By Fiona Sims
“There are two great traditions in France - gastronomy and perfume. Perfume in France is very important. The way perfumers develop new aromas gives me inspiration – much more so, in fact, than going to eat in restaurants,” declares Anne-Sophie Pic, France’s only female three Michelin-starred chef.
She’s making one of her regular visits to her new London restaurant, La Dame de Pic, located in the sumptuous new Four Seasons at Ten Trinity Square, and she’s chatting about the ingredients she uses on her menu, which is overseen by her head chef Luca Piscazzi.
Pic sources ingredients from all over the world (including overseas French departments and regions), but she also plunders the countryside around her eponymous three star restaurant in Valence, southeastern France.
Valence is the capital of the Drôme, located at the southern end of the Rhône Valley, on a corridor between the Alps and the Massif Central mountains. In short, it’s within easy reach of all the good stuff in France - from the lower Alps and the Ardèche, the Rhône Valley and the plains, to Provence in the south.
Valence also marks your arrival in the south - or the Midi, as the French like to call it. “We have a saying - we are situated between butter and olive oil. The cream and butter of Lyon, and the olive oil from the south - it’s the best of both worlds in my view,” says Pic.
“My cooking is lighter than it was in my grandfather’s day,” she explains. “For me, it’s a real challenge to get a strong flavour into my dishes and yet still make them light, so I’m always looking for new techniques and new ways of cooking things.”
She’s not wrong. My meal at La Dame de Pic was a sensory rollercoaster of flavours and textures, plus the odd new ingredient – voatsiperifery pepper, anyone?
A series of thrilling amuse-bouche start the meal, but the favourite was a foamy puree of cauliflower topped with grated Mimolette and dusted with espelette pepper. We followed that with what will be a permanent fixture, promises Pic, called berlingots.
Inspired by Valence favourite, ravioles de Romans (a small cheese and parsley stuffed pasta), Pic fills hers with lightly smoked Brillat-Savarin and serves them with wild mushrooms. There’s a whisper of Tonka bean in the sauce, while voatsiperifery pepper (it’s a rare pepper from Madagascar) adds another layer of scent and spice to the dish - that earlier perfume reference now making more sense.
The strongest food scent of them all – truffles – plays a starring role in another Pic classic, a stunning dish of raw Scottish scallops, served with root vegetable parcels and a nepita bouillon (nepita is an oregano-like herb from the Corsican maquis).
“Everybody thinks that Périgord is the best place in France for black truffles, but it’s not true, the Rhône Valley has the best black truffles – they’re more plentiful here and have a great intensity. My grandfather used to call them black diamonds,” she says.
Vegetables are a huge focus on her menu here. “The Rhône Valley has beautiful vegetables. Did you know that this is France’s biggest, oldest organic produce growing area? The asparagus in particular is incredible here – I love white asparagus. The fruit, too, is amazing – one of my favourites is white peach. And there are so many wonderful cheeses, with Saint-Marcellin at the top of my list,” she enthuses.
I particularly loved the crispy salsify that accompanied the Brittany pigeon, which was smoked with liquorice and served with turnip and a kaffir lime-spiked bouillon.
We ended the meal with another highlight - ‘The White Millefeuille’, with Tahitian vanilla cream, jasmine jelly and voatisperifery pepper foam. It’s a jaw-dropping dish that is being talked about with awe by the capital’s pastry chefs, who coo over its impressive architectural construct. And to think that Pic initially had no intention of ever joining the family business.
Pic thought business school sounded like much more fun, compared to the drama of growing up above her parent’s prestigious restaurant in Valence. “We used to live in a small apartment above the kitchen. I could hear my father during service, the pans clattering. I saw how hard my parents worked.
“But it was while working as in intern in Paris for Moët & Chandon that it was pointed out to me how important brand Pic was and I realized I needed to go home,” she remembers. So from taking over the running of the restaurant in 1998, she won her third Michelin star in 2007.
As well as her new restaurant in London, brand Pic includes her Paris restaurant, also called La Dame de Pic, her eponymous restaurant at the Beau-Rivage Palace in Lausanne, Switzerland, and her Rick Stein-style empire in Valence.
There’s the eponymous three-Michelin starred restaurant, the hotel, called Maison Pic, a bistro called André (named after her grandfather), a cooking school called Scook, a delicatessen, and a gourmet fast food place called Daily Pic.
Her parent’s initial success was helped, she thinks, by the location of the restaurant, located right next to the main route south to the Côte d’Azur. “There’s a tradition of feeding travellers passing through here,” she explains. Add to that the fine old city of Valence and plenty of other good places to eat, including two other restaurants with Michelin stars, and people have plenty of reasons to stop here. Valence, here I come.
It’s difficult. We sympathise. Despite being an entirely different shape and size we have an uncanny ability to turn up in the same outfit (usually black) and order the same dishes. We both wear glasses, swathe ourselves in scarves and fancy Daniel Craig.
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© 2015 Fiona Beckett & Fiona Sims (the2fionas.com), photography © Gary Latham, website by Scend