Sitting in a booth at Marché, my fiancé and I admire the etchings above our table. Each one features a different food-smith, a sort of lineup of French food superheros: There’s the Beurière, or buttermaid, outfitted with a dress made of pails, measuring slabs of butter on a scale; the Poissonnière (a fishmaid) wearing a crab headpiece and a gown covered in fish; and of course the Vinaigrié (a vinegar maker) carrying barrels of vinegar while sporting mustard-box pantaloons. These 17th-century prints are as au courant as ever — not much surpasses the pursuit of la vie gastronomique in France.
We’ve come to Marché this evening for the French Regional Dinner series, which features a different region of France on the last Wednesday of every month, a tradition founding chef and owner Stephanie Pearl Kimmel started in the ’80s at the Excelsior Café before bringing it to Marché in 1998.
“They’re educational and fun for our guests (and staff), providing a taste tour of another culture,” Kimmel writes via email from her Nyons “fixer-upper flat” in the southeast corner of France.
Kimmel’s love of France is infused into all her endeavors — Marché, Le Bar, Provisions, Route 5. The love affair began when Kimmel was 17 and first visited Paris; she soon returned to study at the Sorbonne.
“I developed a huge admiration for the French approach to food — it’s such a part of life,” she says. “The insistence on the best products and knowing their origin, the respect for seasons, its traditional meals and the emphasis on gorgeous representation.”
A respect for the seasons was at the heart of planning menus, matching regional specialties of France with what’s in season in Oregon. That evening, May 28, we gorged ourselves on the flavors of the Rhône Valley, beginning with an amuse-bouche of brochette de foie de canard — a duck liver brochette with bacon and sage — a bite of creamy, salty goodness, balanced by a glass of dry Côtes-du-Rhône blanc.
The following four courses, all with recommended wine pairings, included a beet tartare with chopped egg, a choice of pan-roasted sole or roasted leg of lamb, a Reblochon cheese plate and finally the crème renversee au coulis de fraise — a vanilla custard drizzled with strawberry sauce — one of the best desserts I’ve tasted in Eugene.
“The most wonderful and amazing thing is how in sync our Culinary Tour de France is with the ingredients that are at their peak in our own region,” Kimmel says. “For example, we feature Provence in August when our tomatoes, eggplants and peppers are at their glorious best, but we do Normandy and Brittany with their shellfish and apples and cider in January when our oysters, mussels and crab are sweet and plentiful.”
The next French dinner, on June 28, will feature the bounty of Languedoc-Roussillon, a southern region of France that borders Spain; think Basque country. The menu includes salty cod, grilled zucchini with Roquefort cheese and a fish and shellfish stew over saffron rice.
Kimmel says the menus are extremely loyal to each region, and from my own experience, I find that to be true. Ten years ago I spent a month up the hillside from Ventajou, a tiny town in Languedoc-Roussillon. I was there on a volunteer program to rebuild a medieval chapel and, after long days of slinging mortar, the townspeople delivered meals of fresh shellfish and veggies, served with saffron rice — a sort of French paella. You could taste the ocean. Ventajou is the same distance that Eugene is from the ocean. Can you already taste that salty, salty sea?
Keep up with Marche’s Regional French Dinner series at marcherestaurant.com/events.