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Bon appétit!

By Sara Faull - from Taste magazine 2005
Photos: Stephen Goodenough

picture_of_johnJohn and Andrea Reese are passionate about all things French – whether it’s their business or at home where they entertain friends with Gallic flair.

For Kiwi couple Andrea and John Reese, 'The French Way’ is both a business and a pleasure. It’s a way of life that imbues even their entertaining style with pots of panache and oodles of ooh la la good taste. Thirteen years ago John set up France – The French Way, a boutique business organising travel in France for English-speaking tourists. All this via a chic internet site, from his home-base in central Christchurch.

Thanks to an absolute passion for France, a flair for its language, a personal knowledge of the travel process and an obsession with detail (John’s personalised A5 spiral-bound itineraries carry the weight of experience and are cherished as travel bibles), John’s business is maturing like well tended grapes on the vine.

Understandably, he makes regular trips to France. Andrea (or Andy as everyone calls her) and their two children – Sarah (16) and Alexander (14) – join him every second year.

Andy, who is a caterer (having trained at the New Zealand School of Food and Wine, in Christchurch), enjoys creating delectable edibles for a diverse range of clients and occasions.

entertaining_pictureThe Reeses have always loved to entertain but latterly, Andy says, the way they do this has become more influenced by their time in the south of France. Most of all, they have come to appreciate the importance the French place on food and wine, and this has impacted on their own tastes and table manners downunder.

“It is my greatest pleasure to introduce people to France and its attitudes to food and wine,” John says with passion. “I have a French friend who describes cooking as an expression of love and to share that with friends is one of life’s great pleasures.”

This spring evening, nine of us are gathered in their conservatory where sunlight is fingering the olive-patterned napkins and duck-egg blue plates. Pots of oreganum and tea lights at the table’s centre delight us with their fragrant greenery and twinkling light.

“I’ve noticed that the way I set the table has become more casual,” Andy says. “I like it to be attractive but guests seem to feel more comfortable when it is kept simple,” she says.

wine_pictureAs for a typical menu? “The food we cook is not so much French, as in ‘The French way’. By that, I mean we won’t be serving frog’s legs or snails, but we will borrow from France’s simple, rustic style. There’ll be the French classics, like boeuf bourguignon, French onion soup, lemon tart; something casseroley in winter, something lighter, like fish, perhaps in summer,” Andy explains. John continues: “When people think of French cuisine, they usually think of rich, creamy sauces and lots of crystal and glass. That’s Paris. We are meaning the simplicity of the south – the areas of Provence and the Riviera where we spend our time.”

“The food is so simple that it almost bothered us to begin with,” Andy ventures. “A little piece of fish, two tiny potatoes and a few French beans.” It’s just the way the French eat, John and Andy agree. And the way we will dine tonight is to have several small courses where the ingredients are the stars and the cook is the choreographer. It’s a spectacle where the food (matched, of course, to the right wine) is to be celebrated, savoured, enjoyed and applauded. All at a leisurely pace.

food_sample_picture“In France, there is never a massive pile of food. Everyone sits down to several courses, even in the middle of the day, and you will hardly ever see anyone eating out of a takeaway carton or on the run,” John says. An entrée, for example, is just that – an entrance into the meal where dainty flavours are offered to tease the palate. For our first course we are served an individual goat’s cheese, zucchini, tomato and tapenade tart that dissolves in the mouth.

After the entrée comes a spectacularly simple chicken dish – poulet Gaston Gerard, named after a French mayor who masterminded a way to keep chicken moist with white wine, cream and mustard from his region of Dijon.

“I’m serving this on a risotto with the season’s first asparagus,” Andy explains. “The chicken dish tastes complicated but it is so simple, anyone could do it.”

The presentation causes comment. “I’m hot on presentation, whether it’s at my own table or cooking for clients. It upsets me if it’s not right. There’s no point in cooking something delicious if it doesn’t look good!” she exclaims. And this looks very good. Amid cries of “bon appetit” and “santé” toasts, we enjoy the offerings.

friends_laughing_pictureAll good friends, we take time out of our hectic routines to really reconnect. Jokes are bowled about. With practised ease, our hosts replenish glasses, explain wine matches, whisk away plates and manage to stay involved in the conversation. It’s an entertaining style that’s attentive and unobtrusive at the same time.

Then follows the cheese – served as a separate course, eaten in tiny silken slivers with a knife and fork and accompanied by a pretty green froth of mesclun salad greenery and an unctuous dressing. “Cheese is usually eaten between the main and the dessert,” Andy explains. “The French only take one or two slices and treat this like a tasting, almost like a sorbet. They don’t sit there and keep slicing away until the cheese board is empty,” John chides. I blush at the memory of the many creamy Bries I have personally, and publicly, polished off.

So what does this Francophile couple think makes a memorable dinner party? It’s the combination of people that helps, they agree.

“We always look forward to having people for dinner and feel we look after our guests, but they also have a responsibility,” Andy adds. “They need to join in the conversation. At our parties you can always expect a lot of noise!”

table_decoration_picture“I like to work on people’s senses,” John adds. “Music, candles – all set the ambiance. If you are having people who don’t know each other, it’s a good idea to have some interactive food. We sometimes serve a fish soup where you rub garlic on your bread and float it in the liquid. Even platters of food passed around can break down barriers.”

Then it’s dessert and out comes a true French classic, tarte Tartin, a sort of upside-down apple tart where the pastry remains light and crisp because it’s cooked on top before the tart is up-ended onto your plate. The taste is sublime – butter and sugar caramelising the apple slices to a tawny toffee sweetness. A dessert wine to accompany and, among the oohs and aahs, the chatter intensifies.

After coffee and nibbles of nougat we reluctantly end our meal and leave, but it is with a comfortable and satiated feeling that comes from dinner with dear friends.

You could say the Reeses play the Dining-In game with the polish of professionals, using French rules. The party happens at the table, the discussion is high decibel, often gastronomic and hilarious. The food and wine are to be savoured, the meal celebrated in all its full-fat flavour and slimline size.

john_entertaining_picturered_wine_imageThe French Way, Travel Experts

ph: (03) 355 5590,
email, john@france.co.nz or visit: http://www.france.co.nz
and Andrea Reese Catering, ph: (03) 355 8812.

© Taste October 2005

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