Review of Cooking Class for English Speakers in the South of France: "Week in Uzès -- French Cooking Holiday"
My wife Marilyn and I finished a French cooking class last week in the South of France. For me, "the South of France" always conjures images of Earth's beautiful ones (think Gwyneth Paltrow) frolicking on the French Riviera. It also strikes me as an inaccurate description. I mean, I live in San Diego, which is in the southern part of California or simply, "Southern California," but not "the south of California." No, that would be Tijuana.
Whatever one calls the region, we didn't encounter Gwyneth Paltrow. But we did have a wonderful stay (probably because we didn't encounter Gwyneth Paltrow). In fact, it was the best vacation I can remember.* The cooking school, Cook'n With Class, is located in Uzès, a lovely little French
town that's been around for fifteen hundred years -- or thirteen centuries before the U.S. was a gleam in Thomas Jefferson's eye. Its classes, focusing on Provençal and Mediterranean cuisine, are all taught in English.
The school offers classes of different lengths. We signed up for its "Week in Uzès -- French Cooking Holiday," which presently costs 2,000 euros per student. As discussed below, that's quite a bargain by my reckoning. Class size is kept small to ensure personal attention (our class had four students, plus three who joined us for one day). The price of admission included six days of events and classes and seven days' lodging at a nearby inn, Mas du Moulin. The inn, built in the 1700s, is a clean, comfortable, well-appointed stone farmhouse.
Innkeepers Diane and Clive Norwood were outgoing and accommodating hosts, providing breakfast each day (compliments of the school) and anything else needed. I must note that peculiar, unsettling animal calls issued from the surrounding woods at night; I'm pretty sure I heard a banshee, though Clive insisted it was a frog (of all things; I suspect Clive is in league with the banshees). Whatever they were, our nocturnal carolers lent a unique and amusing texture to our evenings.
But cooking is why we'd come to this corner of France. And our quest was richly rewarded. The week was filled with demonstrations, hands-on instruction, parties, excursions, tours, wine drinking, entertainment -- and the constant aroma and taste of savory dishes that would reduce the most braise-hardened foodie to delighted whimpering.
The school's proprietors, Eric Fraudeau and Yetunde Oshodi-Fraudeau, are an engaging husband-and-wife team which founded the school a decade ago in Paris. They opened their southern venue in July, 2015. Eric, the master teacher, is an unassuming if haphazardly coiffed Frenchman (who claims his barber is serving time and that he needs to start looking for a replacement). And he is an accomplished chef who has established and run kitchens in fine international restaurants and resorts for thirty-some years. But most important for his students, Chef Eric is a patient and convivial teacher.
Yetunde, who manages most of the school's sales, marketing, and administrative functions and coordinated many aspects of our culinary adventure, is also a trained chef who has lived and worked around the globe for much of her life. When we first met, the outgoing Yetunde told Marilyn that I am "Hemingwayesque."
I instantly liked her.
Our week started Saturday evening with a pool-side degustation party at Mas du Moulin, at which our class sampled fine regional wines, cheeses, breads, pâté, meats, tapenade, fruits, and other local treats. It was also the scene of my first faux pas: "nosing the cheese." It seems that hand-crafted French cheeses -- unlike the humble, ubiquitous Velveeta of my Midwestern youth -- have distinctive anatomical parts. And when presented with a triangular wedge of the delicacy (French cheese, not the Velveeta), one simply may not hack off the tasty point, or "nose." Who knew?
Lesson learned. But like many of the week's lessons, this one was delivered with good humor and to much mirth.
Sunday was a free day. After breakfast at our inn, Marilyn and I toured Uzès, gaping at the castles and other ancient fortifications, shopping, and enjoying a light lunch in town -- one of only two meals we bought all week. That evening, we and our classmates returned to the inn to enjoy more cheeses, meats, pâté, tapenade, and the four or five (forgive my besotted memory) bottles of wine left over from Saturday's soirée.
Come Monday morning, we waded into the world of French cooking, some of us more gingerly than others (see preceding sentence). Chef Eric proved an organized, efficient, and entertaining teacher. The day's main course was rabbit and onion, accompanied by a potato/carrot purée. Unlike the rabbit and fowl sold in the U.S., French game is sold with the head still attached. Eric explained that this enables a cook to positively identify her purchase, even as he unceremoniously Marie-Antoinetted our hapless friend. He then guided us through the process of carving, searing, and braising the rabbit.
We also prepared a side of Tomato and Basil Soup with cheese-stuffed zucchini flowers, and Tarte au Chocolat (chocolate tarts) with homemade vanilla ice cream for dessert. Finally, we started making Terrine de Lapin (rabbit pâté) for later in the week (pâté must rest in the refrigerator for a day or more, to let the flavors combine and develop).
Photographs by Paulina Chudzik.
Then we ate. And we drank; the French customarily enjoy a dry, light white wine as an apéritif, a different wine (or wines) to complement the plates served, and a sweeter wine as a post-meal digestif. I readily indulged in these mid-day libations. Cheese-noser though I may be, I still recognize a worthwhile custom when it dribbles over the rim of my glass.
