Bon Appétit in Provence

For too many years on various trips to the south of France and parts of Italy, we were frustrated by seeing the tempting food in the markets and having no place to cook. Not to mention in France, the wonderful boulangeries, boucheries, fromageries, charcuteries, poissoneries, and pâstisseries. We remedied that by staying in vacation rentals and Airbnb’s with well supplied kitchens. But this time in the south of France, we decided to up the ante and take a cooking class. What could be more fun? Fall’s bounty in the markets, picking up some tips from a local expert, and topped off by eating a great lunch we had made.

So Peter did some research and found a Irish woman, Petra Carter, who runs a small cooking school, Le Pistou, in Uzes near where we were staying for ten days. A former B&B owner and a sixteen year resident of France, she was a wealth of local knowledge. She taught a variety of classes. Foods of the south of France for tourists, and Lebanese or Indian for the locals in the winter months! Apparently, the locals get enough of Provençal food at home and in the restaurants and are desperately looking for some variety.

Our group of four arrived promptly at 9:30am, and we met the four other students—a couple from Canada, a woman from Australia, and a woman from Alaska. Petra acted more as a hostess at a dinner party than a teacher or task master. She carefully introduced each of us to the others, and to her assistant, and generally chatted us up. Lots of laughter. Introductions complete, we put on the aprons and took our seats along a long stone counter.

First on the cooking agenda was a twisted tart of sun dried tomatoes and fennel seed. The French do have the best pastry in the stores’ refrigerator cases. Nothing like the tubes of Pillsbury dough we see at home or the frozen rectangles of Pepperidge Farm puff pastry. The array of choices in France is inspiring — all butter, whole wheat, gluten-free, low-fat or whatever. One variety is appropriate for pizza crusts, another for a sweet tart and some are more like puff pastry. I was familiar with the options from our previous trip to Provence and had made an open face tart our first night in Uzes with some creamy goat cheese and zucchini. Petra’s version was something else, using an all butter round puff pastry. One student spread the topping of sun dried tomatoes blended with a bit of olive oil and bit of minced garlic on the bottom crust that sat on a piece of parchment paper. Then, after laying the top round in place, our instructor carefully sliced the tart and showed us a technique for twisting it to create a fancy shape—like a sun with radiating rays. No surprise—the French name: Tart du Soliel. Given the quality of the pastry in France, we were told home cooks often make a variation on a tart for a light meal or with a sweet filling for dessert. All in all, a pretty easy and impressive dish once you know the techniques. Of course, the challenge at home will be getting the pastry.

With one appetizer in the oven, the vegetables for our lunch were next. A pile of unblemished, fat fennel bulbs. Bright red peppers with some slight scarring from the summer winds. A bowl of big red tomatoes, the kind we can only get from our own gardens or in the farmers’ markets. She demonstrated the technique for cutting each. Fennel bulb in thin wedges, being careful to keep a good bit of the core in each wedge to keep it intact. Cutting the red peppers through the stem but leaving it in place so the pepper won’t collapse during roasting. Tomatoes cut and seeded, as Petra didn’t want too much liquid in the final dish. And then she turned to vegetables over to us to replicate her example.

As we chopped away, Petra gave us a history lesson on the cuisine of southern France. Not surprisingly, it was largely dictated by the warm weather crops that grew well here— tomatoes, peppers, summer squash, olives. (Many would say more Italian than French.) Not much butter or cream or rich sauces we associated with the French high cuisine. The big meal of the day was lunch. Without ovens in their homes, women cooked the family meal in the ovens of the boulangerie after the bread for the day was done. (And the men, our host noted, usually sat around drinking Pastis, the anise flavored liquor of the region). So the backbone of Provençal meals was slow cooked and oven roasted foods. Salads only arrived with the tourist onslaught.

