"Anyone can cook in the French manner anywhere." Julia Child.
Some of my more significant French food memories include: curry eaten in a Parisian bookshop that was made (so we discovered later) in a cockroach-infested kitchen; some French men actually do have beards that smell of garlic (in the south) and crispy baguettes stuffed with dark chocolate make a cheap pain au chocolat. After 6 days on the French House Party Gourmet Explorer course in the Languedoc, my French culinary experience had matured somewhat to embrace: 1) the realisation that the French will never give up foie gras; 2) choux pastry swans and 3) the ability to whip up restaurant quality reductions the quality of which would make a grown man weep.
Six days working alongside two renowned French chefs was a real privilege: the mysticism and often impenetrability of French cooking melted away like so many slabs of Nomandy butter. We were whipping up macaroons, roasting and frying fillets of veal, prepping monkfish and scallops, making that most elaborate of choux pastry deserts - the Saint Honorè and spinning sugar like it was kids' play. French cooking was suddenly accessible - we had permission to lean over, point, taste and question while that most unpredictable of beasts - the chef - and in particular the French chef - remained calm and informative.
Friday was lunch (already prepped) followed by canapés and fizz on the terrace as our first chef - Robert Abraham - took us through the simplicity of creamed mackerel, gruyere cheese sticks and shrimp samosas. From then on - the formula remained pretty much the same: breakfast, break, prep lunch together, eat lunch, rest. Prep dinner, eat dinner, chat, moan about having eaten too much and sleep it off. Welcome respite from a full belly came in the form of a visit to a local vineyard and a trip to an olive oil factory and farm and it was aprons off for a visit to a restaurant in nearby Aragon - a four-course, exquisite treat.
On Saturday we were lucky enough to shop with Robert for our lunch at Revel market - one of the oldest in France. I watched him haggle over ceps, point out heritage vegetables and frown over shavings of the local cheese - Cantal, a hard cheese dating back to the Gauls. He recommended honey, pointed out olives for us to try and directed our attention to the little morsels of foie gras being proffered over the counter by an old man. Stacks of plate-sized oysters and a fish stall shimmering with scales of every type made me reflect on the French (and Italian) refusal to adapt tastes to a changing economy and ecology: food would go on here at Revel market as it had done since the 13th century.
Post-market we prepped scallops to be grilled in butter with almonds, spinach and soy, veal fillet with sage and honey and a 'custard' of courgette and bay, finished with lemon macaroons. We learnt to slide a knife carefully up and under the top shell of the scallop so that it sprung open, revealing a brown/black mess of innards out of which we scooped coin-sized rounds of pure white flesh. The veal was fried and roasted and the little custards whizzed up and cooked in a bain-marie, making for a light and fragrant lunch. The macaroons, eaten at dinner, looked like flattened breasts but tasted like their pert counterparts - seductively chewy, jaw-achingly sugary and flamboyant. Robert let us in on a couple of macaroon secrets - put the egg whites in the fridge the day before and let them sit in cold air for an hour to form a skin before cooking.
The following day we focused on fish, prepping sea bass for the frying pan with oven-roasted mango with pumpkin, a surprisingly delicious combination that sat well alongside the lightness of the fish. The secret of filleting a bass is all in the knife - very sharp but flexible to enable you to follow the bones down the body. We mixed up a velouté and treated some fat pears to the torture of slow roasting with sugar, butter, red wine and more butter. In contrast to the English method of boiling pears in a sugar and red wine, the French version was a caramel, mouth-pinching joy and one of our favourite dishes on the whole course, demonstrating that simplicity is at the heart of much of the best French cooking.
Very little is wasted in the French kitchen - the bones of the fish were fried and reduced down with some red wine, (yes red) to produce an astounding reduction alongside the fillet. The veal meat trimmings, and not the bones (a French preference as in the UK veal bones are normally roasted off to prep for a stock) made an equally rich and alchemic sauce, the basic formula for which was: fry the meat, add some chopped vegetables (leeks, onion, carrot), and importantly, some honey before covering with water, white wine, red wine or some port. Robert also added in a splash of wine vinegar before reducing the wine and explained that a couple of teaspoons of mustard would give yet another version.
On Monday, we met our second chef, Jean-Marc Boyer, a trained Parisian patissier and chef. We achieved nothing short of minor culinary miracles with the erection of our Saint Honorè cakes - whimsical, Baroque-esque piles of custard-filled profiteroles stuck to a choux ring on a puff pastry bottom with caramel glue and doused in Chantilly cream and more custard. Every other profiterole was a delicate choux swan, that became less delicate as the heat and our amateur enthusiasm caused the loss of limbs and sagging of heads. As a taste experience however, the crisp pastry with soft cream was a textural sensual pleasure and conversation briefly lulled in appreciation of this offering to the patron saint of baking (only the French would have such a thing).
This was just under a week of sheer pleasure, at times, too much pleasure and the food would sit heavily of an evening particularly after a cheese course, but it would be silly not to. When in France ... I learnt to have the confidence to cook choux pastry, strip down a fish and put the effort into making those sauces for which the French are so famous. Yes you may want a week in the gym when you return but I also can't wait to get in the kitchen and see what I can do on my own with a little added professional je ne sais quoi.
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