In the town of Valence, there was once a famous jurist called Jacques Cujas. He had an even more famous student, François Rabelais, who would go on to become the writer of note and notoriety from the Renaissance. Besides author, editor, friar, doctor, curate and lecturer, he was a lifelong cook and his works are peppered with quaint edible expressions – ‘the appetite grows with eating,’ for example. One little-known fact about Rabelais was that whilst in Rome, as the personal physician to the ambassador to the Vatican, he collected and took back the seeds of plants unfamiliar to the French; he was even responsible for the introduction of Cos lettuce to France, which subsequently took the name Romaine there.
The Valence which Rabelais left behind on his way to Rome lies halfway between fertile Provence, abundant with its rich bounty, and Lyon, widely accredited as France’s culinary capital. Maybe more renowned for its vineyards – Crozes-Hermitage, St Joseph, St Péray, Côte Rôtie, Cornas – the sleepy, Roman town is also home to one of France’s oldest kitchen dynasties – la Famille Pic.
It was in 1889 that Sophie Pic opened the Auberge du Pin, a small café near Saint-Péray, and began a one-hundred-year-plus family custom that continues today. For thirty years, she toiled away, slowly raising the restaurant’s reputation and attracting ever larger crowds, until her son took over around 1920. André, having spent his childhood watching his mother at the stoves and having himself apprenticed at some of both Paris and Lyon’s finest, was able to build on what Sophie had already achieved. In 1934, his progress was recognised with the reward of three Michelin stars.
Concurrent with Andre’s commencement as chef, another factor played a prominent part in the promotion of the Pic legacy – the dawn of the automobile age. Now the French had the car, they were more than willing to travel for good fare and travel they readily did to the small restaurant. Shortly after receiving the stars though, André realised he needed to move if the business was to blossom. Thus, in 1936, he uprooted to Valence and l’Auberge du Pin became Maison Pic. Its new location, on the avenue Victor Hugo, placed it on the Route Nationale 7, part of the Autoroute du Soleil – the iconic motorway that once wound down from Paris all the way to the Italian border. Once again, André’s timing was perfect; this was the year that paid vacations for employees were instituted in France. Maison Pic became the pit stop à la mode for chichi sun-seekers from Paris heading south. Furthermore, he confirmed the family name’s place in French gastronomy after Curnonsky identified him, alongside Escoffier and Point, as one of the ‘three creators of modern cuisine’.
Success did endure indefinitely. After the Second World War, André was stripped of first his third star and then his second. These disappointments were not disregarded by his son; although as a child enchanted by the motorway and keen to be a car mechanic, once older Jacques chose to succeed his father. Whilst the latter is remembered as ‘big, strong, male [but] big-hearted’, the former is described as ‘more shy [and with] a great inner strength, a quiet reserve’. Spurred on by his father’s failings, by 1973 he had won back both the lost stars. Not longer after this, it was the turn of Alain, Jacques’ own son and heir to his toque, to start his career in the kitchen; staging at l’Auberge de l’Ill, Illhaeusern; le Vivarois; at l’Ecole Lenôtre in Paris; and with master chocolatier, Pierre Debroas, before returning.
Jacques, however, had two children and Alain had a sister: Anne-Sophie. Whilst the son was being groomed to follow the father at home, the daughter was desperate to get away. At eighteen, finishing school, she left Valence for Paris and entered the ISG business school on an international programme that saw her next in New York then Tokyo – ‘I needed to know that world,’ she later revealed. Stints at Moët & Chandon and Cartier ensued; during this time she also met fellow Valentinois David Sinapian, her future husband. Opportunities in marketing lay before her, but on a Norman family holiday shortly before graduation she realised something: ‘I took a step back, pictured the career mapped out for me and told myself, this isn’t me. I want to do something concrete.’
‘I realised…I wanted to become a chef. I immediately called my father to tell him I was coming. He thought I meant for the weekend, but I told him for life…that I want to become a cook. He began to cry.’ In the summer of 1992, at twenty-three, Anne-Sophie was back in Valence. Jacques immediately set her at work in the kitchen and arranged for her to attend a local hotellerie.
Suddenly, the subsequent September, after service one evening, Jacques passed away. Their plans were devastated. Anne-Sophie, alone and uncomfortable in the kitchen, lasted only nine months more before moving on to the administrative and hotel side of the business.
