This may well be the summer that Americans discover another French classic food, pate. Limited mostly to fine French restaurants in the United States, pate is well on the way to taking its place alongside quiche, crepes, souffles, and other french dishes Americans new enjoy.
It is certainly logical that pates should be popular because this rich meat, fish, game, or vegetable mixture can be elegant or hearty, and has some wonderful flavor combinations.
Ideal for light summer lunches as the main dish with a green salad, or on a buffet table, it is also served as an appetizer with small pickled cucumbers, or cornichons, the traditional french garnish for pate.
The texture and color appeal of a fine fish pate can be work of art, I learned recently at gourmet, Francais, on Rockland Street in Hanover, Mass. Here Jacques Bonnichon and his wife, Solange, make the traditional as well as some innovative pates in their spotless, efficient, and completely professional kitchen.
I watched as Jacques sliced a beautiful cross section of his Pate Neptune, a combination of salmon, halibut, scallops, and spinach. The circle of pink salmon, bordered with spinach, contrasted with the white fish and made a most attractive plate.
Another equally colorful fish combination is made with codfish, spinach, and pureed carrots. Served with a sauce of watercress, mayonnaise, spinach, and a little sour cream, it is a dish fit for a king.
Unfortunately the Bonnichons do not sell slices retail, but will sell a complete pate at the shop. Chances are good that if you should order pate in any of Boston's fine hotels, restaurants, or gourmet shops it will have been made by the Bonnichons in the best French tradition.
Right now the pate plant is turning out almost a thousand pounds of pate a week, an increase from 500 pounds weekly during the first of the year.
"We don't want to get too big," Solange said. But Jacques admits he often thinks all night about new recipes and ways to improve quality. Bonnichon pates go to more than 50 ratailers -- major department stores, hotels, restaurants, and specialty food shops, mostly in Massachusetts. A few are in New York.
Both Bonnichons are from Romorantin, in the Loire Valley in France, where Jacques started his career, like many French chefs, with three years of apprenticeship to master chefs.
Later he started the foundation for his present specialty while working in the heart of pate country near Strasbourg in Alsace, for some of the time at the Louis Henry company, exporters of fine pates. For three years he worked in Strasbourg during the winter season and at Eden Roc in Cap d'Antibes, in Provence, in the summer.
Jacques also cooked for a charcuterie called Rotisserie de la Madeleine in Besancon, near the Jura Mountains. He also did some of the cooking for the color plates in the famous Henri-Paul Pellaprat cookbook, "L'Art Culinaire Moderne."
When the Bonnichons came to Boston in 1972 Jacques worked at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, then became chef at Au Beauchamps, an attractive French restaurant on Beacon Hill. After four years he grew restless and, when the restaurant changed hands, decided he wanted to do something different.
"I thought I'd like to cook something more complex from start to scallops, then of veal, then chicken. Since I had experience and good training in pates, I thought I'd like to carry it further, working on my own recipes as well as the classic ones."
Jacques thinks his products are better than ever now that he has imported a special grinding machine from France. He likes the fact that here, unlike in France, he has complete control over the exact cuts of pork he buys.
"In France," he said, "you are expected to buy the larte cut of meat and use less desirable scraps trimmed from the carcass. Now I buy finest quality and exactly the cut I want."
The Bonnichons showed me their refrigerated room where meats are marinated. The pates are baked in molds in a bain-marie (a double boiler), in convection ovens. Finished loaves are weighted down while cooling, then weighed and vacuum-sealed by a special machine.
"When we started out many people here were not very familiar with pate," Jacques said. "This is different from my town in France. There were 14,000 people in Romorantin and there were 18 shops that made and sold pate. Of course some sold better pate than others."
Jacques credits his parents with much of his appreciation of good food, and he praises his mother's cooking. "There's something different about a women's cooking," he said. "Perhaps it's not so heavy as a man's. I can't describe it -- but my mother's cooking, for example, was somehow her own and really nice."
He also told of his father's growing mushrooms, Belgian endive, and celeriac, and of the wonderful fresh produce available in the town where he grew up.
Most any French village has a charcuterie shop where they sell at least three of the basic pates daily. These are usually the pate de foie, pate de campagne, and pate de lapin.
The Bonnichons are now making nine kinds of pate, plus special ones to order. They would like to make a rabbit pate, a classic in France, but they said Americans just don't seem to like rabbit.
"Our children enjoyed rabbit at home in France, but since we've lived here they just won't eat it anymore," Solange said. Those now on the Gourmet Francais list include Pate Breton, Pate de Campagne, Chicken Liver Pate With Bacon, and Ballotine Gourmet With Pistachios.
They also make a Mousse de Foie de Volaille, A Goose Liver Pate, a Bloc de Foie Gras, and a Galantine de Canard au Poivre Vert. The newest addition is the fish pate called Pate Neptune.
If you wonder what's so difficult about making an authentic pate, consider some of the fine points, the nuances of taste and texture that the experienced cook recognizes.
There is the balance of the correct amount of fat meat to lean and the quality of the texture of the loaf, which must be just right so that it won't crumble when cold. Sometimes this is counteracted by the use of egg or jelly, or by cooling under a weight.
Seasoning is also critical. There is the danger of underseasoning, since cold temperatures diminish the strength of herbs and spices. Once a pate goes into the oven, seasoning cannot be corrected. It is too late to add more or subract.
These things are all a matter of course for the Bonnichons, although they do not underestime the importance of every facet of preparation.
For many people, the only way to enjoy authentic French pate is to have lunch in the Freof a walnut tree with two or three pates laid out on a cloth, with new crusty bread, good butter, fruit, and cheese.
While touring leisurely through the small French towns, each day's pate choice differs in flavor from the one before.
This choice may not be available in the United States for some time, if ever, but the contribution made by the Bonnichons brings us a lot closer to the pleasures of authentic French pate. Pate Neptune Crepes 1/2 cup flour 1 egg 3/4 cup milk 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon butter Filling 1/4 pound spinach 1 pound boneless, skinless salmon 1 pound scallops 1 pound skinless halibut 2 cups heavy cream 3 egg whites 5 grams or 3/4 teaspoon salt per pound of fish 1/4 teaspoon pepper each, for scallops and halibut 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper for salmon
Combine flour eggg, milk, and salt to make crepes and cook then in butter in 5-inch crepe pan or skillet.
Blanch spinach and cool.
Line a 3 1/2-pound mold with crepes.
Put very cold salmon in food processor, start it, then add 1 egg white, 3/4 cup of the heavy cream, 3/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper. Process until pureed, then remove from processor and put aside.
Put very cold scallops in processor, start, then add 1 egg white, 1/2 cup heavy cream, cold drained spinach, 3/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper.
When Jacques Bonnichon places his ingredients in the mold he arranges the fish and spinach so that the colors make a circle in the center of the mold, but this takes practice.
The easier way is also colorful. It's accomplished simply by layering the various colors in the crepes in a 3 1/2-pound rectangular casserole, either glass or metal. Be sure, however, to work with very dry hands or a dry spatula wheh layering the puree into the mold. It is very important to have no water on your hands.
Fill the mold and cook in a bain-marie or place it in a larger pan with hot water halfway up the sude of the casserole. Add more hot water to the pan as it evaporates.
Place in a preheated oven at 250 degrees F. and cook almost 2 hours until the temperature in the center reaches 160 degrees F. The pate can be served either hot or cold. Makes 12 to 15 servings.