France's most famed bistro dish: steak frites
The winter mist hangs so heavy that often I cannot see my front gate. My morning coffee at Cafe du Centre is most welcome. From the outside, Cafe du Centre looks like any other village cafe. The signs are a bit faded, the entranceway is congested with smokers – even in winter – and an assortment of dogs is tied to the rail that marks the boundary between the cafe and the village’s property.
Inside, the coffee machine grinds out over much of the morning’s noisy conversation which is conducted with plenty of gusto – shoulder shrugs and hand waving included. From the warmth, I watch oldies, beret topped, scarf and mitten clad, rush past outside, with the quintessential baguette tucked under their arms – some even on bikes.
Here, a day without bread is not an option, even if you freeze fetching it. By 10.30 the cafe is buzzing as the staff prepare the tables for lunch which, even in this unexceptional location, will not be just any plat du jour. Owner Melanie, young, vivacious and a true local, provides a menu with only locally sourced foods; provenance is paramount.
All the providores, from the butcher through to the baker, the growers of vegetables and fruits, the cheesemongers to the wine makers, will be listed beside each menu item. They are all local, from places where I can shop, not some large faceless supplier; there’s a real sense of pride in local foods and purveyors.
For my son, this means a chance to indulge in France’s most famed bistro dish, steak frites, especially as Melanie serves a grand-size entrecôte cooked à point. Beef fillet is not the most sought after cut for grilling; here, it is usually sold wrapped in fat or bacon and tied ready for roasting.
For grilling it’s the entrecote, and you need to be hungry as the minimum weight is about 300 grams. Entrecote is the French name for the Scotch fillet, though it is not trimmed to the neat size we know, nor will the steaks be plastic-wrapped to hold their shape. My traditional butcher, and Melanie’s supplier, Serge Dubertrand, will display the whole entrecote on the bone in his front window — slightly Flintstone-ish — and willslice off a steak to the thickness I require; he would not presume to know my needs.
While I queue to buy, I can review the animal’s provenance. Serge will have visited the farm to pick the beast he wants. At slaughter, it will have been photographed for a certificate, now hanging on the boucherie wall, which notes details such as origin, weight, age, etc. Here customers would not buy meat from a butcher who does not know the provenance of his source stock.
Jean-Luc will make short work of Melanie’s entrecote, served plain – avec frites, sans sauce. I may choose from a classic selection of sauces – Maître d’Hotel (parsley butter), Bordelaise (red wine) or echalote (shallot). These classics, which could be regarded in our international, cuisine-inspired world as dowdy, are rarely varied here; after all, why mess with a good thing!
Vintner’s steak, ideal for summer or winter, requires a few good quality ingredients and attention to the cooking of the steak to arrive at a perfect meal. Choose a good red wine that will partner a quality steak. Always reduce wine for, or in, wine-based sauces or jus by half, lest the flavours of the wine remain weak with a sharp note; reduction mellows the wine. Here I would use a gutsy Madiran wine, not unlike an aged syrah. Buy aged steak, about 2.5cm thick if you can and be sure to have the steak at room temperature before grilling.