet every time I do go, I wonder why I have left it so long. Even more than Rome, it is home from home.
My first visit, with no money and a bed in an army-style auberge de jeunesse somewhere in the suburbs, was not auspicious. It was probably another 10 years before I returned. Even then, it took a day or two before I realised that if you go to the wrong restaurants, queue interminably for the Louvre and look to the Parisians for a friendly word of advice, you can have a pretty rough time of it. Things weren’t going too well until we happened upon the Brasserie de l’Isle Saint-Louis.
It is a place that has little right to be any good. Just over the bridge that links the Ile de la Cité (and Notre Dame) and the more sedate and civilised Ile Saint-Louis, there are tourists and cheap gewgaws everywhere. Yet countless visitors have christened their stay in Paris with a modest meal at this brasserie and not regretted it. The food is remarkably consistent and the menu reads almost exactly as it did in 1978. I suspect that no one has felt the need to improve upon it.
Resistance to change can, of course, be as dangerous as an excessive enthusiasm for progress. Across the river from the Ile Saint-Louis, Bofinger has a menu that would have been unrecognisable 30 years ago. True, the oysters and coquillages are still there, and desserts are a symphony of sugar and cream, with a rum baba the size of a football, containing enough alcohol to inebriate Paris Saint-Germain. However, main courses are no longer brasserie fare but positively gastronomic and my veal with salsify, black truffles and creamed potatoes was expertly done.
Meanwhile, I am happy to say that the jarret de porc aux lentilles is still on the menu at the Brasserie de l’Isle. It costs a bit more than the handful of francs I paid in 1978 but it is still a huge chunk of meat adorned by nothing more than a little thin gravy, some firm green lentils and a pot of mustard.
Ham hock with lentils
Puy lentils, a dark moss green, are traditional. On this occasion I used the slightly browner Castellucio lentils. They hold up just as well when cooked and have the requisite rich and earthy flavour. Serves at least eight.
2 ham hocks weighing 1.25kg each
1 large carrot
1 bulb of garlic
3 bay leaves
250g green lentils
1 red chilli
1 glass dry white wine
100ml double cream
2 tsp Dijon mustard
2 tsp seed mustard
● Soak the hocks in a large pan of cold water overnight. The next day, change the water, bring to the boil and then discard the water and cover with fresh cold water. Add a sliced onion, the carrot, the garlic, the bay leaves and the thyme. Bring to a simmer, skim carefully and cook on a gentle heat for two and a half hours, replenishing the water if necessary.
● Rinse the lentils in a sieve with cold water before covering with fresh water in a saucepan. Add the second onion studded with the cloves and the chilli and bring them to the boil. Simmer gently for 40 minutes or until they are perfectly tender. Drain if necessary and season with salt only, now that the lentils are cooked.
● Peel the shallot and chop it very finely. Melt the butter in a small saucepan and sweat the shallot gently. Add the wine and reduce it by half before adding two large ladles of the stock from the ham. Reduce this quite vigorously by two-thirds and then whisk in the cream, boil briefly and whisk in the two mustards. Season this sauce and taste.
● Lift the hocks from their stock and carve them, arranging on top of the lentils, and dress with the sauce. Boiled potatoes may also be served.
Rowley’s drinking choice
The brasserie staple, when speaking of red wine, is a racy and fruity Beaujolais. In truth this is not a dish that will struggle with any red.
Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais