Like many people, I think I’m a pretty good cook. I’m able to put together a dinner party menu that nets the requisite appreciation. Even Julian’s ski buddy Antonio, who is a professional chef, rubs his tummy. My mother was a good cook, so when she gives me a thumbs up for my risotto, I assume that she thinks I’ve done a good job. I’m not necessarily the most creative of cooks. I see my talent as an ability to recognize a good combination of flavours when I read a recipe. But lately I’ve felt that, after 40 plus years of cooking, I’m in a bit of a rut. So, a few months ago, I decided to enroll in the Gascony Cooking School in France.
I found the class through Gourmet on Tour, which offers a range of experiences from cooking classes to specialized tours. To be honest, the Gascony Cooking School wasn’t my first choice. I really wanted a class in Brittany which focuses on seafood, but that one was already full for the week that I had available. The Gascony course is a blend of desserts, which I don’t consider myself much good at making, duck which I rarely prepare, and foie gras, to which I have ethical objections. So initially I didn’t think there was much in it for me. But given the lack of alternatives, I decided to give it a try. Serendipity again.
Gascony is located in the south-west of France, on the border with Spain. It’s a beautiful rural area, dotted with planted fields, rolling golden hills and tiny shabby villages. Because it’s located between two sexier sisters — Provence to the east and Bordeaux to the west — it’s off-the-beaten-track.
We’ve arrived in time for the sunflowers.
Day One: Meet the Cast
That first night, on the terrace of the cooking school, we meet David, the chef, a transplanted Londoner who used to run a catering business. The students are a high achieving lot. There’s Tania, an Australian contracts lawyer; Sue, an American-Egyptian medical school professor; “Jordy,” a Spaniard in charge of logistics for a large company (I’m pretty sure his name isn’t Jordy, but that’s what he answers to); and me, a former university professor and psychologist. Add to the mix Julian, who is officially registered as a “non-participating partner.” This means that he’s free to do whatever he pleases while we’re cooking, and is only required to show up for lunch and dinner, eat and drink unlimited amounts of wine, and make appreciative noises about our efforts. There’s also an Australian lawyer named David who took the class last year and is now informally attached to the school — when he’s not jetting off to give papers at conferences in the UK.
David dives right in with the foie gras, which he serves lightly sauteed at our evening meal. He’s obviously been told about my aversion because he assures me that by the time the week is done he will have convinced me that foie gras is ethically produced in this region. He explains that each duck is hand-fed by the same person so it doesn’t get stressed. In the fattening up period, they waddle up to their people eager to chow down on huge quantities of corn. The process sounds better than I expected, but the foie gras tastes like what it is — barely cooked duck liver. I’m not a convert.
But the wine flows and the company is jolly. The Commonwealthers bond over Monty Python and Fawlty Towers. Displaying a dry sense of humour that we will come to appreciate, Jordy quietly advises us that, in Spain, Manuel is Portuguese. English humour completely eludes Sue. She soon demonstrates the quality that we will come to love in her: intellectual curiosity and a deadpan turn of phrase that leaves us in stitches. Tania’s contribution is that once she starts giggling, she can’t stop. We’re off to a grand start.
Julian asks where he can rent a road bike, and David offers him the use of one in the shed at the bottom of the garden. They bond over biking.
View from our bedroom window, early morning
Day Two: Dive in
The following morning at 9:30 sharp, David puts on Spotify, tees up hits from the 70s, 80s and 90s, and invites us into the kitchen. He’s wearing shorts and a t-shirt under his apron, but the casual attire is deceptive. This is no vanity course; he wants us to learn.
First up is basic knife skills. Within a minute, he knows that I’m used to working with dull knives because of the way I hack at a sacrificial onion; I can tell that I’m doing it correctly if I don’t make a crunching sound. Tania and Sue have obviously been watching youtube videos. Even Jordy is producing precise piles of dice. I start to wonder if I’m in over my head.
