Spring Picnic at Versailles

Alain Ducasse Picnic at Versailles, France-14

I decided to play hookey last week, which coincided with an invitation to the Jardin de la Reine at Versailles for a spring picnic. The weather has been on-and-off in Paris, as it usually is, and no matter what the skies were planning on doing, I figured it’d be nice to escape the city for a few hours. And who could pass up a picnic in the gardens of Versailles? Not me. Fortunately we woke up to a glorious day in Paris, and because no one wants to be cooped up indoors when there’s sun, and wine, out there, I left early so I could walk around and get a much-needed dose of Vitamin D.

On a side note, many years ago when I went to pastry school outside of Paris, we were staying in a rather grim little city with no decent places to eat to speak of. To make it worse, we were housed in a zone industrielle, the part of the city far from the town center that was small factories and office building, that become completely deserted at night. There was one chain restaurant within walking distance, a glowing blue-lit palace next to the highway exit that led into the office park, and that was it. We were all pretty tired after classes all day and had nowhere to go but that chain restaurant, which we quickly tired of.

(The televisions in the hotel only got three channels – this was before WiFi, and one was a soft-core rose tv channel, as they say in France, and there were only so many times we could watch a story about a young couple that comes home and finds the babysitter, who had arrived with a low-cut blouse and schoolmarm glasses, asleep on the couch with her glasses fallen off, and her blouse partially unbuttoned, revealing a lacy camisole. I won’t mention what happens next, but “rose” tv always cuts away to the next scene, before anything good happens, and resumes after all the action took place. So not only were we hungry, we were also a very frustrated lot.)

Finally, some new students showed up who had a car (!) and we were so excited when they offered to take us to a nearby city, which happened to be Versailles, for dinner. We ended up eating in a Chinese restaurant because we were all students, on student budgets – and we were eating French pastries all day, and craving something completely the opposite. It wasn’t very good, but I always associate Versailles now with blasé (although entirely appreciated) Chinese food.

Alain Ducasse Picnic at Versailles, France-4

Not sure why I had to tell that story, perhaps because it’s been sitting on my mind for the past eighteen years. And rose tv seems to have disappeared from late-night French television, but rosé is more popular than ever and we kicked off the picnic with glasses of Perrier-Jouet 2006 Champagne. Because for most of us, we had work waiting for us back at home, we took it easy on the wine drinking. But it was hard to resist an icy cold glass of bubbly on such a magnificent day, wandering around the gardens of Versailles, served with such panache.

Rosé champagne at Versailles

Glasses in hand, head gardener of the Jardin de la Reine at Versailles, Alain Baraton welcomed us to the neatly manicured gardens – or potagers, as you would call vegetable gardens in French, while the team from the Alain Ducasse restaurant at the Plaza-Athenée hotel (who’d organized the picnic) were making lunch for us in the kitchen. The restaurant has been a bit controversial since they don’t focus on meat – rather, it’s about grains, sustainable fish and seafood, as well as carefully sourced fruits and vegetables. But it was nice that there’s an effort being made to move people away from meat-based meals and to focus on other things, which have traditionally gotten short-shrift in Parisian cuisine. And I’m always up for all three, as long as there isn’t squid or octopus in there.

Queen's Garden at Versailles

Garden at Versailles - Lettuce

Because spring was just emerging in the Île-de-France, the region where Paris and Versailles are located, there weren’t a lot of vegetables in the garden at the moment, but I thought I’d make up for it with a few extra pictures of the servers. Je vous en prie. (You’re welcome.)

Alain Ducasse Picnic at Versailles, France-10Alain Ducasse Picnic at Versailles, France

Rosé Champagne

By the time we got to the table, there were some lovely grainy crackers waiting for us to nibble on. (They’re similar to Endurance Crackers and Chia Crispbread, if you want to give them a try, like I do.) I ate both of mine pretty quickly, and looked around and saw a few empty seats with plates in front of them, and considered eating those, too.

Grainy crackers

We had French radishes from the garden, with bits of nuts and seaweed scattered around them, to nibble on while we finished our apéritifs.

French radishes

Alain Ducasse Picnic wines

Most of us had to get back to work that afternoon, so we didn’t drink too much…but they made it hard to resist!

