By Jeanne Quigley.
When I saw the ad ‘Places available for journalists on a Gourmet Explorer Cookery Course in France’ I jumped at the opportunity. Five days in the kitchen with a Michelin-starred chef and a Chef d’Excellence – what could be better? I contacted owner Moira Martindale immediately and a couple of weeks later, Biddy and I arrived in Carcassonne airport. With faces turned up to the sun – having left the October cold at home – we rendezvoused with Moira and two of our fellow participants, Judy, a journalist from England and Mike, a retired surgeon from Wales.
The course took place at Moira’s lovely home out in the French countryside, Domaine St Raymond. It’s a 200-year-old barn, beautifully converted, with eight restful en-suite bedrooms, large dining/sitting room with wood-burning open fireplace for taking the chill off the evenings and, of course, a state-of-the-art kitchen. Outside, for relaxing, there’s a swimming pool, tennis court and boules area.
Not that we got much time for these pursuits! On arrival, we were very soon in the kitchen, busy prepping and cooking our evening canapes which were to go with the bubbly on the terrace. This is when we met our two chefs, Jean-Marc Boyer and Robert Abraham, and also our fifth participant Eric, a dermatologist in the UK. Emma, English but living in the area, would join us the next morning.
What with the shared kitchen experience, the bubbly and the delicious dinner, that first evening was the beginning of the ‘bonding’ that would continue during the week. And of course, with bonding inevitably comes the slagging! Needless to say, we also started as we meant to go on – with plenty of local wine.
First port of call on Monday was the local market. We lost Jean-Marc right at the beginning, who was off buying all the ingredients for the days work.
We enjoyed the sights and sounds of the French market – a fish sculpture made from apples, huge bowls of cooked moules, fresh oysters, les fromages, the bread. We bought local honey, some very reasonably priced vanilla pods and Mike bought oysters as a special treat.
Back at HG, we got stuck in straightaway. Jean-Marc was a hard task-master as we chopped and cleaned, scrubbed and scraped. Recipes were in both English and French. Part of the craic was that Jean-Marc had very little English. My French is of the school-girl variety, though by the end of the week, I was practically fluent. Emma had a decent bit and Mike had the ‘cupla focal’ as well. Our resident and indispensible kitchen lady, Regine, got out her trusty dictionary. And Jean-Marc did his impressions. We told him he was in the wrong job – he should be doing a Marcel Marceau! Watching him mime a frightened octopus to tell us that the black stuff he was using to decorate the plates was actually squid ink is one of those memories that stays in the mind forever.
But his cooking was sublime. Among the dishes we we helped prepare – and eat – were salmon ceviche with guacamole, spiced octopus with melon and radish, fig melba and medallions of monkfish. Unfortunately, his twenty-seater Michelin Star restaurant was too far away for us to sample his cooking there. But next time…
Robert, the Chef D’Excellence, was a different kettle of fish. His normal kitchen cooks for a 300-seater restaurant. We had it easy for Wednesday and Thursday. He’s obviously used to having lots of people prepping. We cooked shoulder of lamb with garlic, seared scallops with homemade mango chutney, roast turbot and Breton shortbread. With the Carcassonne region being that of foie gras, lovers of this food – as were all my companions – had a field day. Robert opened up a large package one morning and resplendent inside was a big piece of this delicacy. That day, we had a fried chunk on top of the pumpkin soup. And when we went out to dinner in Carcassonne old town, it was served with the beef.
So what did we learn from Jean-Marc and Robert? A huge amount. Watching these chefs prepare and cook is worth paying any money for.
We learnt, for example, how to make mushroom soup out of a few bits and pieces. First of all, Jean-Marc throws away absolutely nothing. As he’s working, he has a couple of bowls in front of him on the table; one for the vegetable peelings, one for the vegetables. The peelings are added to a saucepan of water and a stock is made. (A very handy method of always having some stock to hand.) Mushrooms are always peeled in France and for the baked mushrooms and eggs we were preparing the stalks weren’t used. So peelings and stalks went into the pan with some onion, stock and cream. A few blitzs later, and a drop of vin blanc, the result was an absolutely delicious soup, served in shot glasses as an extra on the plate.
As well as cooking, Moira had arranged two afternoon outings, one to a wine tasting and one to an olive oil tasting. (Anyone interested in details on either of these, consult with Biddy White Lennon, another Guild member who also travelled with me.)
We had travelled very lightly on the way out but with our combined purchases of olive oil, honey and a few bottles of red wine, we ended up having to check a bag in. Such is France. Irresistable.
Details on the French Gastro Academy can be found on www.frenchhouseparty.co.uk.