For years, the famous Michelin Guide to the restaurants of France gave its highest rating, three stars, to 12 chefs. Before a new restaurant could be added, an old one had to be dropped.
In the last five years, however, that rule has been changed; Michelin has gradually increased the number of its three-star restaurants, adding yet another this year to make a total of 21.
Georges Blanc, the newest chef to be anointed with three stars, is among the youngest in the history of the Michelin rating system.
I met him almost 10 years ago, when he was unknown. I was driving through Burgundy with chef Jean Troisgros on one of his wine-buying expeditions when he turned off the highway near Macon. He told me, "I'm going to take you to lunch at the restaurant of a young friend of mine, whom I think you should meet because he has a great future ahead of him."
We drove to the tiny village of Vonnas, to the picturesque country auberge, Chez la Mere Blanc. It has been owned and run by the Blanc family for four generations: the mother as cook (the restaurant had two stars for at least 20 years), the father as manager of the dining room and the small hotel.
Shortly before our visit, the white-haired cook had handed over the kitchen to her son Georges, then 27. I was impressed with the young Blanc and his food. There was not the lsightest hustle-bustle, chase-after-success about him. Clearly, he was going to do things his way in his own time. I thought that his quiet self-assurance came from three sources. First, the security of a long family ownership. Second ,his conservative, classical training. Third, the extraordinary traditions of the region. Georges Blanc never has had to battle to get started and make his way. The auberge had its reputation before he took it over.
Then his mother insisted on complete training: enrollment at age 16 in the famous professional restaurant school in Lausanne, the requisite years of apprenticeship in some of the best restaurants of Paris and the provinces of France, and two years of training directly under his mother in all the regional specialties for which the auberge was known. Blanc told me: "It was very hard having my mother as my boss."
Of course, Blanc is young and has been touched by the revolutionary spirit of our times. The measure of his success is the way he has succeeded in balancing the traditions of his mother and the region against his inventiveness in the daring and light dishes of la cuisine libre, the free cuisine of the modernists.
Some of his recipes are hard to adapt for American cooks because of the special ingredients of the Ain region. There is one, however, which typifies his style of cooking with its devotion to the earthy, natural flavors of food that I have managed to reasonably adapt to American shopping. He calls it "sauteed pigeon-squab filled with a ragout of the forest." Sometimes you can get squab at fancy meat and poultry markets. If not, use cornish game birds. To achieve the natural, woodsy flavor that is such an essential part of the recipe, you should make an effort to find wild mushrooms. Sometimes they are imported canned; there also are packages of dried Chinese, Italian or Japanese mushrooms, which should be reconstituted by being soaked for an hour in warm, dry white wine.
This dish is uncomplicated in preparation, yet the balance of the seasonings is superb. Each bird seems to be filled with the scents and tastes of the forest, wild berries, earthy mushrooms, freshly picked herbs -- something of the ambiance of one of the great gastronomic regions of France. GEORGES BLANC'S ROASTED SMALL BIRDS (4 servings) For marinade: 1 fresh lime or lemon 4 squabs, game birds or rock cornish hens, each 1 1/4 pounds, oven ready, plus hearts and livers, chopped 1/2 pound wild mushroom, or 1/4 pound dried wild French, Chinese black or Japanese mushrooms, soaked 1 hour in white wine, coarsely chopped 5 or 6 shallots, peeled, minced 2 tablespoons juniper berries, crushed 1/2 cup armagnac brandy (approximately) 1/2 cup slightly sweet madeira wine, bual type (approximately) 1/2 cup dry white wine (approximately) For stuffing: 1/2 pound chicken livers, trimmed, chopped 1 medium black truffle, (optional) 1/2 pound lean, dark-smoked, boiled ham, diced 1 tablespoon dried oregano 2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemany leaves, or 2 teaspoons dried 2 tablespoons chopped fresh savory leaves, or 2 teaspoons dried 1/4 cup chopped parsley 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons French mustard (moutardi de Meaux, if possible) Salt, pepper 10 tablespoons unsalted butter (approximately) For baking: 1 carrot, minced 1 stalk celery, de-stringed, minced 1 bay leaf 3/4 to 1 cup whipping cream 1/2 pound fresh button mushrooms, halved if large
To prepare birds for marinating, first halve lime and firmly rub cut sides all over birds, outside and in, to clean and refresh them. Never wash under running water; this removes the flavorful juices. Refrigerate heart and livers, covered.
In small bowl, mix mushrooms, half of shallots, juniper berries. Divide into four parts: spoon each into a bird. Place birds side-by-side in covered storage dish large enough to hold them snugly. If dish is too large, marinade will not be deep enough to seep into flesh. Dribble over armagnic, madeira, white wine and remaining shallots. Let marinate in refrigerator overnight, covered. Baste and turn them the last thing at night and first thing in morning.
To prepare the ragout stuffing, remove birds from marinade; let drip a moment, then scrape out mushroom mixture into large bowl. Save marinade and shallots. Dry each bird, outside and in; let come to room temperature.
Add to large bowl chicken levers, plus the birds' hearts and livers, diced truffle, all but 2 tablespoons ham, oregano, rosemary, savory and parsley. Mix lightly, while working in, to taste, mustard, 4 to 6 tablespoons marinade liquid, salt and pepper. Texture should be moist, but not runny, with everything coarsely chunky. The flavor, as you taste, must be strong enough so it will work itself into flesh of birds. When you like it, let it ripen, covered, until you need it.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Choose flameproof covered casserole large enough to hold the birds neatly. If it is too large, juices will spread and be out of contact with birds. Lightly salt and pepper insides of birds; fill each with stuffing. Tightly close each end of each bird. Rub each with 2 tablespoons of butter; hold aside while preparing vegetable mixture.
To bake and poach flavors into birds, set casserole with another 2 tablespoons butter on stove at medium heat. As soon as warm, add carrots, celery, shallots from marinade, remaining 2 tablespoons ham and bay leaf, crumbled. Simmer in butter to develop flavor until everything is soft, usually 3 or 4 minutes. Then work in 1/4 cup marinade, salt and pepper, to taste; simmer 5 minutes to develop more flavor. Turn off heat; set birds on this mixture. Set casserole uncovered in hot oven with shelves adjusted so breasts of birds are at oven center. Roast until breast skins are a nice gold, usually 15 or 20 minutes. Baste every five minutes.
Remove casserole; turn temperture down to 350 degrees. In small saucepan, quickly bring to boil 1/2 cup marinade; pour into casserole. Cover; return to oven to poach and steam flavors into birds. After about 10 to 15 minutes, test for doneness. They are best served slightly rare, so that when pricked with fork, juices that ooze out are pale rose in color. At same time, each leg should wiggle easily. Remove casserole; turn temperture down to 170 degrees. Lift birds from casserole and keep them warm, preferably covered with foil, in oven. Set casserole on stove over medium heat and de-glaze bottom, scraping firmly with wooden spoon, using extra splash or two of armagnac. Skim off visible pools of fat. Transfer all liquid and solids in casserole to food processor; puree until smooth. Put puree into casserole, again over medium heat; work in as much cream as needed to make a richly smooth sauce. Keep it bubbling steadily, not too hard, so sauce gradually thickens. Taste and adjust it. When sauce seems almost right, add mushrooms, they need 2 or 3 minutes to cook. Serve birds with the mushrooms sauce.