Rosé wine at Versailles

Then we dove into the picnic baskets they’d assembled for us. When I put a snapshot on Instagram, a few inquired if I was going to swipe the red and white towel they’d used to line the baskets with. To be honest, I wanted to swipe everything. But like a good guest, I only brought home what I could carry, that is, in my stomach. Although later I did notice a few guests took theirs home. I didn’t ask if that was an option. Should I have?

We started with line-caught mackerel with green lentils in a gelée that looked like caviar and surprisingly, tasted just as good. Then it was on to a whipped puree of chickpeas (top, right), made with pois chiches from the Hautes-Alps, which was excellent, on top of with pagre mariné, or marinated fish. Alongside were crisps with raw mulet and bottarga (salted, cured fish roe).

Versailles Garden Picnic Alain Ducasse

I passed on the squid and octopus that was in the basket, although I did joke with a co-diner who works with the Alain Ducasse team, if they are intentionally always try to serve me squid or octopus? (which has become a running joke between us), but loved the chunks of lobster from Cotentin, the northern Atlantic coast of France, with new crop Noirmoutier potatoes stuffed with shredded lobster meat. The potatoes are grown on the Île-de-Noirmoutier, an island a hop, skip, and a jump from the mainland, which are only available between mid-April until the end of July and they’re said to have a faint salty flavor from being grown near salt marshes. They’re very good. But most potatoes from France are, so it’s hard to tell.

Next up was one of the best things I’ve had all year: a lovely mélange of vegetables that were cultivated from the garden of Versailles – carrots, broccoli, chive flowers, tiny turnips, fava beans, and slices of raw fish. I really liked the way each one was perfectly cooked, not over-presented, but grouped naturally and not seasoned much, save for just the right amount of salt to let the flavors of the vegetables come through.

It’s easy to forget how truly good vegetables taste when you don’t get to eat really fresh vegetables, those picked right from the ground. And I see why the king and queen of France wanted to live out here. (Too bad they had to go back to the city to get their comeuppance.)

Alain Ducasse Picnic at Versailles, France-13The entire picnic basket was a joy to eat, especially surrounded by the gardens, a few friends – old and new, and French waiters hovering around with bottles of wine. The concept of focusing on really great vegetables is something that’s not quite well-represented in Paris, except at restaurants with higher price-points. And I thought how nice it’d be to do something like these baskets and make them available in a more communal restaurant situation, perhaps a big hall with picnic-style tables and you could go to the counter and pick from a variety of paniers (baskets) then take them back to the table and sit outside (and in my perfect world, the outside dining area would have a no-smoking section), and enjoy them.

France has such beautiful foods, and I mentioned to my co-diner who works with Chef Ducasse about taking this concept closer to more people (like, near my apartment…) on a larger scale. She nodded in a manner that suggested that it was something they were exploring, so hopefully it’ll become a reality in the future. Fortunately I did bring home a box of those potatoes, in lieu of swiping the kitchen towel, and am planning on steaming them up for dinner this week, serving them with a bowl of aïoli made from tender, spring garlic, and yes – a few glasses of rosé, to continue celebrating spring in proper style.

Alain Ducasse Picnic at Versailles, France


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53 comments

  • Bebe
    June 8, 2015 4:56pm

    I love Versailles! My first visit there was with two freshly broken ribs, the result of a trip and fall on a bus taking us to Versailles (they were working on the train line that day). Inhaled the chrome rail around the driver, and voila! I was determined to see Versailles so I tightened my trenchcoat belt and we soldiered on. (The American hospital in Paris came later.)

    But no picnic.

    Lovely photos. Fascinating picnic. But no dessert?

    Thanks for sharing, David…

  • Lili
    June 8, 2015 5:31pm

    Perfectly gorgeous.

  • June 8, 2015 5:36pm

    A picnic on the ground of Versailles would certainly top the list (at least for me) of beautiful picnics to attend.

  • Lynne
    June 8, 2015 5:50pm

    It sounds like a perfect day at Versailles, and so nice that the picnic put the focus on fish and vegetables, not to forget the wine. There is something about European new potatoes that makes them so delicious. This year I tried growing my own here in America, because I miss the local Cornish ones, and they were close in flavor, so perhaps it is the storage and shelf time in the US?
    That is a place you need to hop, skip and jump too if you haven’t been – Cornwall, I mean. Lovely seafood and local vegetables to be had, plus notable restaurants opening too.

