In Rouen, France in 1948, Julia Child ate what she later declared to be the “most exciting meal of her life.” And I, almost 70 years later, set out on a pilgrimage to discover if this was still true.
I’ve spent hours poring over Julia’s memoir, My Life in France. In it, she speaks of going to cooking school and the markets in Paris, of her struggles, and of moments of utter joy when she finally felt like she belonged. She opens with a lengthy tale of that first lunch in Rouen, where she sat observing fellow diners and smelling the food as it was cooking, all while not understanding a word of the French that surrounded her.
As an American living, cooking and eating in France, it’s hard not to feel a connection with Julia while roaming through the markets or lingering over copper pots in E. Dehillerin, hearing her voice exclaiming, “Never explain, never apologize,” at every kitchen blunder.
But knowing that my time in France was coming to an end, I set out for Rouen to experience the meal that inspired her career, leading her to become America’s favorite French chef that no one in France has ever heard of.
Before I reached the restaurant, La Couronne, with my obliging sister in tow, I did as any modern-day eater would: I read every single review on the Internet that I could find, dwelling, of course, on the few negative ones. I read about everything from perfect, transcendental experiences to scathing incidents ending in food poisoning. I read about how it was overpriced and touristy, but also how so many of its diners went seeking a connection with the auberge’s storied past.
Photo by Anne Elder
Julia felt trepidation before she walked in thinking she wouldn’t be chic enough; my worries were fueled by Yelp and TripAdvisor.
La Couronne is the oldest auberge (in French, an auberge can mean an inn or restaurant) in France, dating back to 1345. It faces the square where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431, where in the 1970s a church was built in her namesake. The spot marks the place of Rouen’s old market square, where today vendors can still be found selling creamy Camembert de Normandie, meats and produce. La Couronne is known for its pressed duck, but because of Julia’s celebrity (and tourism) they created a special menu recreating her exact first meal in France, which is printed alongside the excerpt from her memoir detailing the meal.
Despite my apprehension, I couldn’t kick the pull of Julia’s words that were leading me there, illustrating her discovery of French food by way of butter. I went to bed the night before with a knot in my stomach, hoping her 70-year-old restaurant review would still be reliable.
From the outside, La Couronne is the picture-perfect image of old France, with its bright flower boxes and medieval timber framing exposed on the front. On the inside, it is a far cry from the brightly lit, minimalist restaurants that I have become accustomed to in Paris—the runner leading up the stairs is marked with cheetah print, and the wall boasts photos, some signed, of seemingly everyone who has ever eaten there (Julia Child) to everyone who hasn’t (Meryl Streep as Julia Child). As I looked around the nearly empty dining room at the heavy, dark red curtains with printed flowers and the dated patterned carpet, the knot in my stomach returned: would Julia eat here today?
Photo by Anne Elder
We sat sipping our kirs, waiting to begin our meal as the waitstaff buzzed around us. Our server, a sweet man whom I overheard asking the host if I was American, began setting the table for the oyster course—the oysters are sourced from Saint Vaast, a-two-and-a-half-hour drive from Rouen along the Atlantic coastline. They were perfectly briny and reminiscent of the sea, served with a harmonious shallot vinaigrette and pale rye bread. We sipped our bottle of Pouilly Fumé, a crisp white wine from the Loire Valley—yes, the same wine Julia had, only the 2015 vintage—and anxiously waited the main course, sole meunière.
As our server burst through the kitchen doors with a large platter filling his arms, I knew it was finally there. He came around to my side of the table and leaned the dish towards me with a big smile on his face. As two whole soles stared back at me, I was hit by a wave of butter. He declared quickly in French that he would go prepare it, taking it away just as quickly as he had arrived. With his back to our table, he expertly deboned the fish, delicately placing the prepared fillets on our plates and spooning brown butter over them.
We leaned over our plates as they were returned to us and inhaled deeply, letting the melted butter soak into our pores. In one bite, I could taste Julia’s discovery of France as the regional butter intertwined with the flaky white fish. Each bite was, as Julia said, “a morsel of perfection.” When Julia ate it, she tasted her France that was to come; I tasted the France I have already experienced—the dairy farms and the cheese agers, the vineyards and the fromageries.
After the generous serving of sole (and likely aided by the Pouilly Fumé), the rest of the meal seemed to float by. We were served a green salad and fromage blanc with a beautifully patterned raspberry coulis, but neither were a match for the luscious fish we had consumed minutes prior. After two and half hours, we left La Couronne in a daze of butter and wine, fully understanding what had drawn Julia to cook so many years ago.
Photo by Anne Elder
I realized on the train back to Paris that it wasn’t an exact replica of an experience that I was seeking—I was searching for the feeling of euphoria that Julia felt in that first bite of sole meunière, to feel her discovery of a new place through taste. And though the butter in the sole meunière at La Couronne still sputters just as Julia said it would, I’ve tasted that introduction to France on my own, through visits to the market and boulangeries and in every conversation held over a lengthy dinner ending in cheese. I met her beginning at my end in the same “comfortably old fashioned” dining room she had described, almost as if I was 70 years late for a lunch date. And I, like Julia, was pleasantly surprised.
Anne Elder spends more time talking about food than actually eating it. She has worked everywhere from wine bars to newsrooms to vineyards, has tasted cheese as it’s aging and ganache directly from the marble slab on which it’s made. She is currently researching cuisine as a means of communication among refugee chefs in Paris. Follow her on Instagram, Twitter, or her blog.