This Saturday, July 14, is France’s national day of celebration, the equivalent of our Fourth of July. In times past, it was also the unofficial start of summer vacation, back when civilized nations mandated six weeks off to eat, drink and relax. Here, in today’s Washington, many of us are lucky to be away from work for six days in a row.
For those who long for that French holiday they’re never likely to get, at least not this year, “Coquilles, Calva & Creme,” by G.Y. Dryansky with Joanne Dryansky, will be sheer torture. I mean that in the best sense.
Here is a catalogue of refined pleasure, a chronicle of fabulous restaurants and famous acquaintances, a gastronomic memoir focused on the heritage of “real French food.”
In these pages, the Dryanskys travel everywhere, dine well and drink heartily, hobnob with aristocrats and members of the Universal Cassoulet Academy. They also periodically bewail the rise of exquisite food — the tiny portion beautifully presented — and the cult of the celebrity philosopher-chef.
For most of us, though, “Coquilles, Calva & Creme” is largely a book to dream over, since we will never eat ortolans — those tiny birds are now protected by law — or devour fresh black truffles, or sip a 19th-century wine (seldom any good), or spend the weekend at the Mouton estate with Baron Philippe de Rothschild.
Gerry Dryansky and his wife, Joanne, traveled to Paris in the early 1960s, and, after a brief stint at the Herald Tribune, he landed a job covering fashion for Women’s Wear Daily. In later years, he became the European correspondent for Conde Nast Traveler. These, it’s hardly worth saying, are jobs that many of us would kill for. In explaining how he learned about food, Dryansky writes:
“Think about what it was like to have an expense account that required me to keep in good contact, across the best tables in Paris, with the fashion makers and their business partners — and added to that, to be able to discover the newest, the best restaurants in town, as part of reporting about the city to guide the New York fashion world.”
Dryansky recalls high-living days of lunches at Maxim’s and the Brasserie Lipp — where Aristotle and Jackie Onassis might drop in for a bite — and long dinners with Coco Chanel and chats with the reclusive Yves Saint Laurent and his partner, in both senses, Pierre Berge. He evokes, too, the nightlife of the era:
“At Regine’s . . . you’d find Francoise Sagan alone with a scotch at her table in the entry, while deep inside, Catherine Deneuve, sitting with David Bailey, would be playing with her long blonde hair. A group of Nouvelle Vague filmmakers, among them Claude Chabrol and Jane Fonda’s onetime husband Roger Vadim, would hang out at the bar chez Castel, making wry comments about the young people . . . King Hassan of Morocco’s brother, Moulay Abdallah, spent a lot of time at Castel’s, when he was in Paris, but Jean Castel refused to let the king in. His Royal Highness arrived at the door with his bodyguards and wanted them to enter with him. Jean refused, unless they left their guns in the car. The king was not amused, and left.”
Dryansky also recalls a weekend spent with Rothschild and his wife, Pauline, back when the couple “would not only invite persons they liked or admired to stay at Mouton, the invitation sometimes came, for those in other countries and less financially privileged, accompanied by plane tickets.” He notes that “Philippe would have his breakfast in bed last until late morning, while he translated Elizabethan poetry into French. Four soft-boiled eggs would arrive on his tray, and he would open each of them and eat the one that was cooked closest to his liking.”
In this same chapter, Dryansky recounts a dinner-table conversation between Rothschild and the wine authority Alexis Lichine:
“ ‘I drank the Mouton ’68 lately,’ [Lichine] said. ‘Felt enormous respect for it.’
“ ‘Really?’ Philippe said, raising an eyebrow. ‘A mediocre year to say the least. The grapes were all saturated with rain. It was a terrible August.’
“ ‘I meant the 1868, Philippe,’ Lichine replied.”
Dryanksy loves such stories. He once entered a restaurant’s single bathroom just after it was vacated by the Duchess of Windsor — and he graphically describes what he discovered. He reminds us that former French president Francois Mitterand ate prohibited ortolans as his last meal when he was dying of cancer. Because she slept at the Ritz Hotel rather than in her Paris apartment, Chanel was able to avoid paying French taxes. In a chapter about the great chefs of France’s past, Dryansky recalls that Auguste Escoffier worked for Cesar Ritz and that “one of his last accomplishments was training a pastry chef who would abandon the trade. His name was Ho Chi Minh.”
More than once, Dryansky comes off as a bit of a snob: When describing the curry at La Coupole, he writes that it was “nothing like what I’d had staying on a houseboat that came with a cook on Lake Dal, in Srinagar when Kashmir was heaven on earth, instead of the opposite as it is now.”
Off and on throughout these pages, Dryansky critiques star chefs, lambastes “molecular cooking” as transforming food into edible “foam” and regrets the cult of restaurants as theaters and meals as performances. He prefers the easygoing James Beard to the persnickety Julia Child, and he assails the wine authority Robert Parker as favoring harsh, overly alcoholic vintages.
For the second half of “Coquilles, Calva & Creme,” Dryansky and his wife travel around France, visiting centers of regional cuisine. They enjoy seafood in Normandy, eat doves in Basque country and bouillabaisse in Marseille, dine on calves brains in Lyon (where a tradition exists of great female cooks) and savor cassoulet in Carcassonne. Occasionally, they transcribe favorite recipes for dishes such as choucroute garnie and blanquette de veau. While this “tour de France” in dozens of meals is an epicure’s delight, it is also slightly repetitive — you might want to space the chapters out rather than gorge on one right after another.
In general, Dryansky writes entertainingly, without rising to the sensual prose poetry of M.F.K. Fisher or the high-energy zing of Anthony Bourdain. I suspect that the book was constructed out of magazine articles, since several anecdotes and quotations are repeated more than once (e.g., Christian Millau’s comment on contemporary cooking: “It all comes down to two things, the media and the money.”). Occasionally, Dryanksy’s sentences sound slightly awkward, as if he had transcribed them from French: “The last time we were here, we’d come on a reportage for Bon Appetit.”
Still, if you’re a Francophile, oenophile or gourmet, and you’re stuck here in D.C. this Quatorze Juillet weekend, you can certainly find an escape to a better world in “Coquille, Calva & Creme.” There’s an old saying to describe earthly bliss: To live like God himself in France. Dryansky should know.
Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style and conducts a book discussion for The Post at wapo.st/reading-room.
COQUILLES, CALVA & CREME:
Exploring France’s Culinary Heritage. A Love Affair with Real French Food
By G.Y. Dryansky with Joanne Dryansky
Pegasus. 315 pp. $28.95