Excursions are such a fun part of our culinary holidays and cookery courses!
My French Cooking Tour in the US!…During the Thanksgiving and Christmas season I did a series of cooking classes in Denver, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
I had such a great time traveling around, with special ingredients in tow, sharing some of my favorite french recipes in family’s and friends’ homes…to spice up their holiday dinners.
Grey shrimps are fished on the beaches of the Opal Coast, along the northern Atlantic coast of France.
They are fished as the tide goes out with a special net called “haveneau”.
When we buy these beautiful blue-grey crustaceans at the open market they are still jumping lively in their baskets.
But once cooked, their color changes dramatically to an often vibrant pinkish-orange color.
‘The outer shell is made of a protein, crustacynin (like all the other crustaceans), which holds in a tight embrace the underlying pigment called astaxanthin.
Salt harvesting began in the region as early as the Neolithic, but it was in the Gallo-Roman era that the extraction by evaporation method was developed.
In the 9th Century, the monks ran the salt production and created the clay salt beds exactly as they are today.
Irrigated at each high tide, in the innermost parts, the water evaporates and the salt crystals are harvested daily from June to mid-September.
During the intense evaporation in the afternoon, fine crystals form on the surface, very white and pure, with a delicate perfume of violette, this is the “Fleur de sel” (flower of salt)
Symbol of french gastronomy, Guérande salt, and especially the Fleur de sel, graces the best tables in the world.
We are lucky to have my friend Christine that makes the weekly trip to our local market, selling her nice little bags of Fleur de sel, and very large bags of corse salt that I use for the delicious Salt Crusted Sea Bass, one of the recipes taught on my french cookery courses.
Georgina is my Araucana chicken, from tha Araucania region of Chile. She was a gift from a very sweet house guest (also named Georgina!).
Well, after almost 4 months of TLC, she has finally decided to earn her room and board and I’m so happy to have not only beautiful turquoise blue eggs but a good winter egg layer.
Her beauty has made the other chickens very jealous, but she is definitely the rooster’s favorite!
I can honestly say that of the numerous men I’ve been so happy to have in our culinary holidays, they’re some of the best cooks!
Our weekly Wednesday market is a foodies dream come true! The 2nd largest in our region, with 180 vendors displaying products from near and afar.
Christine comes straight from Guérande with her beautiful selection of rock salt, fine salt, fleur de sel and other spices including fresh vanilla pods and salicorne.
You can also find beautiful baskets, kitchen utensils, live chickens and ducks, antique knick knacks, and all sorts of other goods.
The longest line is at the horse meat vendor, but I never go there. Not that I don’t have time to wait but although I am very open minded and sometimes I could eat a cow, I will never eat a horse!
Of course, I have selected my favorite vendors and have become pretty efficient in finding and choosing what I need for the days-weeks cooking. I usually go with menus sketched out in my head, but with a very open mind and let my inspiration go with all the exciting food to be found.
And then there’s the Sunday market, smaller and in a pretty little square in front of the town theater. The main attraction is the fresh oysters and clams but there is always the usual abundance of produce, poultry, dairy products and flowers… all local!
It’s so fun when I get back to my kitchen and spread out all the ingredients on the table and start preparing delicious dishes, old and new!
“Dinner that night was the freshest of oysters followed by thick fennel soup and Moroccan stew, eaten around the fireplace in the living room with excellent red wine hand chosen by Xavier.
Up early the next day, we set out in the chilly fresh country air to the local food market…”
I met Mary Pochez through a friend of mine about 6 years ago at an art opening and we had a nice chat. Mary is an ex-pat married to a Frenchman and has lived in France for over 30 years. We kept in touch by email over the years, as she reads my blog, but physically have not seen each other since our first meeting. I remember she told me she lived in a chateau in the Loire and I was always curious what it was like.
Mary contacted me in mid-October last year and said she was looking to start cooking classes at the chateau. She wanted to know if I wanted to come to the chateau for a day or two to be the guinea pig for her classes. I told I would be very pleased to come and visit and she said I could bring a few friends if I wanted. I made arrangements to come the first week of December and invited Carol from Paris Breakfasts and a travel journalist friend of mine from Australia currently living in Paris.
We took the train to Le Mans and then a bus to La Fleche, a small town near the chateau. We arrived about 1PM and Mary showed us the quaint medieval town, which had an important historical significance to it: King Henri IV founded a Jesuit college and later on cadet school. In 1808 Napoleon built a military academy.
We drove through the scenic countryside where the leaves were still turning on the trees. We made a left off the highway to a dirt road, where Mary announced this was the entrance to the chateau. We drove and drove through the woods and Mary pointed out features of the 1200-acre property including the pristine lake and the working farm. Finally we arrived at the chateau, a aged Grand Dame with white weather vaned shutters, moss eaten stone steps, a beige yellow stone facade, and a stone fountain with a water sprout shooting up the height of the chateau. On the right side of the chateau was a small chapel and on the left in the distance was an orangerie. This was the real deal.
Mary’s husband Xavier, who I had not met before, greeted us warmly. He and Mary took us on a tour of the expansive house with endless rooms, hallways, and passages. Xavier told us Chateau de la Barbee was built in 1790 by architect Louis-Adrien Lusson and has been in his family since then. The property is ISMH (inventaire supplementaire des monuments historiques) or official historic French register because of its authenticity and rarity, having been built during the revolution. I was shown to my room on the second floor overlooking the back of the house with a lovely view. It looked like the set for a Ralph Lauren home furnishings waiting to happen with two wooden framed beds with white linens, plank floors, and an elegant old-fashioned white tub with fancy claws.
We had tea in the cozy den and got to know Mary and Xavier. Mary was a California surfer girl from a big family and became an international top model in her 20s. She told us about her globe trotting adventures all over Europe and hanging out with Janice Dickinson. She was introduced to Xavier at a dinner party and he courted her for many years until he won her over and she finally agreed to marry him. They have been happily together for 30 years and have two college age children. They lived in Paris full time and went to the chateau on weekends and holiday until they moved there permanently in 2009.
It was sunny day and I went outside to watch the magnificent crimson sun set against the black trees with a low fog rolling in.
Dinner that night was the freshest of oysters followed by thick fennel soup and Moroccan stew, eaten around the fireplace in the living room with excellent red wine hand chosen by Xavier.
Up early the next day, we set out in the chilly fresh country air to the local food market. Carol was as happy as a clam and we enjoyed perusing the local products and especially the low prices. We returned to the house and rolled up our sleeves to roll out the pastry for the pear almond tart. We then made an unusual dish I never had before that was so easy to make. Mary asked us to take some raw pieces of raw foie gras and wrap it in cabbage leaves she steamed. She then baked them.
At about 1PM we sat down for the lunch on the elegant dining room table laid with some of the original china, flatware, and crystal glasses from the early 1800s. The cabbage wrapped foie gras was beyond amazing and the main course was tender wild boar in a cranberry and mushroom sauce. The pear almond tart was so good it called for seconds. Xavier again picked the perfect red wine, a divine Chinon.
After lunch we walked around the grounds and Xavier showed us the inside of the chapel, telling us the romantic story of how they got married in it. We also got a tour of the orangerie and they told us of their grand plans to make it into an event space for weddings and affairs in the summer. We took some fun photos playing in the leaves and a sweet one of Mary and Xavier.
We headed back to the train station about 4PM, sad to leave the idyllic paradise. Mary gave each of us a sweet parting gift, a jar of her homemade jam.