Chaudrée de palourdes

I tried this clam chowder at the Hog Island Oyster Co. in Napa, California, and when I finished it I knew I needed the recipe. What I didn’t know is that chowder, an American dish, has French roots — or that the word ‘chowder’ derives from the French chaudrée, meaning cauldron. This I discovered upon my return to Paris. I quickly went out and bought the ingredients — clams, potatoes, leek, celery, carrot, bacon and heavy cream.

Chaudrée de palourdes / Clam chowder

The recipe is easy and takes about half an hour to prepare. The key to success is to use the small, sweet clams known as palourdes in French, Manila clams or steamers in English, and vongole in Italian. The clams should be as fresh as possible — at Hog Island Oyster Co., where I lunched with my cousin Paul on a cold, wet January afternoon, we were told that the clams had been fished out of a nearby bay that very morning.

That was one reason our lunch was so memorable. The other was the oysters we had as a starter. As reluctant as I may be to say so, those oysters were better than any I’ve had in France — or anywhere else for that matter. They were small but deep, succulent and nutty. A crisp Chardonnay grown on the surrounding vines in Napa completed the picture.

I spent three weeks in California over the new year, mainly in the Bay Area, and from a foodie point of view the trip held other surprises. The most startling thing was the prices. On the night I arrived, I went out with a friend to a laid-back joint in Oakland where two bacon cheeseburgers, two glasses of red and a glass of sparkling water cost … $80. About double what it would cost in Paris. Likewise, at a bakery in San Diego, three cups of soup, a turkey sandwich and a plate of potato chips set my cousin Janice back $80. But that was nothing compared to my bill of $150 for lunch for two at a Greek place in San Francisco.

Or the eye-popping $700 bill for dinner for four at a high-end Chinese, where the creative five-course fixed-price menu ($90 per person not counting drinks, dessert, tax or tip) included a starter of ‘Winter Perigord Truffle Puff’, ‘Chilled Fresh Lily Bulb’ and ‘Scallop and Caviar Roll’ (at left). Okay, the view was fantastic and the ambiance refined, and the cost wasn’t an issue for me as I was generously treated by my brother and sister-in-law. But it made me realize that, although Paris is reputedly one of the world’s most expensive cities, one can dine out, well, for far less.

Getting back to chowder, it is said to have originated on the Atlantic coast of France, where la chaudrée is a soup of fish and shellfish cooked with veggies, bacon, white wine and cream. According to lore, French immigrants enjoyed what was to become known as chowder while sailing to the United States and Canada in the 17th century. It put down roots first as New England clam chowder, similar to today’s recipe, and later as Manhattan clam chowder, made with a tomato broth and no cream.

Despite its French roots, clam chowder is not served in restaurants in Paris — at least, in my nearly 50 years here, I’ve never encountered it. Which means that in order to enjoy this warming, ultraflavorful soup, you need to go hunting for clams. This I did at my local farmers market, where various types of clams — including two sorts of palourdes, small and large — were on sale on a recent Sunday. If fresh clams aren’t available where you live, you can buy them online in the States or in the UK.

Happy cooking.

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