Fortunately, baking is up next. All those years I got by without kitchen power tools have produced an exceptional ability to blend butter and sugar with the back of a spoon. And I can unroll packaged puff pastry like a pro. When Tania mentions her stand mixer, David bans the phrase from the kitchen.
After a lunch of duck pizza and salad, we cross the road to Le Petit Feuillant, a cozy Gascon restaurant operated by Bernard, David’s partner in the cooking school. The restaurant seats 65 people, but Bernard operates out of a kitchen about the size of mine at home, with a single sous chef and two servers, one of whom is his wife. He accomplishes this miracle by requiring his guests to phone ahead with their orders, and by a culinary form of insouciance. Bernard explains in a mélange of English and French that he makes cassoulet by tossing everything into the pot and setting it on the back of the stove for days. He and his mother argue about his liberal use of cornstarch. His mother believes that a Béchamel sauce made with cornstarch isn’t Béchamel, but he just shrugs; cornstarch cooks faster. This laid-back approach extends to teaching. He doesn’t even blanch when Sue and I massacre the ultra-expensive duck livers he hands us to prepare.
In David’s kitchen, you cook like David and in mine you cook like me, he says.
The foie gras shows up at dinner that night. Not ours, but versions prepared by the students in the class before us. We exchange a look of horror: so someone else will eat our mangled messes?!
Day Three: To market we go
The following morning we head to the market. Each of us has a list of ingredients to purchase. Julian decides to accompany us because David has promised lunch at a local cafe. A half-hour in and we’re frantic. Jordy and Sue can’t find fennel. Jordy didn’t even know what fennel looked like until Julian showed him a picture on his phone, to which Jordy solemnly intoned, “This is not a vegetable in Spain.” Tania can’t find lettuce. She’s learning French, but she’s so flustered she can’t understand what the vegetable seller is saying to her — in English. And I declare the only yellow peppers I can see to be manky. Sue requests a definition of “manky.” It’s a hard word to pin down, so the Commonwealthers provide a lot of examples. Eventually we hit on the stained Aussie-cowboy hat that Julian wears. Collective hysteria cuts the tension. We decide that David has deliberately given us ingredients that can’t be found as some sort of team-building exercise. But when we meet up with him for lunch, he’s nonplussed. We’ll get them at the supermarket, he says.
After lunch we’re back in the kitchen to descale, gut and fillet that night’s sea bass. The first side of my fish goes well, but I cut it the wrong way when I flip it over, thus demonstrating my legendarily lousy spatial skills. To remember the process, Tania makes an intricate sketch with arrows and numbered steps. Then it’s time for more knife skills! This time we’re coring apple quarters then slicing them paper-thin to decorate the top of a tarte. I shriek with joy when I finally master David’s coring technique; Sue applauds me from the other side of the island. Tania takes a picture of my tarte aux pommes when it comes out of the oven. Tonight’s dessert!
That evening David brings us into the kitchen for a crash course in food presentation and serving. We’re only serving Julian and Australian David tonight, but this is practice for the big event tomorrow night when we will have guests. We’re all given a specific task. Sue and I cook the fish we filleted. The skin on mine tears slightly as I slide it onto the plate. If I was working for David, I’d be fired on the spot. Sweetly, Sue takes mine and at the table pronounces it delicious.
Day Four: The main event
I don’t want to get out of bed. Today is the main event: we’re preparing tarte au citron, as well as making two pepper soup, and deboning and stuffing chickens to make ballotines. The food will be served tonight to friends of David’s. Apparently, they come whenever there is a class to serve as practice guests. We’ll be on our feet all day. Once we start, there are no water or pee breaks. I moan at Julian who reminds me that I’m supposed to be having fun. Perhaps this is what an acquaintance calls “Type II fun,” more fun in the retelling than at the time.