In 1995, three years on, Maison Pic lost its third star. Whilst indeed a catastrophe, it did also provid the impetus Madame Pic needed to get her back behind the stove. She remained worried that she lacked the necessary experience – although literally raised above the restaurant (her bedroom, now the patisserie, was on top of the kitchen) and having spent her childhood playing with her father’s pots, pans and spoons, she had never actually had any structured training. The fact that she was a woman in addition to the former boss’ daughter, were further issues. But still, in spite of all this, with her mother’s support, ‘I put on an apron, walked into the kitchen and started cooking, which was probably the bravest thing I’d ever done.’
Admittedly, there were teething problems. The older, male chefs were unhappy with and resentful of her presence; one disgruntled gentleman even brought a lawsuit for abuse against her (later dismissed from court). She preserved. Her father had given her the very basics and taught her early on ‘how to taste’. ‘I worked at every kitchen station to learn the trade. I became a kind of boss apprentice. Experience can’t be handed down, but I believe a lot in destiny.’
In 1998, her brother left. She and David took over the entire enterprise. Her husband managed the hotel whilst Anne-Sophie dedicated herself to two tasks: ‘regaining their third star and creating a new kind of cuisine.’ Her efforts began reaping recognition in 2001 when she was elected chef of the year by Pudlo, before being made a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres and winning the World Cookbook Award (for Au nom du Père). Then, in 2007, she finally received the call that she had been waiting almost fifteen years for – Maison Pic had three stars for the third time in its history. This made Madame Pic the first French woman to hold such an honour since the legendary mères Lyonnaises fifty years previous.
David was not idle whilst his wife worked the kitchen. The hotel was renovated into a modern boutique of nine unique rooms and raised to Relais & Châteaux standard. A trendy bistro was added as a wine store (Cave du Pic) and cooking school (SCOOK) were opened too. The couple are also partners in a joint-venture with local vintner Michel Chapoutier to produce their own wine. More recently, in Lausanne earlier this year, a second restaurant was unveiled – Anne-Sophie Pic at the Hôtel Beau-Rivage Palace.
The original Maison Pic meanwhile still resides on what was the Route Nationale 7. Larger-than-life silver stencilled letters spell out the family name above an arched, maw-like opening that punctuates its stuccoed, copper façade. Resembling a riad, the sober face hides a considerable villa that revolves around an open, central courtyard. To the right of the entrance is the hotel lobby that leads onto several ‘living rooms’ and the bar before finally three interconnected dining rooms. The interior, recently renovated by designer Bruno ‘Maverick’ Borrione, is a mix of minimalism and kitsch. Vaulted ivory rooms are sparingly filled with colourful, comfortable furnishings; walls carry huge reproductions from Renaissance masters and of Flemish still-life whilst the turtle-shell patterned carpet is harebell mauve.
The showpiece is a long display cabinet that boasts (very nearly) all the Michelin Guides rouges since 1900, interspersed with Pic family photos and souvenirs.
The old bourgeois restaurant is spacious and sophisticated. Large French windows limit the rooms and allow ample light to steam in to pleasing effect. Pastel linden greens, beiges and creams cover the space whilst the floor is slate grey and echoes the smart suits worn by the staff. Generously spaced tables are well-sized and dressed in immaculate linens. Atop them, Limoges plates, Riedel glassware and personalised cutlery were accompanied solely by long-stemmed, blue lilies of the Nile.
Today, lunch began with amuses and apéritifs in one of the living rooms before resuming with the menu proper in the main dining room.
Amuse Bouche: Boule de foie gras vinaigre; guimauve cacahuètes salée; mousse onctueuse d’anchois; et macarons aux tomates confites. Impaled on separate trident-like picks, the meal commenced with a set-mousse sphere of foie gras, encasing creamy, lightly pickled Granny Smith centre which complemented the scattering of vanilla that infused the shell, and also a nicely-made marshmallow entirely dusted with grated salty peanut that gave it a taste reminiscent of peanut butter. Firm macaron of tomato confit sprinkled with the same fruit’s powder was a little chewy, although sweet whilst a pinkish bubble of anchovy, lemon and crème fraîche, littered with green and red radish filings, had an almost spiciness to it.
Les Pains: Baguette; pain au blé noir; à l’huile d’olive; et au sésame. A smooth, clean beurre demi-sel from Vercors accompanied a choice of four breads borne upon a large, dark circular tray. Crunchy sesame and crusty buckwheat rolls were a little dry whilst the mini olive oil brioche was decent and crumbly within. The yeasty baguette, although not as crisp as desirable, was possibly most successful.
Entrée 1: LES PETITS POIS ET LE CAVIAR D’AQUITAINE; coulant de petits pois et caviar, blanc mousseux d’oignons cébettes. Two vibrant green half-globes that resembled a single petit pois sliced across its centre, each crowned with an alabaster spring onion emulsion, sat poised amid dainty dots of green (pea) and white (onion).
