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Saturday, July 29, 2023

La Pitchoune: The Food

I intended to rush right in and tell you all about our experience cooking in Julia Child's house but I've been very busy back home cooking.  I had no idea what an effect the week would have on my actual life.  

The first thing Makenna had shown us how to cook was Julia's iconic omelet: the dish that had made her famous, the most simple and basic egg dish yet most exotic of ways to cook an egg.  So easy that I can tell you right now in about three sentences:  scramble two eggs in a bowl, heat a pan until it's really hot, add a large amount of butter, then over high heat add the eggs.  Swirl the eggs around in the pan until they gather in the center and cook together until they're almost done, finally swirling and gathering up until the final gathering you gather one third of the eggs in a folding motion and fold them over onto themself like an envelope.  The final lap of this ballet involves folding the egg onto the plate in a motion that folds it into the final envelope as you plate it onto the plate.  There are, of course, myriads of YouTube videos to show you how to do this.  

Back home, I had already perfected this technique and played with it a little bit more and soon tired of it but something else happened.  It revived my interest in eggs for breakfast in a new way. After a couple of weeks I have to admit I grew tired of omelets and reverted to scrambled eggs.  However, that time I had bought some locally grown and butchered pork sausage from a friend who practices regenerative farming.  I had been looking for the kind of pork sausage from my childhood without success until Stout Creek Farm hit the Winnsboro Market.  And I can now enjoy sausage with the old-fashioned flavor I grew up with.  So, breakfast for me now instead of a French omelet is a scrambled eggs sandwich with a couple of sausage patties. And, instead of the bad rap sausage got in years past, I'm enjoying more protein in the morning and feeling more energy.

The one thing the trip did for me was remind me that good eating was also healthy eating.  And a trip to my local Farmers Market was every bit as easy at the trip the French cooking school had taken us on to Cannes. Because that's the first thing they did our second morning at cooking school. 

In Cannes, they divided us up into couples and gave each couple fifty Euros with instructions to buy four different vegetables and one fruit for the kitchen. And one selection had to be something we were not familiar with.  I think Elizabeth and I got green beans, asparagus, squash, tomatoes and cantaloupe.  Our mystery vegetable was the squash.  It was round and we had never seen round squash before--had no idea what it was until we got back to the house and Makenna told us what it was. It looked like a Christmas tree ornament to me. 

By the time we returned to La Pitchoune our bounty ended up as a magnificent display fit for a magazine cover.  In my case I turned it into the background for my phone.  

This ended up being the vegetables we drew from to cook with for the week. 

But also, the trip to the Cannes market inspired me to resume my Saturday trips to the local Farmers Market.  And to enjoy cooking again.

The other thing the school did was remind me to relax and take my time.  To just think about what I'm doing while I'm cooking. To taste as I go. The Slow Food Movement may have started in Italy but it's really a very European movement now.  The idea of taking your time to savor and immerse your whole self, more than just your thoughts, but your attention, your full attention, your taste buds, almost your soul dedicated to the flavors and textures of the food before you.  

I came home to cook things that weren't actually French, like risotto (which is Italian) and foods that weren't even European like grits.  But I slowed down and put more thought into the process, tasting while I cooked. 

About the second day our main instructor, Kendall, gave us a lesson on egg whites.  We did a couple of things with egg whites.  We made a chocolate mousse and then a cheese souffle.  Each time she had us beat the whites with a whisk by hand-- each person beating her little heart out for all we were worth and then passing the bowl off to the next person in the circle.  This hands-on method allowed us to watch the process develop organically rather than by a mechanical method doing the work for us.  It was like watching a miracle performed before our eyes.  I couldn't say precisely when the miracle occurred but at some point, the eggs transformed from translucent goo into pure white angelic foam.  Even doing it slowly and passing the bowl around the miracle was hard to pin down.  Food really is magical.

We had many different lessons on techniques and foods that a lot of us had never had experiences with.  The first day we explored all the spices in the cupboard and we tasted and smelled spices we'd never seen before. We learned about infusions.  The best example of an infusion is coffee.  Who knew?  After making a milk infusion with about seven spices it went into a scalloped potato dish.  The clear winner was Grains of Paradise and we ended up putting it in everything. It smelled wonderful yet I had never heard of it before.  Turns out it's from Ethiopia.

You can barely make out the Grains of Paradise label on the little bottle on the far left.  Smoked Black Cardamon......Purple striped Garlic.........Black Lime.......Hyssop Thyme.....These were all new to me.

Baked fish........Bone marrow........... roasted lamb.......roasted duck.......We learned about, cooked, deboned, and tasted so many new dishes that I can't  describe each one adequately.  

Some of these foods I may never eat again.  I can't buy a duck at the Walmart back home to roast. So that's never going to happen.  But now I've had the opportunity to see one roasted.  I know how to score the fat on a duck before I cook it and I've seen how quickly it renders in a pan.  I've tasted duck fat.  I've tasted bone marrow.  I watched how gracefully Kendall boned the fish we ate for lunch.  And I do have access to lamb meat at home from a farm that practices regenerative farming so I might buy some lamb and roast it.  These have all been wonderful experiences.  

Of course, it was the experiences. What did I think I was going for?

But it was so much more than just the techniques we learned or the information we gained. Elizabeth and I just had a really good time cooking and eating and having conversation with good people. We met four other women we had never known before.  All the women were veteran cooks and Capri Cafaro (interestingly enough, the only one I don't have a photo of) does cooking shows professionally. 


Our meals would usually be ready late in the evening and by the time we were ready to eat, the table would be set in the living room with beautiful plates and glassware.  There would be a specific wine chosen to complement the evening's meal and even a special non-alcoholic drink for me. It was relaxed but felt fancy.

Kendall or Makenna might join us to explain a few more things about the food then disappear to clean up.  

On our final night while we packed and made our travel arrangements, Kendall cooked an eight-course meal for us that was decadent yet simple: The main course was pigeon, or, as some people might call it, squab, with a rich dark sauce.  Our first courses were foie gras of the duck fat we had rendered earlier in the week, ginger and cherry granita, asparagus,  onion soup, cucumber salad, tiny crushed potatoes topped with caviar, the squab and then finally fruit with a whipping cream topping. 

And then the magic of six strangers with one common interest happened. For the next two hours we talked about every subject there was to talk about. The conversation that started with one woman describing how to cook a traditional Christmas Feast of the Seven Fishes ended up about family dynamics. Another woman gave me her recipe for a pasta she cooks back home and some great stories of working for the church that I could never repeat. 

There is an intimacy in knowing you will probably never see each other again.  Confidences are shared, honesty abounds.  

I had taken a biography on Julia Child to read on the trip but didn't have time to read until I got home.  Now that I've finished it, one paragraph stands out.  

At the end of her life, after her husband and friends had died, Julia made one last trip to close down La Pitchoune and sell it.  Even though a great deal of Mastering the Art of French Cooking had been written there, she had no lingering sentiment over the house.  The house held no draw for her without Paul or Simca.  It was only a building.  It was the people and the experiences inside it that made the house special to her.  And I realized that that is the way I felt about my trip to the famous landmark.  

I had a wonderful time and met some great people.  I'm glad I got to bring those memories home with me.

I went to France to see Julia Child's house.  But it was her people I will remember. 

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