For the first 90 minutes we chop vegetables for the ballotine stuffing. Four people times 90 minutes is a lot of veggies. My knife skills are slowly improving, but David still calls across the kitchen, “You’re crunching, Valerie!” I slow down to get the motion right and my mates pick up the slack.
The chicken deboning is a comedy of errors. Sue, who has dissected many a mouse on her way to a doctorate in pharmacology, apologizes to her bird for the hash she’s making. When laid out on the island, Jordy’s deboned chicken looks like the bat signal. With more hysteria, the four chickens are stuffed and rolled back up in their skins to form mini-roasts.
The tarte au citron comes out of the oven first and looks fabulous. It’s our lunch time dessert. For the first time, Julian requests seconds.
The evening begins with our traditional apertifs, which David has explained prepare the palate for food. This one captures Jordy’s and Julian’s hearts. It’s a fortified wine made with two-thirds grape juice and one-third Armagnac, the local brandy.
Tonight, the apertifs are accompanied by boules, boys against the girls. Finally, something I’m good at! I knock away Julian’s boule and the girls’ side goes up 6-3. When the game is tied, the boys request a ceasefire, to which Tania and I graciously agree. Our guests at dinner that night are Sue and Mike, an English couple who have renovated a centuries-old mill in a nearby hamlet. David gives us 45 seconds to plate and serve the food. It’s pandemonium. Graciously, Sue and Mike declare our ballotine the best of the year, but we suspect they say that to all the cooking school students.
Day Five: The long goodbye
We’re back in Bernard’s kitchen, making garlic soup and zucchini in Béchamel sauce, followed by caramel, crème brûlée and chocolate mousse. All in two hours! For the soup, Bernard uses a garlic press instead of chopping the garlic by hand as David has taught us. The recipe calls for 40 cloves, Bernard points out mildly. When Jordy drops egg yolk into the whites, Bernard shrugs. The stand mixer doesn’t care about a little egg yolk.
Should I be concerned that everyone steps back when I turn on the blow torch to brown the crème brûlée?
Then it’s back to David’s kitchen for a quick lesson in spinning caramel to artfully top desserts.
In the afternoon, David takes us on a road trip. At a pit stop in the town of Condom, Jordy and Julian take rude pictures with an enormous statue of the Four Musketeers. This is the one that passed the censors. Note the presence of the famous manky hat.
Then it’s on to Château de Cassaigne, an Armagnac distillery, where David walks us through three tastings. Of course, I buy the 40-year old…
A final visit to Sue and Mike who give us a tour of their renovated mill-house. Sue breaks out a carafe of rosé, which prompts the question, “Can there be too much rosé?” Tania and I decide not. Sue is an artist. Sue the student asks to see her studio and comes away with a keepsake that she hopes to fit into her carry-on. There are hugs all round and promises to return for the advanced course.
Our final dinner is served at the restaurant. We share our last apertifs, a fabulous raspberry concoction of Bernard’s, and pause to have our class picture taken by Australian David. Julian is crowned ‘best non-participating partner ever.’
Jordy, Bernard, Julian, David, me, Tania and Sue
Then we eat the cassoulet that has been simmering on Bernard’s stove all week. Restaurant customers are eating other foods we’ve prepared. They’re all in on it, and give us lots of appreciative nods and smiles. We’re jolly and loud, but nobody seems to mind. Plates of cheese and petit-fours are brought out to finish the meal. And the fabulous chocolate mousse that we made that morning. More double-helpings for Julian.
Recipe for a challenging, frustrating, hilarious, exhilarating and ultimately joyful cooking school experience:
- Combine four over-achievers and one chef with high standards.
- Put on Spotify, tuned to your favourite hits.
- Add one road-biking non-participating partner with a manky cowboy hat, a huge appetite, and a great sense of humour.
- Make delicious food.
- And serve it with unlimited carafes of wine on a Gascony terrace.
- Drink, eat and laugh until the sun goes down.
Salut, my friends. I will think of you whenever I chop an onion.