In the heart of French Catalonia, chefs in the city of Perpignan gather every two years to treat guests to an evening of unlimited food, and wine to match each course. I’m lucky enough to attend and even managed to cut the queue to get in. I am, truly, a kid in a super-gourmet candy store.
The first chef I meet is Eric Planes, one of 40 chefs at Perpignan’s Palais Gourmand where tables are set up in squares, each side offering a tempting spread of artfully presented starters, mains, desserts and specially selected wines to appease the palate. The teams have been cooking for hours, maximising a tiny workspace to churn out thousands of small dishes.
Planes is Catalan, and represents the restaurant La Septieme Vague in Perpignan. “It’s seafood cuisine. I work all around the world and return to my country here in Perpignan and I open this restaurant. We grow oysters not far from here. We try to cook really simple food but to give the real taste of a product. And tonight, I mix the oysters and the shrimps and I grill it on the plancha, the Spanish way, just grilled and served with the jus of the shrimps and herbs from the region.”
It’s been a year-long preparation.
“We are a team. We organise during a year – chef, sommelier, wine distributor and of course a wine seller.
And we organise all these things with passion.
All these things are really typical of the region. And we show what we can do. A lot of people from Spain are coming, from Brussels, from England, and we need to show the gastronomy.”
Which is the whole point of the Palais Gourmand…to introduce residents and tourists to local restaurants, and also allow chefs to create a new take on traditional cuisine.
Stephanie Ook runs La Bartavelle restaurant. “We work with the local butcher, the bakery, our vegetables are from Perpignan and we are near the sea. Tonight we serve a dessert. We love this dessert because it’s very fresh and light. It’s white chocolate streusel with fresh raspberries and stewed raspberries and whipped white chocolate and a little crisp.”
I ask Stephanie if she’d like to see Perpignan on the foodie map. “I think Perpignan is going to be a place in the future where people can taste some different foods because some young people are making little restaurants with about twenty places, and they are making what they love to do and they want to share that passion.”
I taste an amazing, and very unusual looking item – a hollowed out egg with a little chapeau. Inside are snails cooked with butter and herbs, tomato and lemon. So simple, yet sumptuous and delicious.
I’m not the only one drooling over the dishes. Nola D’Enis is a British expat living in Bordeaux. “I’ve just tasted a traditional French recipe for fresh green peas done in four different ways. The peas themselves, a little mousse of spring onion, a sorbet of lettuce and a carrot jelly and it is exquisite. If you just look at the people who are here and the enthusiasm of the chef, I think it’s stunning.”
Stunning to an outsider, but typical for the French. I join Carmen Konopka, Editor of a French travel magazine, for a tour around some of the best stands. “I think what’s really interesting is what it shows about French culture because in what looks a bit like an airplane hangar, you’ve got two-thousand French people each of whom has paid 50 Euros and they’re all passionate about food and local wine. They’re not the chattering classes who are into food as a hobby, and they’re absolutely trying everything. It’s unlimited. Whatever you can queue for, you can eat. For me, it just sums up French culture.”
I remark about how many small children are here. “Yes, but that’s the point. The kids will often eat the same thing as the parents and why shouldn’t they? What’s wrong with Coquille St. Jacques or morel mushrooms?”
Speaking of morel mushrooms, Carmen pulls me over to what must be the longest queue in the entire place. “What you’re going to get is from a really nice restaurant in San Ciprian, in fact I think he’s got a Michelin star. It’s a wonderful morel mushroom stuffed with a mousseline of lobster and it comes on a sauce that has been made with a jus de volaille, flavoured with local, organic saffron and to finish it all off it’s served with this little pile of mashed sweet potato. It is divine, I promise you, and it’s worth it.”
And it is. I’m uncomfortably full, but I spot one last dessert that I just can’t resist, especially as there’s no one queuing. But that could change at the next Palais Gourmand two years from now. The secret’s out, and even with the cost of a cheap flight, this night of pure, gastronomic indulgence is worth it.
Palais Gourmand is held every two years in Perpignan.
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