June 26, 2008

French Summer Food- in small batches

It's too hot to cook.

Even in the outside tiki hut of a kitchen we sweat...
and not just onions and shallots.
With Summer heat comes summer fruit and in a frenzy of small batch conserving Jenny, Matt and I made:

Carmelized Confit Cherry (perfect over ice cream)
Pink Peach Vinegar*
Vinegar of Pruneaux d'Agen* (for deglazing the pan when making sauteed foie gras)
Compote de Rhubarbe
Sirop de Mirabelle (for a Kir Verger- perrier and syrup)

and that was not even trying...

*** to details on making fruit vinegars see the recipe in my book. Basically I poach VERY RIPE fruit (approx 1-2 pounds) in 2-3 cups of vinegar- white for the peach, red wine for the prunes. Cook until the fruit has released itself into the liquid and the liquid has reduced by half. Strain, filter and decant.

June 23, 2008

Monday with Mushroom Matt

I think one of my favorite things is finding wild, edible foods. Better yet and more specific is finding wild mushrooms. When I score some 'poplar' mushrooms like these, it's just one more reason why I really like living in this area. I didn't even have to look hard, they were right outside my front door!

I also like to think that after a month of rain, we deserve some sort of treat. These mushrooms will do for now. As soon as they hit the pan, my mouth starts watering... Mushroom Matt

June 21, 2008

Songs and Summer Solstice

This long day is hot. As if celebrating, at last, a summer that has been slow in coming.

Everywhere in France tonight from 9 pm until the wee hours, in city, town and village there are bands, soloists, and odd groups of musicians playing their little French hearts out. The summer solstice arrives with the fete de la musique.

I dither about where to go, into Agen for the city streets of rock, blues and pop bands; up to St. Hilaire for a classical concert in an ancient church, medieval and renaissance music in Henri the fourth's chateau at Nerac or a rock and blues train ride to Mezin on le petit train touristique.

The sun beams down the long mirror of canal at 7:30 this evening; it's 93 degrees in the shade.
I stop my solstice chores to listen to the sounds of Camont.
A thrush is nesting over the terrace table.
A big black bumble bee hums in and out of the pink umbrella.
A tourterelle coos incessantly.

But it isn't until I hear this that I know I will stay close to home tonight.
Open a bottle of cool clear dry rose, hear the village fete from across the Garonne, and remember the first time I heard a nightingale sing at Camont at midnight in 1992.
There are dozens of the songsters in the canalside trees--my private fete de la musique.
Wish you were here.

Click here to hear.


June 19, 2008

Will the real Saucier’s Apprentice please stand up?

Bob Spitz in The French Kitchen at Camont

Lots of people come and go here in the French Kitchen; some are best friends for a weekend, other remain in our thoughts for years with the occasional email, phone call and visit to keep the relationships glued together. So it was a real surprise last weekend while at a leisurely post-market lunch with friends to read in their current issue of Saveur Magazine a review for Bob Spitz’ book, “The Saucier’s Apprentice.”

“… Spitz nevertheless labors admirably to find characters who will bring deeper meaning to his odyssey like… ‘the kerchief-wearing cook in Agen, France, who lives on a river barge and prepares Gascon specialties for friends and students "like it's her last day on earth".

Guess Who?

It was a long four years ago in the blur at the end of a busy September of filming with Rick Stein for his BBC series French Odyssey that a New York Journalist showed up on my doorstep. After pleading with me by email and phone calls to teach him to make duck confit—the real way, and after changing plans and dates and partners, Bob Spitz arrived, the self-proclaimed Saucier’s Apprentice.

He wheedled, he begged, he came, he cooked, and then was on his way after a busy three days; this was his too fast Cooking School Odyssey to score as many culinary conquests as possible. I was exhausted but had done my best. Why does a vision of a T-shirt with a list of restaurants and cooking schools with little checked boxes come to mind. “Been there, done that.” Even Russ Parsons takes him to task for shortskirting passion, craftsmanship, motive?

Hmmm, I've thought a lot about why people come to my French Kitchen. Romance (of France I mean), the inventory of great food in Gascony, an escape from their reality. Sometimes learning to cook is the lowest on the list. It is often my task to distract someone from their homeside worries and let them drift into another time zone- 200 years ago. It’s taken me 20 years to get in this Gascon groove and while I don’t expect everyone to get it first time around, or in three days; I swoon at the speed with which we expect good things to come. (Remember, I live on a slow moving vessel- 5 miles an hour is the preferred speed limit.) Sometimes I sound like a kindergarten teacher-- this color is called bleu; this taste is pepper; do you know how to really use a whisk? Sometimes the most simple of skills have been overlooked.