  • June 8, 2015 5:57pm

    Oh our associations…! My Versailles experience comes from having a broken down rental car at the 7 eleven (Circle K or whatever) type store just off the autoroute. We hung out there for a couple of hours waiting on the rental agency’s mecanicien, only to realize that the our (unwanted) Alfa Romeo upgrade required us to shift gears even though it was an automatic car! I’ll never forget those hours in Versailles though.

  • Sylviane
    June 8, 2015 6:03pm

    Picnic at Versailles was one of my favourite things to do when I lived there. I’m from Maisons Laffitte, not far from Versailles and now living in Canada. In my opinion, rosé has always been a must at a picnic, regardless of what is being served. We usually had pâté or rillettes, radishes with butter and salt, baguettes, salade verte and apricots or cherries. Simple fare to be enjoyed outside, with good company. Simply lovely. Thank you for posting, this has brought back some delightful memories.

  • Mario
    June 8, 2015 6:12pm

    Why is it that young French men have the most luscious lips? Now back to our regularly scheduled program. ;)

  • elizabeth
    June 8, 2015 6:24pm

    you are so lucky.. Versailles.. who can resists? Ducasse? ditto.. & all that rose’? love it all.

  • Ricardo
    June 8, 2015 6:30pm

    Next time, take the towels. I’m just saying.

  • aimee m.
    June 8, 2015 6:42pm

    more rosé and more French waiters, s’il vous plaît !

  • June 8, 2015 7:22pm

    Sounds gorgeous! Thanks for sharing, I almost felt I was there – love and miss my home country sometime…

  • Sara
    June 8, 2015 7:29pm

    I have heard that in France vegetables are cooked to a much softer stage than here in the US. Is that true in most cases? Those veggies looked cooked just the way I like them-tender/crisp. Never been to France, so just curious.

  • Mary
    June 8, 2015 7:41pm

    The lunch looked fabulous, but even if there was no lunch it would have been nice just to hang out with those waiters! yum!

  • June 8, 2015 7:57pm

    David, your blog posts are a picnic in themselves to this meticulous (read: anal) editor, and this is certainly a lovely time for them here where I live, where the Loire meets the Indre. I’d kill for a computer screen that I could read outside without squinting. Your posts just give me so much pleasure. I savor reading them in my sunporch and remind myself how lucky I am to be living now in France.

    P.S. It’s “short-shrift,” the anal editor says. I’ve often thought of selfishly (and I do mean “selfishly”) offering to proof your posts just for the sheer joy of partaking in them!! Seriously, thank you.

  • June 8, 2015 8:15pm

    18 years! I have memories of getting off the train in a nearby town after an evening in Paris. Terror–the town closed up and I barely spoke French. Thank God for gracious hotel night clerks and his friend the occasional cabbie. I think we were together one of those times.

  • Danita
    June 8, 2015 8:19pm

    The food looks very good and what a beautiful location to enjoy the meal. What did you think of the Perrier-Jouet Champagne? We purchased a bottle at a recent visit to Costco.

  • Will
    June 8, 2015 8:59pm

    If there are cute waiters to be photographed, I can count on you to find them David! Much appreciated.

  • bonnie
    June 8, 2015 9:03pm

    Oh dear, it all sounds (and looks) too wonderful. Lobster! Potatoes! Those crackers! Even the squid! And thanks for referring back to those cracker recipes, I will soon be making them.

  • June 8, 2015 9:28pm

    I learnt to appreciate Chinese food when I lived in Paris. There were a couple of lovely Chinese restaurants I went to occasionally – sadly, they no longer exist, but you’d expect that. And one rather mediocre one near the office that I only went to once.

    Didn’t go to Versailles very often, despite living in walking-distance from what is now the RER and was then just ordinary SNCF out to Rive Gauche. Did go once in awhile, though.

  • Nancy Carlson
    June 8, 2015 9:39pm

    I love your posts David..
    XO

  • Alicia
    June 8, 2015 9:49pm

    Love your post, David and I very much enjoy the way you write so no editing is required, continue as always. Versailles is now to me as Niagara Falls, never again another trip but I must admit I had a wonderful picnic in the gardens at Versailles when I took a tour from Paris with Big Phat Tours.