Carving each orb open revealed a nucleus of runny pea purée and, underneath the foam, an ebony deposit of Aquitaine caviar. The whole dish was a delicate balance between sweet and salty – the petit pois and spring onion gently countering the mild briny beads of roe. Additionally, the differing structures – especially the fine mousse and coarse effuse – together tendered a very pleasant mouth-feel.
Entrée 2: LA SOLE DE PETITS BATEAUX; cuite lentement au beurre demi-sel, aromatisée aux baies de genièvre, poireau fondant à la bergamote. A pristine filet of line-caught sole, slowly poached in salty butter and served with melted bergamot, leeks and crushed juniper berries, came mizzled in a beurre monté infused with more juniper. The fish had been cooked very well – its flesh firm and succulent – and had subtly buttery sweet flavour, which married well with the tasty sauce and mellow, caramelised leeks. The bergamot contributed uplifting citrus notes whilst the aromatic, woody juniper also worked well to cut through the richness.
It must also be mentioned what an outstanding pairing that the wine – Beaune du Château Premier Cru, Bouchard Père & Fils – proved to be with this plate.
Plat Principal 1: LE HOMARD BLEU; en aiguillettes, aux baies et fruits rouges, blanc mousseux de céleri branche au poivre vert, jus corsé. Rose-tinged and crimson-crusted slices of blue lobster from Bretagne, laid atop a brushed line of berry coulis and meticulously assembled over celery crème and a range of red forest fruits, had more celery emulsion added at the table before a spicy jus of green and Szechuan pepper was poured around them. The seared then roasted lobster was again excellently prepared, its meat still moist and lissom and full of natural sweetness that was at once in harmony and contrast with the tart blackberries, strawberries and blueberries. The celery, which shares an affinity with these fruits, was also a warm moderator to the fragrant and tinglingly spicy, but not pungent sauce.
Plat Principal 2: LE CHEVREAU DE LA DROME; morceaux choisis confits longuement aux épices douces, mousseline d’oseille, fondant de kumquat et poivre Tifda. Local venison from the Drôme woods had been rolled, slowly cooked for thirty hours with sweet spices in its own juices and then served in two semi-cylindrical segments separated by a blade of sorrel along with its jus de cuisson. A pinch of Tifda pepper, girolles, fondant cubes of kumquat and sorrel mousse, distributed onto either diagonal at the table, completed the course. The soft chevreau itself was mildly gamey yet seriously flavoursome. Lovely, velvety sorrel cream had the barest bitterness that was met pleasingly by the acidity of the kumquats whilst the exotic Tifda – a Nepalese Szechuan pepper – had presence without sharpness.
Fromage: LE CHARIOT DE FROMAGES FRAIS ET AFFINES. The cheese chariot was impressive with an assortment of more than forty samples sourced from two affineurs and in excellent condition.
A small selection of Saint Marcellin, Fourme d’Ambert, Comté and Brin d’Amour was delivered with buckwheat and ciabatta-like sourdough. The latter two – the strong, nutty Comté and mild, herby Brin d’Amour – were the choicest of the four.
Pre-dessert: Abricots; crumble. A simple pre-dessert consisted of sweet and fruity apricot confit showered with crunchy streusel and finished off with a quenelle of apricot sorbet.
Dessert: LA RHUBARBE ET LA CACAHUETE; crémeaux et coulant à la cacahuète torréfiée, marmalade et sorbet rhubarbe. An almost inflated-galette-esque pale pink structure of thin pastry, sealed with golden caramel and topped with silver foil whilst planted in a super-still, scarlet-coloured rhubarb jus, was filled with roasted peanut cream, rhubarb compote and its sorbet. This was a twist on traditional peanut butter and jam and, although the dessert was well-constructed, the flavours were somewhat muted.
Mignardises: Frais des bois; pomme Manzana; et Chocolat caramel. A trio of treats were proffered from upon a white porcelain slab. A large red-and-pink macaron of wild strawberry and ylang ylang was fruity, sweet, chewy and crunchy. A small biscuit basket holding Basque manzana apple confiture covered by its pastel green mousse had nicely controlled acidity and sugar. The third morsel – a Tainori 64% chocolate cookie carrying a golden globule of liquid coffee – had to be eaten in one bite and had lingering savour.
Café et Petit Fours: Chocolat framboise. Shimmering rondures of mottled carmine and scarlet were in fact rather delicate chocolate raspberry truffles with molten tart middles.
