I have been a Francophile for so long that I don’t quite remember when it started. At some point in my tweens, I grew fascinated with French culture. I took French through all four years of high school, listened to French pop music, watched French films and tried gamely to read French Vogue. I associated France with beauty and sophistication, things that felt sorely lacking in my life and my person.
One aspect of French culture that was in rather short supply in Iowa in the ’90s was French food. For years, my experience was limited to the scant and random things one could find in grocery stores and on restaurant menus: croissants and baguettes, Nutella (to which I was wildly allergic), French onion soup and a very bad experience with brie on food day in my French class. We had an excellent French café in Cedar Rapids for a while, but I was always too nervous to venture beyond ordering quiche. So while my fascination with France has stayed strong, my experience with French food has been sporadic. So it was with great excitement — and a bit of caution — that I learned of the existence of Valérie’s French Cooking in a Facebook restaurant group last year.
Valérie Martin is a native Parisian who moved to Iowa in 2008 and began her business with private catering in 2010. Today, Valerie’s French Cooking is housed in a beautiful historic home near downtown Iowa City. In addition to catering, the business has expanded to include farmers market appearances and a variety of individual meals that can be ordered online.
Despite being dazzled by images of boeuf bourgignon and gorgeous bûche de Noël last winter, I never pulled the trigger and tried the food, thinking that I would save it for a special occasion that never came. My first experience with the food was actually at the downtown farmer’s market. I bought a huge, delicious almond croissant and was impressed with the flaky pastry, the generous crusting of sliced almonds and the balanced sweetness of a pastry that often veers into being too sweet. About a month later, tired after work and looking for something to order for a late dinner, I stumbled across Valérie’s French Cooking.
The menu offerings are numerous and include everything from crepes to sandwiches to the aforementioned boeuf bourgignon and the most robust dessert menu I’ve ever seen.
I got a classic French onion soup, a tapenade and brie croissant that was one of the weekly specials and macarons in three flavors: lapsang souchong, earl grey and pistachio. The food arrived in about 40 minutes, which feels like a small, luxuriant miracle.
The serving sizes were generous, so much so that I saved half of it for the following day. The soup was delicious and hearty without being too rich. The broth contains both wine and port which gave it flavor depth, and I appreciated that the gruyére cheese was grated into the soup and melted onto the baguette croutons rather than melted across the top of the soup itself. This may have been a modification to make it easier to package for delivery, but it was also much easier to eat.
The baguette was simple and flawlessly executed. It contained just brie, tapenade and mixed greens. The tapenade was briny and tangy and it would have been easy for that ingredient to overwhelm everything else but the creamy mildness of the brie pulled back on the tapenade’s tartness just enough so that both the flavors and the texture were perfectly balanced. The greens were fresh and crisp and the baguette was flaky and delicious, but importantly, also large and substantial enough to actually hold the contents of the sandwich. I’ve had many a croissant-based sandwich fall apart in my hands because it was too wet or the croissant was over filled, but this sandwich stayed intact and didn’t get soggy through delivery and two different meals 24 hours apart.
As for the macarons, they are for me much like pizza in that I’ve never met one I didn’t like. I’ve eaten them at high-end restaurants and out of cut-rate boxes from TJ Maxx and enjoyed every one, so it was a foregone conclusion that I would enjoy these. They were almost too pretty to eat. with brightly colored cookies and fillings and a dusting of edible glitter (!). But they were also too tasty not to eat. The sandwich cookies had a crisp exterior that crumbled into a pleasant softness when you bit into them and the ganache that filled them would have pleased Goldilocks: not too sweet, not too thick, it was just right. They were also the perfect size; one was enough to satisfy, so I got to eat them over three days.
The food from Valérie’s French Cooking lived up to my long held feelings about what French culture has given the world: it was elegant and delicious, a workaday indulgence that you can justify giving yourself on a random Tuesday just because. Quelque chose de spécial.
Presented by CHOMP