Like every meal that followed, Monday's lunch was heavenly! The rabbit was tender, juicy, and more delicately flavored than any I'd had before. Marilyn most enjoyed the purée and soup. And then there was the tart ... ooh la! A confirmed chocoholic, I found myself transported to cocoa-bean heaven.
After lunch, we toured a local goat farm, experiencing rural France in all its pungent glory. And goats are not only aromatic, but also really strange looking. Check out this one's pupils and skull shape; goats look extraterrestrial, right? And have you ever heard a goat scream and holler? No? Then you must listen to this.
You can thank me later.
[Travel tip: do not pet the goats; the U.S. Customs form asks whether you touched livestock. If so, then you have to explain to a humorless Customs Agent that, "No, officer, touching farm animals was not the purpose of my overseas travel." It's awkward; trust me on this.]
As weird as goats may be, they account for the tasty cheese so popular in Mediterranean cuisine. Our enthusiastic goatherd showed and explained the process of raising his charges and producing different types of cheese. And our visit concluded with a cheese tasting, accompanied by baguettes and (of course) more wine. I enjoyed the tour. My only complaint was that not a single goat shrieked at us the entire visit. I guess they were well adjusted. Or just mannered. Or maybe extraterrestrial.
Monday's was the only pre-set menu of the week. Classes the next two days started at local open-air markets, where Eric sought input on what foods and dishes appealed to us. I expressed a hankering for duck, which he added to the week's menu. But for Tuesday, Eric found the most exquisite lamb shoulder at the market -- plump, red, and nicely marbled -- which we seasoned and roasted, to be served with artichokes A la Provençale.
Along with the lamb shoulder, we put seared and roasted monkfish atop cream of peas, thick-sliced bacon, and squash balls; and made apricots with dark chocolate ganache and tarragon. Really -- tarragon! It was a wonderful combination. And sommelier Frederic Duverger joined us before lunch Tuesday for instruction on wine pairing. Our meal included multiple wines he'd selected for our dishes.
Photographs by Paulina Chudzik.
Wednesday found us at a different open-air market in Uzès. Over the course of the week, I was continually impressed by the quality and expense of the food products the school provided. For example, Wednesday's main course was the duck I'd requested. The chef determined to serve it with sautéed mushrooms and green beans. He could have chosen a common mushroom, but opted for more pricey chanterelles. He also bought the most succulent duck breasts at the market, though other vendors had lower priced selections.
The duck was preceded by an amazing salad of fennel and fresh seafood (octopus, oysters, mussels, langostino, and clams); bread and cheese; and more good wine.
Photographs 2 & 3 by Paulina Chudzik.
Our dessert proved worthy of Wednesday's transcendant lunch: to-die-for Paris Deauville, a creamy cake with caramel and strawberries. Marilyn made the batter, which was poured into a caramel-coated Savarin mold (mould for Anglophiles), baked, chilled, removed, filled with fresh strawberries, and served. Wednesday's lunch was my favorite of the week.
Photograph 4 by Paulina Chudzik.
In addition to desserts and breads, we prepared more savory dishes for a Thursday evening party and a picnic Friday. These included Gardianne de Taurreau (bull stew), Escalivada (tomato, eggplant, pepper, and onion salad), and the pâté we had started earlier Monday. For Thursday's midday meal, we made Pissaladière (a simple anchovy and onion pizza) and salad with vinaigrette. We also had the crème brûlée and madeleines with lunch, reserving the other dishes for later.
Thursday evening's cocktail party, held poolside at Mas du Moulin, featured regional musicians, dancing, and general frivolity. We also enjoyed the chance to meet a number of locals in attendance. The school served sangria, wine, cheeses, and the foods we'd prepared earlier in the day. Everything tasted great, but the bull stew was triumphant!
Our last day of classes found us at the school early to finish the croissants and baguettes. We ate the former for breakfast as soon as they were pulled from the oven. Without exaggerating, I can proclaim them the best croissants I've ever had -- light, flaky, moist, and full of flavor! Bravo!
After breakfast, the school finished packing our picnic lunch -- French style, of course.
We all headed by horse-drawn carriage to Pont du Gard, part of an ancient Roman aqueduct built in the first century. We lunched practically in its shadow.
After lunch, the horse-carriage ride back, and an afternoon dip in Mas du Moulin's pool, we joined Yetunde, Eric, and the others at an elegant local restaurant. The excellent multi-course dinner served there was a fine ending to an exceptional week. But I must say, I enjoyed the lunches we prepared with Eric even more!
As noted above, my week at Cook'n With Class was the best vacation I've ever had. Unlike the typical European vacation, this was an active learning experience, we ate like (French) kings, and we had great fun doing it. Indeed, Marilyn and I were so impressed with our experience that we will be taking a class or two (they offer one-day sessions, too) at the school's Paris venue in 2017.
I highly commend Cook'n With Class to anyone -- from novices to accomplished cooks -- who loves cooking and eating!
[Travel Tip: If you decide to try the class, bring bigger pants for the flight home, and do plenty of these by Mas du Moulin's pool ...]
... you'll need both.
* This is an uncompensated, independent review; the author has received neither remuneration nor any other consideration not afforded to all students of Cook'n With Class.
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