The fennel wedges were tossed in a single layer into a sauté pan with a good drizzle of olive oil to brown. No salt. A little pepper. And then arranged in a circular pattern in a shallow baking dish. Topped with a bit of fennel seed and more olive oil and popped into the oven, to be garnished with bits of fresh fennel fronds when it came out. The halves of peppers were placed in a deeper dish. The tomatoes was tossed with olive oil, capers, some pepper, Herbes de Provençe, and spooned into each pepper. Then a teaspoon (or a bit more) of home made red wine vinegar was added to each pepper. And it, too, went into the same oven with the fennel.

A question about her favorite olive oil led to an impromptu tasting. She brought out four bottles. Poured a bit of each in small bowls and asked us to taste. The flavors ranged from light and subtle to peppery or vegetal. And prices ranged from 7€ to 15€. Her advice? Buy to best you can for cooking (be a bit extravagant) and a little better for finishing. And the olive oil tasting led to an olive tasting and a lecture about those canned black olives that kids put on the end of the fingers. They may be forever banished from our house after Petra explained how they are made — picked unripened & very green, pitted, bathed in lye and soaked in rusty water! Yes, rusty water, to turn them black. Delightful, heh!? No more black olives on my pizzas!

And of course there was a cheese dish — in fact, three. Midway through our cooking, out came some cheese Petra had made. One was a simple spread of strained yogurt to which she had added pink peppercorns and cardamon. She had a second variation with cumin and coriander. Both served on slices of baguettes. She showed us her collection of vintage molds for the cheese (which set us out on a mission to find one to take home) but confessed to generally just using wire mesh strainers. As we munched away and sipped champagne, she demonstrated how to marinate aged goat cheese rounds in olive oil and spices. And she told us that the best and cheapest containers come from Ikea, no less.

The final cheese dish was only slightly more complicated—a round of Camembert (a cow cheese from the north of France—the local cheese is either sheep or goat) placed in its original wooden round box with the lid used underneath for more support. She cautioned us to make only shallow slices in the top of the cheese before turning the task over to one of us. Her intention had been to top the cheese with a liqueur, hazelnuts and honey but then remembered one of us was allergic to nuts. No problem! The recipe was altered. A splash of kirsch, sprinkle some barberries, a bit of honey and fennel seeds on top and bake that little treasure in its wooden box. Word of warning. For this recipe only use the wooden rounds that have staples in them; glued ones will fall apart.

All three of the cheese recipes were more about a technique which you could vary either the herbs, the spices, add nuts or honey and just enjoy.

The surprise of the day was the dessert — an olive oil chocolate mousse. Yes, olive oil. Dairy free and absolutely silky. The technique was similar to a standard mousse. Separating eggs, carefully adding the yolks to melted chocolate and the olive oil, whipping the whites and folding them into the chocolate. In a twist on flavoring the chocolate with a bit of vanilla or a liqueur, she had us grate a tonka seed (reputedly a hallucinogen in larger quantities) into the mixture. Subtle and delicious. Spooned into tiny demitasse cups.

And meal was rounded out by flambéd prawns and grilled razor clams with garlic crumbs. We were each given a handful of prawns and told to remove both veins. Petra fussed about the quality of the shellfish, not sure it was as fresh as she would have preferred. She showed us how to loosen the long narrow razor clam from its shell and open the shell up so it could be filled with bread crumbs tossed with garlic and olive oil. While the clams went under the broiler, she quickly sautéed the prawns and then taught one of the least experienced cooks how to flambé using Pastis. Frankly after tasting the prawns, her concerns about their freshness was unfounded, and it was the best use of Pastis ever! Only a subtle licorice flavor permeated the prawns.

And after all the food was prepared, laid out on a buffet, the plates were filled and wine glasses topped off, we sat around the table for more than an hour and half, eating, sharing travel and food stories, learning more about the politics and real estate of Uzes. We left with cheek kisses all around almost six hours after we started.

By the way, Petra made sure we did the cheek kisses the right way, but also cautioned us, hugging in France between friends is just not done. All the kissy-kissy stuff is fine, but bodies should never touch. Good to know.

Ah, la belle France.