From an early age, Elsa Marie loved to eat – her love of cooking came later. With her hastily-assembled bun and youthful looks, Elsa Marie looks as if she’s come home at last. After a long time spent on the other side of the world, she’s back in Paris, and is now chef at La Vierge, “a warm, relaxed, affordable place to eat, and where you can eat well – because it’s possible to have both” she says. Elsa Marie is fully committed to sustainable agriculture; she chooses her ingredients with care, cooks vibrant lunch-time dishes at very reasonable prices and leaves the evening’s sharing platters and tapas to her husband Julian. For Sweet Cheese, she steered us back to Abondance – and we’re not complaining!
I grew up in the countryside. My mother worked, but she also cooked, and we ate very well – always a starter, main course and dessert. I’m sure that had an effect on me, but I didn’t start cooking myself until I was 18. I was studying by then (Elsa Marie read Humanities) and mum didn’t cook for me anymore, so I started making food for myself and my friends. It became a bit of an obsession, and I decided that was what I wanted to do. I spent just a year at the Ferrandi school. I thought of carrying on, but I’d already had 3 years of postschool education, and wanted to get stuck into the real world.
After 3 weeks, I decided that this was not for me. I had a dreadful job with impossible hours. The pay was poor, and we were treated horribly. But at the same time, I loved the work. It was the only place where time seemed to fly, and I was learning something new every day. I could easily have stopped then though, taken time out and done more writing.
I met Gregory Bach and Florent Ciccoli, who have a number of restaurants in Paris. They had a very different attitude. They were much more human, they trusted me and gave me more freedom. I worked with them for two years at Pères Populaires, and now I’m at their latest restaurant, La Vierge.
Chefs always end up going around in circles, we always think the grass will be greener somewhere else. I was nearly 30, I wanted to go somewhere far away, somewhere hot, where life would be easy. So, I packed my rucksack and headed for Australia. I did a bit of cooking, but mainly I was interested in permaculture and biodynamics.
In Australia, I met my husband Julian, who’s also a chef. He had just returned to Australia from France, but wanted to go back to Auvergne for the cuisine and the cheese. He’s always wanted to make cheese, but it’s never worked out all that well. Now whenever Julian and I talk about where we’re going to live, we both agree it’s got to be somewhere where they have cheese!
For me, cheese is like an addiction. Abondance is one of my favourites, although I had forgotten it a bit It’s similar to Comté, but fruitier and creamier, with a more persistent flavour. I’ve used it to create a multi-textured dessert, adding it to whipped cream and ice cream and using it grated. I’ve also used poached pears and rosemary crumble – I love that bitter rosemary taste. I’m in two minds about combining sweet and savoury. There was a time when anything could pass
for dessert – foie gras sorbet for example. I wouldn’t normally use cheese other than in its natural state, but this seemed like a really exciting challenge. When I was creating the recipe, there were some excellent pears around, including Louise Bonne, Comice and Conference, and it all came together straight away. I needed fruit to counterbalance the strong flavour of the cheese.
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