“My ambition is to seduce people into eating charcuterie again,” says talented charcutier Arnaud Nicolas, 34, who won a coveted MOF (Meilleur Ouvrier de France) award for one of the country’s most ancient and profound gastronomic métiers – the art of pâtés and cooked meats – when he was only 25 years old. “Many of the French have stopped eating charcuterie, because all they know are the bland, heavy, fatty industrial pâtés and charcuterie found in supermarkets. So my idea is to revive the pleasure of charcuterie with a certain consistent lightness to the product and more attention to its aesthetics. This is what a brilliant generation of young French pâtissiers have done for pastry, which was also previously seen as heavy and ‘has-been’,” Nicolas explains from behind the counter of the stylishly minimalist little shop next to his restaurant where all of his homemade charcuterie is sold.
Though he didn’t know it, Nicolas was preaching to the converted, since I’ve been an eager – if not to say often gluttonous – fan of French charcuterie ever since I first discovered it during a visit to Paris when I was a dead-broke student in London. I was travelling with a friend whose sister-in-law’s sister, a handbag designer from Philadelphia, was supposedly recovering from a bad divorce by living in a tiny apartment on the Île Saint-Louis for a year.
She graciously agreed to house two loping young men for a week. In addition to a bed and copious amounts of hot water – a massive luxury to anyone who’s experienced the miserly output of a coin-operated hot-water heater (once a London bed-sit standard), this sad and wounded, but wry and generous, lady also made sure to keep us fed by sending us to the traiteur (delicatessen) around the corner every day because she didn’t cook.
Here, with my terrible French, we bought slices of pink pistachio-studded veal terrine, rich terrine de campagne, jambon persille (shredded ham in parsley-rich aspic) and more. We devoured luscious shreds of charcuterie every night with a green salad, some cheese, a fruit tart from the local patisserie and lots of red wine – the perfect feast.
Since those long-ago repasts, I’ve eaten a lot of excellent charcuterie in France, but nothing that had the same primal goodness as the pâtés consumed long ago on the Île Saint-Louis. Maybe my memory had gilded the lily in terms of just how good French charcuterie could be, I occasionally thought. Then I went to dinner at Restaurant Arnaud Nicolas and not only rediscovered those long-lost tastes, but versions made better by nuance, refinement and lightness.
Dining with a friend at this elegant pair of rooms with oak parquet floors, exposed stone walls and beams and stone-grey paintwork, we were stumped when the waiter came to the table. I explained that we wanted to try the quail-and-dried-fruit pâté, the poultry-and-foie-gras one, the couronne du porc – all pâté en croûte, and the luscious-looking head cheese (a terrine made from head meat). He looked bemused but sympathetic, excused himself, and returned to say that Nicolas would be glad to prepare us a tasting platter that included all four of these sweetmeats – which were sublime.
Our main courses, a lobster boudin (white pudding) studded with tender chunks of the crustacean, and a lamb sausage with puréed Agen prunes, were also made by Nicolas and were as elegant and appetising as our charcuterie. Dessert seemed improbable, but the same charming waiter insisted that they served one of the best baba au rhum (sponge cake with rum and whipped cream) in Paris, so we decided to share one. The waiter was spot on, too – the cake was the last expression of the wonderful lightness that is the recurring theme of a meal at this delightful restaurant.
Restaurant Arnaud Nicolas, 46 avenue de la Bourdonnais, 7th arrondissement; +33 (0)1 45 55 59 59. Week-day lunch menu €32, prix-fixe menu €35, average à la carte €50. Website: www.arnaudnicolas.paris
From France Today magazine