At Domaine Laroche in Chablis mealtimes are a big event. Gwénaël Laroche treats her cooking as if it were a work of art, and never cooks the same meal twice. NATASHA HUGHES joins the family for supper and borrows some artistic recipes.
The display on the fishmonger’s stall at Auxerre market looks like a preparatory sketch for an Old Master’s still life. Striped gambas as big as a baby’s arm lie atop a mound of shaved ice, craggy oyster shells tumble out of a basket, a chorus line of frogs’ legs perform pliés, oval John Dory bear the bruise-like print of St Peter’s thumb, and the silvery scales of a Nile perch shimmer like a silvered mirror. There’s an abundance of choice – whole salmon, crevettes grises, red and grey mullet, rascasse, skate and snapper – but Gwénaël Laroche shops like a whirlwind. Her brisk efficiency is all the more amazing when you realise that, a mere five minutes beforehand, she had no idea what she’d be buying for the evening’s meal.
‘I never know what I’m going to cook in advance,’ says Gwénaël, the wife of Michel Laroche, head of Burgundy’s famed domaine. ‘It’s very disappointing when you know what you want and can’t find it, so I like to see what’s in the shops, what’s in season before I plan my meal.’
The first thing she buys is the shop’s entire stock of langoustines. ‘I’m going to cut these in half and put them under the grill for a couple of minutes with some butter and thyme.’
Next, she focuses her attention on a large zander, its silver sides dappled with pastel colours and a coppery orange. She peers into its gills to check its freshness before giving the fishmonger the nod. While he scales and guts the fish, Gwénaël moves on to the cheese stall.
There’s a huge Gruyère, more hole than cheese, a ball of sunset-coloured Mimolette and a Bannon wrapped in chestnut leaves. A fromage fermier from Chablis is making a bid for freedom, oozing off the slab. Again, she makes her selection with swift assurance: a slab of Cantal, fresh goats’ cheese, a St Marcelin. The cheeses are joined in her basket in short order by a selection of wild mushrooms, pink-flecked bean pods, a couple of lettuces, a slab of foie gras, chicken breasts and a couple of baguettes.
In the kitchen
The shopping completed, Gwénaël carries her prizes home to the converted 18th-century farmhouse she shares with her husband and their children, Margaux, 14, and Romain, 11. The Laroche family has been producing wines in Chablis since 1850 and, as président-directeur géneral of Domaine Laroche, Michel is now one of Chablis’ foremost négociant-éléveurs – his wines run the gamut from entry-level Chablis to highly rated grands crus from some of the region’s foremost vineyards. Domaine Laroche also owns a property in the up-and-coming Languedoc region and is involved in a joint venture in Chile, both of which allow Michel to explore the previously uncharted territory of the world of red wine.
Bags unpacked, Gwénaël sets to work making lunch. Within minutes of her return, chicken is being griddled atop a bed of rosemary, and a bottle of Chablis is chilling in an ice bucket. While we’re waiting, a bowl of hand-made rillettes and a crusty baguette make a delicious appetiser.
‘I cook fast. It’s the shopping that takes the time, not the cooking itself,’ Gwénaël points out. She shops on a daily basis – ‘I don’t believe in having food for a whole week in the fridge – I just keep things like milk and yoghurt in there’ – and cooks dinner for the family every night. ‘It’s the only time we all have together,’ she explains.
Most of the time she cooks seafood – she doesn’t really enjoy red meat. ‘I grew up in Brittany – my parents still live by the sea – and so I love fish,’ she says.
It was in Brittany that she first met Michel. ‘I was only 21, a student in Rennes, when I met him on a sailing holiday,’ she remembers. ‘It all happened rather fast and we’ve been together ever since.’
The recipe books lining one wall of the Laroche kitchen are there for inspiration. ‘I’m a very instinctive cook,’ says Gwénaël. ‘I read the books for entertainment. It’s like looking at art.’
Gwénaël doesn’t just read cookery books – she’s in the middle of writing one herself. ‘I started working on it in 2003 because I thought it would be nice to have a cookbook for the domaine organised by the seasons and illustrated with pictures of the vineyard throughout the year.’
Having written the bulk of the book already, at the moment she’s struggling through the desserts section – struggling because she’s no great fan of sugar. ‘I’m not really keen on it myself,’ she admits, ‘but Michel said I had to have some, so that’s what I’m working on at the moment.’
Gwénaël’s eye for artistic detail informs more than her appreciation for food – an eclectic collection of paintings, prints and sculptures (some her own work) are dotted about the house. ‘I do lots of sculpture,’ she says. ‘It’s like cooking – I’ve never had lessons, and work purely from instinct.’
