It is a primal urge, yet a civilised one, a calling that has stomach juices running and senses of taste and smell heightened with eager anticipation. For a taste of French. Real French food. Produce, fresh and earthy expressing origin and place. Selected with knowledge and instilled care, then cooked in silent focus and with skill that results from generations of inspired commitment to the culinary art of the world’s greatest food Nation.
Le Siemma Bistrot in Stellenbosch is, fortunately, just around the corner from my office which makes satisfying this urge and replenishing the want for a taste of the Gallic greats within reach. And reach it I will.
With two lady friends I waltz into Le Siemma, the interior calm and welcoming with odd bits of French mural adornment. Such as wooded lids collected from wine boxes bearing names of vins and Châteaux. A Henri Bourgeois Sancerre is opened, poured into glass, shimmering like pale gold and sun-rayed dew.
I know the menu well and look for the warming, comforting items as the day is bright, yet cool and edgy. There is rabbit and lamb-stew. Beef fillet, sauced and rich. Fish and duck and mussels. Also, cheesy pillows of grilled sandwiches in various renditions of croque monsieur.
Starters, first, as the wine is perking the appetite. One asparagus dish, coated in a golden butter sauce, all silken. Steak tartare topped with an egg the colour of a Seville orange that had sucked-up the sunlight of a complete Spanish afternoon. For me, a terrine of the house. With broad slices of crusty bread and sharp cornichons to offset the terrine’s opulent fat.
I eat the terrine with gusto, placing heavy slices on squares of bread, loving the way the ripped pork and its decadent fatty cloak are instantly cut by the sweet-sour stab of cornichon crunch. The wine is cool, delicious and long.
On a whim we grab a plate of whitebait that come flash-fried, crisp fishiness eaten whole and a killer flavour overload with the Sancerre.
My partner offers a cut of asparagus, accurately cooked to a crunchy firmness, yet warm through, the taste of land and garden, meadow and field enhanced by a sly coat of buttery decadence.
For the main-course, there is a confit duck-leg with small roasted potatoes and mushroom. The other, a Cape bream, head-on and whole, perfectly grilled with a slight char on skin crisped and broiled. For me, a pot of Moules Marinière with chips.
The duck-eater, a seasoned consumer of things French on the wine and culinary side, keeps her duck to herself, promoting it as a taste of France, and that is enough, and it is all. It looks gorgeous lying there, a mound of succulent meat under a coating of dusky skin, shiny and warm and inviting.
Next to me, the Cape bream is being devoured, although I am passed a flake. It is warm and fleshy, tasting of low-tide, fire and pristine saltmarsh.
I lift the lid of my pot, and a cloud of aromatic steam rises like mermaid breath on an icy morning off the Brittany coast. The air becomes perfumed and appetising as the steam dissipates to reveal a mound of mussels, shells agape and housing saffron-coloured morsels lurking between their blue-black casings.
Parsley stems are strung between the molluscs, which are whetted with a liquor of wine and shallot and garlic. I go through the mussels with steady, robotic dedication, plucking the flesh from their shells, devouring the sweet oceanic morsels one-after-the other. In stoic silence, always the mark of the content diner.
My chips are long and perfect, golden and generous slivers of warm potato providing a welcoming starchy cleanliness to the seductive flavour feast of the mussels.
There is no time for space or dessert, but on offer are cheeses, crème brûlée and lemon tart which I know from previous experience to be the real good stuff.
It has been a good lunch. Simple and heartfelt, with just enough flair and continental grace to take it to into the realm of the extraordinary. Actually, the urge and the calling do not come out of the blue. Actually, they are always there. One does just not always realise it.
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