Long-standing sommelier Denis Betrand took the initiative and selected these wines for our lunch: Laurent-Perrier, Champagne, Cuvée Rosé Brut; 2007 Pic et Chapoutier, Saint-Péray, Blanc; Beaune du Château Premier Cru, Bouchard Père & Fils; 2004 Nuits-Saint-George, Domaine Méo-Camuzet, Vosne-Romanée; and l’Eau de vie de Marc de Château Grillet, Neyret-Gachet.
Service was excellent throughout this meal. It was Denis and his second, Patrice, who shouldered most of the burden of responsibility for our table; friendly, attentive and diligent, they were both superb hosts. It may be noted that less senior staff were more formal in their manner, but nonetheless performed efficiently and respectfully. The mark that remained was that this restaurant was a carefully, deftly run establishment focused on the diner and delivering them a memorable, comprehensive experience. Although quiet, the room was not hushed – in the background there was just the hum of guests enjoying themselves in a very sophisticated setting whilst completely at ease.
After an able assortment of amuses bouche, four attractively presented and very flavoursome courses followed. LES PETITS POIS ET LE CAVIAR D’AQUITAINE was an easy introduction to Madame Pic’s cooking and, although LE HOMARD BLEU was delightful, it was LA SOLE DE PETITS BATEAUX that was for me the day’s highpoint. LE CHEVREAU DE LA DROME was again satisfying and cheeses left one spoilt for choice. The proceeding pre-dessert was straightforward – maybe too much so – whilst the dessert was easily the nadir of this meal and actually forgettable. Given that the chef de pâtisserie here, Philippe Rigollot, not too long ago won a pastry world championships, this was a surprising turn. However, the breads were also a weak point – this was not really a material concern, it is mentioned as these are usually also prepared by the pastry section.
The carte that we were served was actually one volunteered and chosen by the chef herself. Although, I would personally have preferred a few more dishes to help better substantiate an understanding of the cuisine, there were still some very strong themes manifest across the menu.
The strongest impression was that of a very elegant, very graceful style. Amuses and petit fours were more elaborate and intricate, but the plates themselves were meticulous, sophisticated constructions comprising quality ingredients arranged appealingly, simply and without fuss. It might be cliché to suggest, but it did in fact sincerely feel like a feminine hand had crafted them.
There was a brightness and refreshing lightness to recipes too. No doubt inspired by her favourite cuisines – those of Provence and of Japan – courses were minimal and to-the-point whilst enlivened and lightened by the precise use of acidity. ‘Acidity tempts me a little more each season’, the chef says and LA SOLE was an excellent example of her adept use of it. Here a seemingly heavy emulsified butter sauce was both surprisingly delicate and also effectively tempered by the citrus-tart bergamot (as well as the piney juniper berries). Straight after, LE HOMARD BLEU, demonstrated the same similarly as well, teaming together successfully the sharpness of the forest fruits and the sweetness of the lobster.
This leads to another marked motif of Madame Pic’s cooking – upon each dish there was the palpable presence of sweetness. Not overly so nor sickly, but every plate contained a distinctly sweet element usually offset with something just as savoury. Her sense of balance was obvious across the meal and it was no surprise to discover that her favourite kitchen implements are her tasting spoons. A case in point was LES PETITS POIS, where the caviar was the salty counterpoint for the peas in this opulent and loose play on petit pois à la Française. This modernisation and elevation of the simple, but familiar and classic combination of garden peas and onions also signifies other aspects of the chef’s style; namely, her light-heartedness and desire to include an emotive component in her cooking. ‘Taste evokes emotion. This idea of emotion is often linked to the past and so to childhood memories that are a major inspiration today.’ The peanut butter and jam reworking was another illustration of this.
‘You are the outsider, so the men don’t know what to expect of you.’ As a woman in a ‘man’s world’, Madame Pic considers herself freer to find her way; she feels more at liberty to experiment with products and flavours than most. Inspired by ‘the thinking chefs [who] pushed back boundaries’, especially the similarly self-taught Michel Bras, she seeks to deliver her own ‘cuisine d’auteur’.
Originality at this level is essential indeed and it was indeed the case today that a majority of the courses included ingredients combined and expressed in ways that I could not readily recall having seen and tasted before. Briefly meeting the chef before the meal, her energy and enthusiasm struck me instantly and reminded me immediately of Pascal Barbot. This verve came through on the plate with fresh recipes that remained within a very refined framework and which, together with the gracious service and charming surroundings, presented an experience best described as delightful.
285, Avenue Victor Hugo, 26000 Valence, France
tel: +33 4 75 44 15 32