Degustation by Alain Fabregues »

A master chef's life through menus

By Robyn Lewis
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Degustation by Alain Fabregues

Degustation by Alain Fabregues [©UWA Publishing]

Alain Fabregues, author of Degustation

 

Originally the word dégustation referred to wine; a tasting often conducted in a cellar, taking time to recognise and analyse the flavour and ‘notes’ of a variety of wines.

As a culinary term, dégustation means ‘a careful, appreciative tasting of various foods’ and according to Wikipedia this style of eating probably originated in French kitchens of the early 20th century. It took a while to catch on outside its home country. Dégustation menus first appeared in earnest in the late 70s or early 80s, and in Australia a little later.

Unlike à la carte dining, dégustation usually involves sampling small portions of a chef's signature dishes – usually eight or more in a sitting, for a set price – and every good chef now seems to have a ‘dégo’ menu, as sometimes called by Australians. Yesterday’s derogatory slang now means high food art appreciation.

So it is appropriate that a French-born and trained chef who has made Australia home has written our first book devoted to dégustation.

Alain Fabrègues – founder of The Loose Box restaurant in Mundaring, east of Perth in WA, and arguably the finest classical French restaurant in Australia – is certainly one of this country’s premier French chefs. Degustation is the first book of his long and highly decorated career.

Fabrègues began as an apprentice in Bordeaux under the masterful eye of the late Jean Delaveyne, the noted master to whom Degustation pays homage. He moved to Australia and opened The Loose Box in 1979, and according to Lifestyle Food since ‘he has been 'Chef of the Year' three times in a row and (is) barred from further entry. He … personally won the Salon Culinaire Gold Medal for nine consecutive years (1980 to 1989).

The Loose Box has won and will continue to win awards and prizes, but Alain may not, (as) in 1991 he became a holder of the prestigious 'Meiller Ouvrier De France' and is now prevented from entering any personal competitions.’ This award is the highest honour attainable by a craftsman. It is obviously inadequate to acknowledge Fabrègues’ skill, as he has subsequently been awarded two French knighthoods.

Fellow chef Shannon Bennett of Vue de Monde in Melbourne sums it up: ‘for more than two decades, Alain Fabrègues has been an inspiration to all French chefs around Australia, including me. And now this great man’s energy for food and pleasing customers is apparent on every page of Degustation.’

Degustation is firstly a visual delight. The photographs by Craig Kindler, particularly those of the finished dishes, are like exquisite jewels. These are interspersed with whimsical little drawings by the chef himself – perhaps indicating how he might conceive the final appearance of his dishes – and by black and white shots that flow through his life and career, and paint a poignant picture of The Loose Box kitchen.

Expressions of deep thought, concentration, serenity and laughter predominate, a contrast to those of some celebrity chefs. It looks like a great place to work as well as to dine.

When you start to read the recipes, it is immediately obvious that Fabrègues is a true master. He appears to handle food as a skilled artist handles brush and paint, as an extension of his mind and body, with such ingrained knowledge of technique that he would scarcely have to think about the task but can concentrate on perfecting the finished product.

And what products he creates. There are nine dégustation menus in total, each of eight dishes. The first six menus are simply numbered, and are variously based around seafood, local specialties like yabbies, marrons, red emperor and lobsters; meats including rabbit, Margaret River venison, duck, quail, beef and lamb, and interspersed with vegetable creations like terrine of cèpes, zucchini carpaccio and baby beetroots and carrots.

The recipes are described as ‘do-able’ at home, and although I haven’t tried them yet, the Fresh Pea Cappuccino, Rozelle and Balmain Spicy Prawn Broth with Fresh Coriander, Cream of Mushroom Soup with Sourdough and Sea Salt, Roasted Red Emperor with Savoy Cabbage and Orange Reduction, Salmon aux Aromates, Venison and Rabbit Pie, Lobster Paella, Rabbit Ravioli with Tomato and Truffle Salsa, and many others through to desserts like Pannacotta with Fresh Raspberries and Orange-flavoured Shiraz Reduction will all be on my try-out list over the months ahead.