  • Karin
    June 8, 2015 10:13pm

    Love your articles, recipes and your book

  • Mary in Oregon
    June 8, 2015 10:22pm

    Lucky You! A picnic in Versaille sounds like (not really!) one our family had when it was pouring rain. We each had a hot-dog (’95 and 1 can of soda ($3) which the 3 of us shared) and then continued to admire all the water effects and the sculptures! The rain stopped just as we went inside to view the Royal Rooms and Hall of Mirrors.
    Yours I would prefer anyday. I would have taken home the basket and the towel – as I’m guessing that was the intention as a Thank You for your attendance, hoping you would use your blog (social media) to let all of us know about the various products!!!

    Mary in Oregon

  • June 8, 2015 10:43pm

    Sounds like a lovely day but I couldn’t get the context. Who invited you to a picnic at Versailles? What was the occasion?

  • Thea
    June 8, 2015 10:50pm

    Thank you for brightening my day with this lovely, sunny post. With your descriptive words and beautifully framed photos, I almost can taste the rose. And I do like the new format.

  • Kathleen
    June 8, 2015 10:51pm

    No photos of waitresses? Were there none about, or was it our dear blogger’s penchant at play? Nonetheless, beautiful people in a beautiful setting. And gorgeous food. Merci.

  • Karen
    June 8, 2015 11:02pm

    Dessert, please?

  • June 8, 2015 11:47pm

    La vie en Rose !

    Last time I was in Versailles we had a picnic outdoors on a freezing day in March before hiring bikes to cycle around the park. Sadly no waiters or baskets. Spent a summer holiday on ile-de-noirmoutier but no potatoes at that time of year. Lots of mosquitoes. Great little beaches and a wonderful pine forest with houses dotted about. Very relaxing place.

  • nicki
    June 9, 2015 12:31am

    Soooo nice. You have the best life. (And blog.)

  • ellen weaver
    June 9, 2015 12:47am

    There is the BEST restaurant in Versailles
    (at least 2 years ago.)
    Cannot for the life of me think of the name.
    Leaving the palace, to your right, and up
    the main street where all the shops are.
    A wonderful chef with his name proudly and boldly printed on the awning.
    Enjoyed a veloute of mushroom soup that
    the gods themselves cannot replicate.
    Maybe someone has the name from those
    scanty directions. It was our best meal of that trip.

  • June 9, 2015 12:50am

    How fancy! What a gorgeous spread and such a beautiful setting with plenty of rose’ flowing. It looks like it was a wonderful time!

  • Amy -Hunting Valley, Ohio
    June 9, 2015 3:21am

    David thank you for the lovely post. Your story about your student days in pastry school made me smile. Your accounts of your adventures are a joy to read. Thank you for this blog and for your marvelous Instagram posts.

  • Marianne McGriff-Zionsville, IN
    June 9, 2015 3:44am

    Thank you, David, for bringing back some precious memories of Versailles. In my professional career of teaching, I took groups of students in an exchange program(Back-to-Back) to Versailles. We were in an exchange with the Noisy-le-Roi which is not far from Versailles. I’m not sure that my students-6th and 7th graders-appreciated the significance of a splendid place as Versailles, but it brings back so many memories there. On a personal note, my parents attended a wonderful event connected to my Dad’s work at Versailles. I regret not asking my parents more details about that experience. My husband who has been to France many times has NOT been to Versailles…it’s on our list this summer! Merci, David PS. I had the pleasure of meeting you at Ballymaloe and am taking your book on our vacation next week!

  • June 9, 2015 4:24am

    WOW! Patty is that very funny?

  • Bill
    June 9, 2015 5:06am

    Thank you for the wonderful photos of the waiters..As lovely as the food

    Your column is a treat for all the senses…..

  • June 9, 2015 8:41am
    David Lebovitz

    Amy and Marianne: Thanks!

    Karen and bebe: The dessert is shown on the lower right and was strawberries unadorned, and fromage blanc ice cream. There was also something called “Brousse” which is a strained fresh cheese, that’s very good.

    Kathleen: There weren’t any waitresses at the picnic. But if there were, and they were fine having their pictures taken, I would have included them too : )

    • Bebe
      June 9, 2015 3:38pm

      Missed the strawberries!

      Taking the picnic gear and towel would have been akin to taking the china, cutlery and napkin from a restaurant, IMO.

    • Will
      June 9, 2015 5:55pm

      I see a waitress behind the waiter. hmm :)

  • June 9, 2015 9:46am

    I so enjoyed reading your take of Versailles, David. I live not far from here and, shame on me, have tended to take it a bit too much for granted.
    Hearing from your angle, I know I’ll giggle next time I’m passing with your story of the rose TV and the Chinese. What a hoot! That sit-down Ducasse picnic looked amazing – sure beats our more rustic versions in the park. Cheers!

