I remember my first time as if it were yesterday.
No, not that. I am speaking of the first time I ever experienced crème Anglaise. It was very nearly a religious experience, a real life-changer, perfect in every conceivable way.
This momentous occasion was a beautiful Saturday in early October 1989. In my memory, the day was beautiful but the fact of the matter is that it rained on and off all day.
As confirmed city-dwellers, my wife and I did not own a car. We relied on the subway, the occasional taxi and our feet to get us where we needed to go, but my sister, who was not as stoic in her transportation choices as we were, had left her car with us while she was in Florida. In exchange for driving her to and from the airport, we got a welcome opportunity for a weekend in the country.
So on that beautiful yet intermittently rainy Saturday, we drove out to Connecticut, exploring every junk shop, antique store and yard and garage sale in the Litchfield hills.
At the end of the day, darkness found us in New Preston and hungry. Driving down a dark, deserted stretch of road looking for the highway to take us back to New York, we stumbled upon a little, white colonial house with a sign out front that read, “Le Bon Coin.” Luck had found us a French restaurant in the middle of the Connecticut wood and judging by the number of Jaguars and Bentleys in the gravel parking lot, it appeared that luck had found us a pretty snazzy one.
Having been raised in the country, in a house practically straddling the Wilkes/Surry line, I knew a great deal about cruising around on the secondary roads of the foothills of the Appalachian mountains. Which is exactly what the Litchfield hills are. They are the Connecticut foothills of the Berkshires, one of the more northern reaches of the Appalachians.
The topography may have been familiar to me but in all my exploration of country roads of the Appalachian foothills, I had never before happened upon a French restaurant in the middle of nowhere, let alone a French restaurant with a parking lot full of luxury cars.
Of course, I pulled my sister’s Ford Tempo in among the Jags and Beamers even if there was a certain “Hotel California” aspect to the whole thing.
And although we could have checked out any time we liked, I never wanted to leave.
The food was that good.
It was always a struggle to get Lynda into a French restaurant. She claimed it was because she didn’t like sauces but the real reason was that she held a deep distrust of any food she had not eaten before she was 3 years old. But the dark Connecticut forest presented no other options and I convinced her that surely steak au poivre, the only French dish she will reliably eat, would be available, and we could, with our collective powers, compel the chef to put the sauce on the side.
Steak au poivre was indeed available for her but I opted for the special; roast pheasant stuffed with veal mousse and swimming in a boysenberry sauce. Clearly, this Wilkes County boy does not restrict himself to the foods of his childhood.
It was the best thing I have ever eaten. Before or since. To this day, the memory makes me smack my lips. A lifetime of cooking, recipe collecting and eating in French restaurants has never yielded another opportunity to experience that culinary masterpiece. But some day before I die, I will recreate it or find it in some other hole in the wall establishment if I have to spend the entirety of my retirement canvassing the rural backwaters of France, door to farmhouse door. Hope, as they say, springs eternal.
The evening could have happily ended there were it not for the infamously small portions of French restaurants. Though delighted with our meal, when our waiter asked us about dessert, we were interested in what he had to say. I will not even pretend to remember what all the dessert options were that evening but I remember our choices with crystal clarity.
Lynda went with “blanc et noir” which translates as “white and black.” It’s a floating island which is a boiled meringue (white/blanc), beloved of British children in the nurseries of English manor houses, or so I later learned, and a scoop of dark, bittersweet chocolate mousse (black/noir). Both black and white were resting gently in a sea of crème Anglaise.
In a rare moment of minimalism, I chose fresh raspberries in crème Anglaise.
We were both very, very happy. Deliriously happy. As dessert should make one.
It was not surprising that Lynda was happy with a nursery dessert and I have spent decades trying to replicate for her a decent floating island, never with total success. But that evening for both of us began a love affair with crème Anglaise that continues to this day.
Nothing more than egg yolks, sugar and hot milk, usually with a little vanilla and sometimes a touch of brandy, it’s really nothing but a runny custard. But it’s a runny custard that transforms everything it touches into its most perfect self. It even has the power to make Lynda momentarily abandon her ‘no sauces’ rule as it is, in fact, a sauce.
Not much later, I learned that crème Anglais is also a perfect accompaniment to strawberries as well as raspberries and have been enjoying that combo immensely ever since, especially this strawberry season.
I contend that crème Anglaise is truly the nectar of the gods, especially when drizzled generously over the greatest gift of the gods, fresh local strawberries.
We’ve got another week, folks, with the strawberries. At best. Enjoy it while you can. Preferably with crème Anglaise.
I know that I will be. And now I promise not to talk about strawberries again until next spring. But not the crème Anglaise. That’s never far from my mind.
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699 or on Twitter @BillColvard.