All the starred restaurants in France can rightfully boast of superb fish dishes on their menus, but there is something very special about the seafood in restaurants directly on the seacoast, especially when it's in the native hometown of the chef.
Lyliane Benoit is one of these chefs, and she is also one of a half dozen top women chefs in France. She and her husband, Rene, are well established in their restaurant, Le Soubise, in her hometown on the coast of the Charentes-Maritime area.
Attractive, energetic, and innovative, Mme. Benoit makes good use of the fresh produce of her region -- the plump oysters, fresh mussels, sole, turbot, daurade, hake, conger eel, and all the other wonderful seafood found in these waters off the coast of France, and for which the area and many of its special dishes have become famous.
Although the Michelin guide seems not to have discovered Le Soubise, Gault-Millau has given it recognition, and I found that its exceptional seafood dishes make it well worth a special journey off the beaten path to one of the most charming restaurant-inns of this, or any other, region in France.
Lyliane Benoit's cooking includes some of her own new dishes as well as some of the traditional recipes of her grandmother and the area such as Cotriade, a Breton Bouillabaisse or fish soup made with as many kinds of fish as possible.
She is well known in Canada for her cooking, but perhaps also because Samuel Champlain, the founder of Quebec, was born in nearby Brouage.
This is a beautiful region of France for vacationing by the sea, ignored by many tourists. There are fine sandy beaches, historic spots, and quiet villages.
Driving among the salt marsh area, we passed small houses with stands selling small bags of salt. Inland is the hidden, relatively unknown fen country of France, where every field is an island, and cows, goats, and crops are all moved by punts or small boats.
Brouage is a fascinating place, having the strong fortifications, built by Richelieu, that once defended an important port. Now it is salty marshland with the sea miles away to the west, and a marais has been formed. It is well worth exploring.
The Prince de Soubise, who was very fond of onions, is today remembered for dishes with onions that bear his name. They were made popular by the famous Chef Beauvilliers in his Paris restaurant years ago.
The rooms at Le Soubise are attractive and comfortable, and there are pleasant old-fashioned gardens. When I was there the vegetable plots were flourishing with leeks, rows of blooming basil, lush green sorrel, and kitchen herbs, and roses and flowers for cutting were plentiful.
Mme. Benoit respects what has been traditional but she keeps the food light, which is not as difficult as you might think, she said. In her food research she was surprised to find a number of very old recipes that were originally quite light and needed little changing to be up to date.
Her menu follows the products of each season and is full of personal interpretations. Her superb mussel soup is a good example.
''Fresh mussels, of course, and a little onion, a little garlic, a little tomato, and no cream,'' she said, ''only the broth.''
She would add a bit of saffron, she explained, perhaps an indication of her Mediterranean background.
Her regional fish soup is based on just fish and potatoes, and everything is very, very fresh. From June to December there are local mussels, but otherwise they are not on the menu.
Le Soubise is a team venture. Mr. Benoit is an excellent pastry chef. He takes care of the administration, and he also does the fish buying from local fishermen who bring them rascasse for French soups, as well as turbot and sole.
Much of their fish comes from Pertus D'Antioche, a water current where there are bass, sole, eel, and in September a round, flat fish called plieu.
After the mussel soup I had turbot and vegetables cut in julienne and cooked with delicious herbs in an aluminum foil packet. It was served with a wonderful buttery sauce which melted immediately.
An especially nice dessert was made with beautiful, large white peaches. Served with a warm caramel sauce and apricot preserves, it had a light souffle of tapioca or farina as a base, which had been cooked, Lyliane said, with milk, egg, angelica, and bigarot.
Her cheese dessert, Jonchee, is also special -- a cow's milk cheese with an almond flavored sauce -- a dessert she found in an old recipe book and updated using creme fraiche. Peches Soubise (Peaches Soubise) 1 cup long grain rice 2 1/2 cups milk 1/2 cup vanilla sugar 2-inch piece vanilla bean or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 1 quart water 1 cup sugar 6 fresh peaches, peeled and halved Rind of 1 lemon 6 ounces butter 12 tablespoons cooked apricots or preserves
Combine rice, milk, sugar, and a piece of vanilla bean and cook until rice is tender but not mushy, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove and discard vanilla bean or add vanilla extract if used. Drain rice and cool.
Combine water and sugar and cook until sugar is dissolved to make a simple syrup, then add peaches with pits and lemon rind, and poach over medium heat until tender. They should be firm and not too soft. Drain, cool, and cut in half.
Melt butter in saucepan and add peaches until just coated with butter, then remove. Slowly add simple syrup to butter, stirring constantly and cook over medium high heat until mixture starts to caramelize, about 20 minutes. It will thicken and be a golden yellow color.
To assemble, place 2 tablespoons rice in each dessert dish. Add 1 tablespoon apricot preserves, then the peach half. Top with caramel sauce.