A touch of class in Normandy
IKNEW from the start that it would have been too ambitious to try to run our planned cooking school, The French Table, in the first year we were in Normandy.
We had only really just settled in to the chateau and the village. It would have been madness to try to pass myself off as an expert on the region when I was so new to the neighbourhood. More to the point, I wanted to make sure I was doing everything properly, not cobbling together something that would be second rate. So, in our first summer at Bosgouet, I spent time refining my plan for The French Table.
My role would be as impresario. I would play host to the groups of guests who had come to Bosgouet to get a taste of the chateau life and learn to cook.
The groups would stay for a week at a time and I’d put together an itinerary that would take in the sights of Normandy as well as the region’s best markets and restaurants. I wanted a chef with a good reputation to run daily hands-on cooking classes, using ingredients that would come from our potager or from the local markets we visited.
Many of the talented chefs I’d had the pleasure to work with had become great friends and I was impatient to be back in the kitchen with them.
However, the choice of which chef to bring on board was critical. I needed someone who had a passion for their craft and was able to impart that passion to the eager students. This is not as straightforward as it sounds; great culinary skill does not always equate with being a good teacher. I started to draw up a short list of chefs I knew would be patient, interesting teachers.
I grappled with my sums for insurance, supplies and wages. Much more pleasurable than staring at the figures that made up my budgets was my gruelling research, talking with local cooks about traditional French fare.
I was graciously invited into many kitchens. There, I was impressed by people’s generosity with their time and knowledge. There was no jealous guarding of recipes or techniques. One of my first Norman cooking research missions was in the rural kitchen of L’Amandier in BourgAchard. Chef Frederik had invited me to learn how to make his dreamy version of sabayon, a decadent emulsion of eggs, sugar, cream and vanilla served simply with strawberries picked fresh from Frederik’s potager.
He also introduced me to the French cook’s rite of passage: cooking foie gras. The French are very protective of what they consider to be the bastion of their culinary culture and have famously resisted pressure from other countries to halt the forcefeeding of ducks and geese to increase the size of the birds’ livers.
In typical Gallic fashion Frederik was completely unfazed by handling a duck’s innards. I was initially a bit squeamish, but I reasoned that if I was willing to eat it, I should be willing to get my hands dirty.
Frederik showed me the whole duck liver, pointing out the filaments, nerves and sinew. These are bitter and will ruin the smooth taste and silky texture of the foie gras if not expertly removed. Frederik plonked the pale-coloured liver on a board, carefully prised apart the two lobes and with a filleting knife removed the sinew. He then placed the liver in a long rectangular cast-iron terrine mould, seasoned it with salt and pepper, and flavoured it with an unmeasured splash of madeira. He covered the terrine with a layer of foil, placed it in a water bath and cooked it in the oven for 90 minutes.
After he had unveiled the cooked foie gras with a flourish, Frederik left me with stern instructions to serve it with fresh fig confiture and a glass of sauternes; the foie gras is a natural partner to this famous wine. I loved Frederik’s manner; he was so surefooted in the kitchen and had a great sense of traditionally Norman taste pairings. I hoped to use him as a consultant throughout the course of my preparations. Everything was slowly coming together. I had a firm plan for how The French Table would run, and my research into cuisine was going along well. Now all I had to do was find the guests. This is an edited extract from AtMy FrenchTable by Jane Webster (Viking, $59.95).
The second summer of The French Table cooking school at Chateau Bosgouet will run with Victorian guest chefs Marieke Brugman (for 30 years chef-proprietor of Howqua Dale Gourmet Retreat and Cooking School, Mansfield), June 17-24, and Alla Wolf-Tasker (Lake House, Daylesford), July 24-30 and August 1-7. www.thefrenchtable.com.au www.mariekesartofliving.com www.lakehouse.com.au
Courtesy of the publisher we have six copies of AtMyFrenchTable to give away to readers. Write your name and address on the back of an envelope and tell us in 25 words or less why you’d like to win a copy. Send to: My French Table Giveaway, PO Box 215, Eastern Suburbs MC, NSW 2004.
Home base: Chateau Bosgouet