Monday, May 7, 2007
When I find myself in the Montparnasse area in Paris the first thing I usually think of is crêpes, since this is the area where most of the city's Breton population settled (it seems they got off the train at Montparnasse and never left the area). I know I'll be eating a few crêpes this week as I'm on my way to the Ile de Ré, an island off the Atlantic coast near La Rochelle, for a week's holiday. So I was grateful to come across the café Le Plomb du Cantal in rue de la Gaîté, a once-seedy street near the Montparnasse tower that is now lined with theaters, cafés and cute bars like Le Tournesol.
Le Plomb du Cantal is an area in the sparsely populated Auvergne region in central France. The closest I've come to this region is the Lozère, which is just south of the Auvergne's vocanic hills and shares their rib-sticking cuisine. The people of the Lozère turn up their noses at any vividly colored vegetable, preferring to accompany each meal, winter or summer, with a mixture of mashed potato and fresh tomme cheese. This mixture comes in two forms: the smooth, famously stringy purée known as aligot and the chunkier mix called truffade.
At Le Plomb du Cantal nearly ever diner was tucking into a sausage link about half as long as my arm next to an enormous heap of truffade, like a central French take on English breakfast. I was about to order the same thing when Philippe beat me to it, and I realised that his serving would easily be big enough for both of us. I quickly switched to the frisée salad topped with about as much bacon as I would normally eat in a year, while Sam had juicy jambon au torchon - miles away from industrial ham - with skinny frites maison that tasted distinctly of animal fat, which to my mind is a good thing.
In the open kitchen the cooks tossed potato chunks and tomme in huge cast-iron skillets until they melted into a sticky mass and poured this into copper pots. The friendly waitresses then scraped the lava-like mixture onto the plates at the table. I've sometimes seen truffade cooked until it develops a crust, but here it just had nice brown bits mixed in. Surprisingly it somehow wasn't too fatty, though I still think that about once a year is the right frequency to eat this dish. Plomb, by the way, is the French word for lead, which is exactly how the truffade felt in our stomachs for a few hours afterwards (it was worth it, though).
Much later that day, I had recovered enough to treat myself to just one crêpe from my favorite stand on boulevard Montparnasse, Chez Alberto. My only mistake was to eat it at a table inside, which spoils the fun of licking the Nutella off your fingers as it drips out of the hot crêpe. Maybe crêpes were never meant to be eaten with a knife and fork.
Note: Truffade doesn't photograph well, especially once it's out of the copper pot and on the plate. I snuck into the kitchen to capture it in its pot, but later realized that I had snapped aligot instead of truffade.