For Gwénaël and Michel alike, part of the fun of cooking and entertaining is in finding the right wine to accompany the food. ‘Matching wines to food is part of creating a total pleasure,’ says Michel. ‘You have to be precise about it. What I love most is when the chef prepares dishes with a wine in mind and neither dominate.’
The guests, Agnes and Jean, arrive at nightfall – ‘My best friends,’ says Gwénaël. ‘They love food and tell me I have never cooked the same thing twice.’
Enjoying the feast
That the wine and food matching has successfully been worked out is confirmed by the enthusiasm with which everyone tucks into the meal. The informality of the kitchen setting is underlined by the fact that the starter of grilled langoustines is served on the island that separates the kitchen from the dining area, and is eaten with fingers made greasy by the thyme-scented butter that drips from the shells. The steeliness of a Chablis St-Martin is the perfect foil to the herby richness of the food.
Once everyone is seated round the table, dinner begins in earnest. Tiny ceramic bowls of clam and bean soup – the broth based on a reduction of Chablis and the juice from the shelled clams – is served with a premier cru, Les Vaudevey, and consumed in enraptured, appreciative silence.
Jazz plays in the background as conversation resumes in the pause before the next course. A broad sweep of topics are covered: the merits of screwcaps versus real cork, wedding reminiscences, the merits of the local hotels and the freshness of the fish Gwénaël is serving.
Sadly, the wine served with the wild mushroom and foie gras consommé, a 1987 premier cru Les Fourchaumes (which has sailed backwards and forwards across the Atlantic with Michel) is slightly corked; but beneath the taint, it’s easy to see that the rich, toasty wine would have made a great accompaniment to the dish had it been in the peak of health.
The main course is served – perfectly browned zander fillets perched atop a mound of chive-flecked mash and surrounded by a lake of red wine sauce. The wine, a Piedra Feliz Pinot Noir, comes from the Chilean vineyards owned and managed by Michel in tandem with Jorge Coderch. ‘I think Pinot Noir is great for making sauces as it’s low in tannins,’ explains Gwénaël. Not only is the Pinot the perfect base for a sauce, but when paired with the dish, its silky texture and ripe fruitiness enhances the sweet flesh of the river fish, creating a much-admired match.
Gossip and debate carries on around the table long after the plates have been cleared away. Finally, reluctantly, the guests spill out from the welcoming haven of the kitchen into a cool, crisp autumnal night, replete and satisfied. And, as she begins to clear the table, Gwénaël is already thinking ahead to her next visit to the market, mulling over the dishes she might create tomorrow.
ConsommE with foie gras and
For the stock
1 veal bone
1 bouquet garni
1 litre water
salt and freshly ground pepper
1kg wild mushrooms (depending on what’s in season)
olive oil or a knob of butter, for frying
1 generous tablespoon crème fraîche
30g pâté de foie gras
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Prepare your stock by placing the ingredients in a large pot. Bring to the boil, then simmer for half an hour. Pour stock through a sieve, then place to one side.
Clean the wild mushrooms and cut them into large chunks. Sauté them in a frying pan with the oil or butter until they turn a golden brown.
A few minutes before serving, reheat the stock thoroughly. Pour into a blender and add the crème fraîche and foie gras. Blend thoroughly until they melt and the liquid becomes foamy – about a minute. Strain through a sieve into bowls which already contain the hot mushrooms. Season and serve.
Fish with red wine sauce
1/2 bottle Pinot Noir
2 dessertspoons tomato ketchup
1/2–1 tsp chopped fresh thyme
4 x 150g fillets of firm-fleshed white fish (eg zander, cod, monkfish) with skin left on
oil for frying
60g unsalted butter, cut into quarters
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Place the wine, ketchup and thyme in a casserole dish, season and bring to the boil. Reduce until there’s about 200ml of liquid left. Check the seasoning – if the sauce tastes sharp, add a pinch of sugar.
Fry the fish, skin side down, in a small amount of hot oil. When the flesh turns opaque and milky and the skin brown and a bit crunchy, fry the other side for a few seconds.
While the fish is frying, whisk the butter, piece by piece, into the wine sauce. The sauce should become rich and silky.
Pool a spoonful or two of sauce onto each plate (which should be warmed in the oven in advance), then place the fish, skin side up, on top. Serve with mashed potatoes.
Natasha Hughes is a wine and food writer.
Written by Natasha Hughes