Moustiers-Sainte-Marie sits like a jewel atop the Verdon Gorge in Provence, possibly the most exquisite site in Europe. As my wife and I ascended the steps next to a natural spring waterfall, the town with its narrow stone streets dappled with charming shops and restaurants slowly began to materialize.
Through the fog I spotted a small restaurant, and on its door hung a plaque displaying the mark of culinary excellence, the highly sought after Michelin star. The Michelin Red Guide, established over a hundred years ago, sends its anonymous undercover inspectors across the country to award stars to only those restaurants it deems the best of the best. To this day getting a Michelin star is regarded as the highest honor in the world of French cuisine.
By now you’ve probably figured out that I’m a “foodie”, one of those bourgeois creatures who fancies himself a chef, yet would never have the guts to set foot in a real restaurant kitchen. Instead, I subject my family to various food experiments. Lamb tagine with prunes and pine nuts, slow cooked brisket marinated for 24 hours in cider vinegar, organic chicken rubbed in roasted garlic and brown sugar, duck in sake infused jus, baby potatoes roasted with rosemary and maple syrup, brussel sprouts fried slowly to a crisp in olive oil.… I bake my own bread. I make my own pickles. You get the idea.
As a foodie, I also love trying new dishes. My only rule is that I won’t eat anything that could reasonably be kept as a pet. That rules out rabbit, horse, dog, and guinea pig, but that’s about it. Anything that comes out of the sea is game. Frogs? Snails? Sure. Insects? I’d try them. Offal? Tendon? Sweetbreads? Cured meats made from whatever parts? The stinkiest of stinky cheeses? Why not? Eating is my sport. I do it slowly and methodically. I imagine how the dish was made, what gives it that unique taste, how I could replicate the flavor on my own.
So you can imagine my excitement at finding a Michelin starred restaurant, and here, in the hiking and kayaking mecca of the Verdon Gorge. I’d never been to a restaurant awarded this honor. I’d been scared off by the prices and snobbish atmosphere of these privileged establishments in Paris. This restaurant, however, was not horribly overpriced or stuffy, and what the hell, you only live once, right? Luckily, they had a table for two, and my wife and I were seated on a veranda with a stunning view of Moustier’s magical streets.
As expected, the menu was small and offered limited choices, the chef probably having chosen the few dishes she excelled at. I imagined that pretty much anything on the menu would be flavorful beyond my expectations. So I ordered the trout terrine and waited for my mind to be blown.
I had an idea of what terrine was. I’d seen it, but never tasted it. I knew that it looked something like artisan hand-sliced soap so I wasn’t surprised when it arrived glistening in the last of the day’s sunlight, beautifully centered on a white plate.
I pierced the gelatinous rectangle with my fork. The fish pieces were firm, the jelly that surrounded them less so. I first let a slightly cool piece rest in my mouth, my taste buds eager to be vanquished by Michelin-starred excellence.
The unpleasant waxy texture aside, it tasted like nothing I’d ever eaten before. In fact, it tasted like absolutely nothing—no aromatics, no acidity, no sweetness, nothing tangy about it…. If I’d merely been served an empty plate, there’d be little difference. I poured salt and pepper on it, hoping to salvage this experience, but neither the soap-like consistency nor the complete lack of flavor could be conquered. It sat briefly, foreign and unwelcome on my tongue, before a quick chew and swallow washed down with red wine.
So here I was, torturing both my mouth and my culinary sensibilities, because even though my childlike reverence for haute French cuisine was dying a hideous death with every forced gulp, I still didn’t want to insult the esteemed chef or damage her hard earned Michelin gifted pride.
I never went to another Michelin starred restaurant after that. I’d rather eat at authentic dives or unknown gems that have been passed over by the culinary powers that be.
Pass the haggis and beans and save the trout terrine for someone with finer sensibilities.
Henry Israeli’s poetry collections include New Messiahs (Four Way Books: 2002), Praying to the Black Cat (Del Sol: 2010), and god’s breath hovering across the waters, (Four Way Books: 2016). He is also the translator of three books by Albanian poet Luljeta Lleshanaku. He has been awarded fellowship grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, Canada Council on the Arts, and elsewhere. His poetry and translations have appeared in numerous journals including American Poetry Review, Boston Review, Harvard Review, The Iowa Review, The Literary Review, and Tin House, as well as several anthologies. Henry Israeli is also the founder and editor of Saturnalia Books (www.saturnaliabooks.com). Visit www.henryisraeli.com for more details.
feature image via Jenny Downing via Flickr.