It’s food to impress, as well as to delight. If we could get marrons and yabbies in the eastern states I’d be making those dishes, too. Fabrègues’ most famous and popular dishes, such as Beef Cheeks and Crepe Chocolatine, are also included.

Fabrègues is dedicated to producing the finest of French cuisine with a strong Australian influence, and The Loose Box is exactly the sort of restaurant you would wish to take visiting foreign gourmets, not only to showcase our level of cuisine, but our produce as well.

High on this list sits Manjimup truffles. We learn that Fabrègues has been involved in the Australian truffle story since 2003, when he contacted WA’s Wine and Truffle Company only days before their first Antipodean black truffle emerged – the size of a cricket ball! The excitement was clearly infectious.

In the 1950s France could produce 800 tonnes of black truffles per year, but since then production dwindled to only 12 tonnes in 2006, well under half that produced by Spain and below world demand.

So the hunt for places to grow truffles spread around the world, firstly in the southern hemisphere to Tasmania and then to south-west Western Australia. What began on that day in Manjimup in 2003, Fabrègues has taken further than merely cooking with the local fungi, establishing his own truffle farm in the far warmer and drier area around York, north east of Perth, in land he regards as similar to Provence.

The oak trees he planted as the truffles’ hosts grew from 10 cm to 2.2 metres in their first year, an astonishing rate of growth which has given him trees now over 6 m tall. Despite their price (up to A$2500/kg), Fabrègues regards truffles as a true culinary pleasure, which like other rarities come with a price tag.

However, to Fabrègues ‘the culture of food offers many affordable pleasures. The conviviality and the sheer delight of sharing dishes made from fine ingredients that are well prepared add a wonderful dimension to civilisation and to humanity. Truffles help do this.’

It is little surprise that of the remaining three degustation menus, two are based around truffles* – one designed for vegetarians – and the other is for lovers.

Normally a dégustation menu would be accompanied by a matching wine degustation which complements each dish. These are not included in the book; a culinary pilgrimage to The Loose Box is clearly required, although the wine list is given on the restaurant’s website (see listing below). Indeed, Degustation shows that The Loose Box should be on every serious foodie’s map.

The penultimate section of Degustation features petits fours, which ‘are to the end of a meal what canapés are to its beginning. One is an offering, the other a thank you.’ With true generosity of spirit – and showing the length of his culinary lineage – Fabrègues shares a recipe that has been a family secret for almost 200 years, for baba rum syrup.

Then follow the ‘essentials’; in addition to the usual (but highly important) stocks, mayonnaise and sauces are useful recipes that will add flair to more prosaic cooking, like celeriac crème, rosemary and red wine sauce, flavoured oils including basil, vanilla and truffle (sadly, most commercial truffle oils in Australia are synthetic) and how to make a great bisque.

Each chapter is interspersed with a story from Fabrègues’ life, telling tales of how he first began to cook, how he came to leave France and his family, and ended up in what then must have seemed a most unlikely destination, and of his love and life since, weaving a wonderful and highly personal story.

The biggest surprise of all for me is hidden at the end, in the acknowledgements. Alain Fabrègues thanks his wife Elizabeth, and his daughter Natalie, to whom Degustation is dedicated, ‘for their continuous support and help with selecting colours for my drawings’. In this almost throw-away line, Fabrègues admits he is colour blind, a statement as astonishing to me as if Michelangelo had uttered it.

For fine food of this calibre is as much about design and presentation as the culinary skills, textures and tastes themselves, and to achieve so much, and even to be allowed into the profession with what would probably now be regarded as a significant handicap is final proof – if any more were needed – that Fabrègues is a culinary genius.

Thank you chef for sharing your amazing expertise.

 

Degustation by Alain Fabrègues is published by UWA Publishing (Crawley, WA, 2010; hc 384 pp) and retails for RRP A$84.95. VisitVineyards.com and WinePros Archive subscribers and Members can purchase Degustation by Alain Fabrègues at 12.5% discount off RRP here >> (postage extra).

 

* Alain Fabrègues was also the founder of the Mundaring Truffle Festival which commenced in 2006 and in 2010 attracted over 40,000 patrons.

 

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  • Greater Perth (WA)
  • Perth (WA)

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November 18th, 2010
 
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