  • Marguerite
    June 9, 2015 3:26pm

    Potatoes! Just returned from two weeks in a gîte near Beaune, where at the Saturday market I bought some nouvelle ratte potatoes. I roasted those tiny beauties slowly in a covered pan with butter, and they eclipsed the main event at the meal. I wish I had thought to make them the centerpiece with aïoli and a few more veggies.

  • June 9, 2015 7:15pm

    Again, this just looks so amazing!

    Kate

    Thanks for your re-comment. Note that links left in comments should relate to the post. More information here. – thanks, dl

  • Cindy
    June 9, 2015 7:52pm

    What a delicious dream!

  • June 10, 2015 9:35am

    Only to you will I admit that I associate Versailles with McDonald’s food.

    Our first time in Paris we headed out to Versailles for the day. Completely jet-lagged we gamely went through the palace and the grounds then headed home by train. We walked by the McDonald’s there and burst into almost hysterical giggles at the thought of a Royale With Cheese.

    There’s even Instagram proof of the day I lost all my food cred.

    <3 And I'm off to take the kids to Versailles today (which made your post so timely). I suspect there won't be any McDonald's this time however.

  • June 10, 2015 6:45pm

    David; I’ve started to NOT read your posts until I’ve eaten… because if I don’t, my stomach is grumbling so loud that I can’t hear my thoughts any sighs any longer, reading your brilliant stuff!
    Sadly, nobody ever invited us to such a lucious, delicious picnic on the Versailles ground, but…. we have had quite a good number of lovely picnics on our own ‘steam’, including wine in glasses, real serviettes (napkins?!) etc.
    Also loved some of the comments; that’s definitely a bonus when one only reads it all later on. Same as Shiobham, I often think I should offer my services as ‘proof-reader’, basket-carrier, bottle-opener, nibbles-distributor – only to breath in the atmosphere, the magic (and of course, quietly taste everything!) but hélas, she’s a real editor while I’m only a huge fan.
    Thanks for every morsel you let fall from your tables of abundance. I also found via some private photo exchange with an American friend that she too is one of your ardent newsletter readers and cookery books fan and that we share ‘donc’ also David L – just as we share so many other incredible thoughts, feelings, people and stuff. This so made my day.

  • June 11, 2015 5:39am

    don’t mind if i do! those radishes are so pretty and sweet.

  • Caitlin
    June 11, 2015 11:18am

    Hi, my name is Caitlin. I’m from San Francisco and living in Lyon for the past 5 years now. You blog is amazing thank you so much, I have heavily relied on it while cooking for friends :) on that note, those potatoes sounds great, and I was wondering if you could post a recipe for the spring garlic aioli that you are going to make? Merciii!

    • June 11, 2015 11:21am
      David Lebovitz

      I’ve posted it. If you click on the link in the post, it’ll take you to it. Enjoy!

  • June 11, 2015 11:25pm

    Cute waiter. Lovely food. Looks like you had a great time.

  • Laura M
    June 12, 2015 12:48am

    Shame on that man in the first photo with the unkempt hair and ugly expression, slouched at the table wearing a denim work shirt. Everyone else seems to have dressed for the occasion. I don’t know what message he thought he was conveying…

  • June 12, 2015 1:42am

    Oddly enough, I’ve also had mediocre Chinese food in Versailles. When I lived in Paris, one of my friends was studying at the regional conservatory there and she and her boyfriend had a teeny-tiny apartment. We did a concert at Saint Symphorien and stopped for Chinese beforehand. :)

  • June 16, 2015 7:25pm

    I’m going to France for the first time this week. I am very excited about trying the cuisine. I was wondering….Is there a specific dish I should try and where can I find it? Also, which pastry school did you attend? I went to Le Cordon Bleu here in the United States but love to hear about all kinds of culinary education.

  • June 21, 2015 3:36pm

    David, I was transported by this post! No one appreciates a well done picnic more than I. Was just looking at my lovely picnic hamper the other day and dreaming of my first summer picnic.

  • June 30, 2015 5:40pm

    What a beautiful day, and yes, thank you thank you thank you for the photos of the servers. When I saw the first photo of the rose, I thought, you should have sharpen the focus on the server in the back. And then you did. :) Lucky you for such beautiful food and setting.