Mr Spitz passed through these doors 4 years ago with notebook in hand and a broken heart. Gee, maybe I’m going to have to start administering mid-life crisis exams and charge extra before accepting clients and reporters who flunk Life 101. (Ouch! That hurts!) But don’t worry, friends can still come for free and breathe the restorative damp Garonne Valley air, fall asleep to nightingales, take the current dog for a towpath walk. And while I remember a barrage of non-stop questions, a rapidly filling note book, a too exuberant love of gossip (read the book!), he somehow managed to turn his three day duck confit fest into a 36-page chapter called “La Maison avec La Peniche.” Thanks Bob.

Ok, he gets lots of stuff wrong—can’t tell his chives from a caper, makes up people’s names- jeez…even when they are already in MY book (fact checking anyone???), and seems to have a knack for building up the, well… drama? of everyone else’s supposedly heartbroken lives. By the time I got over that he used my recipes without permission, never sent me a copy of the book OR a thank you note, let alone uses a picture I took of him in MY kitchen without crediting me or the kitchen (see above), he still manages to redeem himself in an awkward way and gets the essential thing right. If not the why of how I cook, he did get the how down like spades-- fast, focused and calm.

He writes that I am “...an American who cooks like a French Farmer” and says on international radio and American television that I was (blush) the best cook he worked with. Go figure! I thought you didn’t even like me, Bob! You never wrote, sent flowers, or an invitation to your wedding! I’d like to say publicly that I am flattered, but secretly I just hope that this will help my book agent sell my new book to your publisher! Come on Bobby… Mama’s barn needs a new roof!

So I write this to apologize for badmouthing Bob and dispel any erroneous quotes that I had dropped out or retired. Au contraire mes chères, I am living and working as hard as ever here in my beloved Gasconia in the French Kitchen at Camont. For an updated schedule of classes and programs jump to www.frenchkitchenadventures.com . FYI, I book my own programs and you can talk to me directly, just like Bob did. Camont is neither isolated or lonely, but a quick 15 minutes into Agen, 4 hours from Gai Par-ee and a magnet for many passers by, both French and foreign.

Life in Gasconia moves on, kids. Four years is a long time in the roll of these seasons as yet another garden is planted with beans and peppers, tomatoes and leeks. One dog replaces another; clients come and mostly go. Friends return often and if not in the neighborhood, stay in the heart. We 'cook as if it’s the last day on earth' here at Camont because-- well, it might be.

Last night Matt (the butcher’s apprentice) prepared a fine Roti de Porc with a Sauce au Moutarde of crème fraîche, pan juices and mustard, a simple and very proper thing to do with a good farm-raised loin roast. I pitched in with some over-the-shoulder supervision for a lemon verveine cream and raspberry tarte fresh from our garden. And as the candles flickered on the first warm and dry summer evening at the big round table, we toasted all those who have showed up over the years. (That’s a round table Bob, not long one, see below.)

And for those still seeking culinary gossip and tales, pensive silences and long wistful looks- even an american anomaly has to keep some secrets. It’ll take more than one bottle of Floc to pry my secret pirate life out of me… arr-be-darrr matey’s.

Kerchief Kate in Andalucía

June 16, 2008

Watercress tears and bacon sandwiches

I prefer to think that this rain, this incessant gloomy French June weather, is just a sly way to turn my head from the slow-growing, water-logged potager to the imaginary cressoniere at the west end of the spring-fed wood.

Along the wet cobbled path and down the green encrusted bridge, B. and I splash to la fontaine this morning. Here, from behind the patch of leather leaf ferns, the source flows in a wide shallow meander to join Camont's three other rivulets that ultimately run together into the stream that dips under the Canal and pops up to make its way to Mother Garonne... and thus to the sea.

Here, at this elderberry, elm-stumped, willow-shaded patch at the edge of Camont's two-acres, Père Dupuy would tend a long narrow rivulet and string an elaborate scarecrow of plastic bottles and rags to frighten off hungry birds. I was never sure that the birds came near the watercress, but it was the sort of folk art that made me smile.

When Gloomy Gascony floods our hearts and drowns our summer hopes, then the old 'lemons to lemonade' adage must rule. Here at Camont, awash in yet another summer shower, Saint Nick arrived on the good ship Teal just in time to help. Nick is a great nautical guest and always adds his touch to our patch of watery paradise. I turn to my garden planning book to sketch out the fallen tree bridge that will lead to the watercress patch and willow-umbrella'ed elm bench. Since both real and faux cress cohabit in the spring runoff, I am planning a rock edged bank to divert the spring enough and allow us to reseed with organic cress seeds until we crowd out the false intruders.

Bacon loves this water park; he often arrives green muzzled from a romp through the lavoir. Once clean and potable, this part of the spring has sprouted les lentilles, small green algae, and has been tainted by a neighborhood eyesore and ecological disaster of a gravel pit further upstream. Feeling rather like Manon in Pagnol's epic, my battles with the town hall to reign in my neighbor's unbridled digging remains unresolved. Where are the Police des Eaux when you need them?

I turn a wet eye toward the house where Peter M. has knitted in the patchwork of an herbier outside the kitchen terrace with tarragon, basil and roquette;
even the wet hen isn't mad sitting in a healthy bed of marjoram.

Elizabeth has had to content herself to painting furniture and flowers;
the calla and hydrangea's have loved this cooler June and show it.

Roses bloom against wet skies but mold within days;
dead heading is a full time occupation this year.

The best solution to this 13 moon weather is what that other old adage recommends..."let sleeping dogs lie."
So along with The Bacon, I wish you a gentle day sandwiched between nappage and snores.

June 09, 2008

Charcuterie- learning French by the Market method

When I arrived here at Camont, there was something about this place, something here that I wanted.
I was here on a vacation doing a two-week cooking class with my Mom in the French Kitchen.
I knew right away that two weeks was not enough time, so I asked Kate if I could stay longer. Lucky for me, she needed an intern for the summer. When my glorious vacation ended in February, I departed back to the
United States, not fully aware of the seed I planted.

I returned here to Camont in late April, and immediately began working. I have done many things in the short time since I've settled in here this Spring. One of the many things is learning how to make charcuterie with the Chapolard family. I have been interested in charcuterie for awhile now, and I knew that I wanted to learn how to make it the correct way. After trying some of their jambon, saucisson and paté, I realized that this family who raises their own pigs knew exactly what they were doing.

Working with the Chapolard's has been such a great experience thus far. I've been able to see the whole process from the abattoir, to the butcher workshop, and finally to the Saturday market. In the workshop, I'm finally able to understand how the pig comes together. However, the Saturday market is when I have the most fun.

When the Chapolard's first asked me if I wanted to help them at the market selling their product, I thought, “are you serious?” “I don't even speak French!” Now, I look forward to every Saturday. From learning French, to working alongside two of the nicest people I've ever met.

This is what you see.....

This is what I see....

I’ll be writing on Mondays from here, at the French Kitchen at Camont, so stay tuned.

Matt Chambas

June 04, 2008

Mondays with Matt in Hog Heaven

Keeping the French Kitchen in full-on Adventure mode takes more than writing blogs, cookbooks and recipes. It takes hours of real work around 'the Gascon Ranch'-- to weed, seed and tend the 3600 sq.feet potager; plot, plant and primp the Kitchen Herbier and salad bar; sow, mow and manicure 2-plus acres of grassy park. Now, add helping with cooking classes, doing dishes and babysitting Bacon...and you are beginning to get the picture. This is not a one-woman show.

When Matt Chambas and his Pastry Chef Mom, Kris, came for 2 weeks last February, he got a winter taste of what's to come: cooking cassoulet in the fireplace, a pig slaughter at the neighbor's farm, armagnac making... All of a sudden, the restaurant kitchen in Madison seemed too small. So, when I started advertising for a Spring/Fall second-in-command to help run Camont and begin the new Artisan Food School program with Wil Edwards, Matt was first in line.

First duties were to get the Potager jump started after Portland newlyweds Nate and Christina did the dirty work of April weeding preparing the winter overgrown plot. Now, Tarbais beans for next fall's cassoulet climb the netting alongside a dream list of other roots, shoots and leaves for summer cooking classes and fall AFS sessions.

So here's Matt's story. Rather then put my words in his mouth, Matt will begin a new weekly feature here at the French Kitchen Adventures blog. He'll tell his own story along the Artisan Food School path from gardening to learning French charcuterie with the Chapolard family; from picking up buckets of blood from the abattoir to make 100 kilos of boudin noir; from learning to speak French to working alongside Dominique and Christiane at the Saturday Market at Nerac.

"Bon Jour Madame! Saucisse ou saucisson?"

When not working, gardening or cooking, Matt holds court in the Tiki Hut communication center, canalside and accessible by Skype. Gotta love that WiFi...

Matt Chambas, Welcome to a life long French Kitchen Adventure!