Never too Late to Learn: Cooking

In an ongoing series Nancy Heslin looks at various courses and classes available along the Coast of interest to expats.

As a domestically-challenged individual, I only recently learned that the function of a stove stretches beyond that of a place to put dirty dishes. My years in the Toronto music industry had me out most nights of the week and dinner was not exactly a part of the live music scene. However, now that I live in a country where the culture of food and dining outweighs say hygiene, I must admit, I’ve developed a culinary curiosity. One problem: what exactly do you do with an artichoke?

On my quest for the holy quail, I picked up Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant: Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone (US: Riverhead Books) – a collection of 26 writers and foodies opening up their kitchens and comfort recipes. The book never lived up to the suggestiveness of telling others “I’m in the middle of Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant ...” but it did offer insight into the minds of those who prioritise preparing and sharing meals.

“I was overcome with the feeling I imagine actual chefs get from time to time,” Ben Karlin, former executive producer of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, writes. “You know you have brought great pleasure through the work of your hands and mind. You are a giver of joy. You are God.” Desperate to know the “feeling” Karlin describes, I decided it was time to make something other than reservations and signed up for cookery lessons.

Mougins

“If you want to learn to play tennis, you wouldn’t start at Wimbledon,” chef Eric Douard of Moulins de Mougins told me, “you’d start by learning how to hit the ball. Cooking is the same. You learn with the basics – with recipes – little by little.”

Eric teaches demonstration classes in French (and English by request), one week a month from 9h30 to noon at the Moulins de Mougins (www.moulindemougins.com). Picture windows opening up on the back garden make a soothing background for Eric’s classroom in the restaurant’s private room; chairs lined in rows face a long table stocked with condiments, gas burner, a couscousiere (steamer) and the ingredients for the day’s menu: salad of sautéed sole with raspberry vinegar, goujonnettes of steamed sole with artichokes and asparagus, and red fruit focaccia with brioche made from scratch. (Hint: use carotene butter if you can find it – it adds more colour to baking without changing the flavour.) Eric passionately walked us through the recipes, pausing to answer questions. “With cooking, you talk to the food,” he explained. “Every day is different even with the same recipe – maybe today I’ll use more butter but tomorrow more flour. Parlez avec ... it’s a feeling.”

Katherine Miller, from Connecticut, has lived in Mougins for two years. She’s taken several of Chef Douard’s French cooking courses, although when she first arrived the language was more of a challenge. “I thought it would be fun to learn while I’m living here,” she said. “I’m trying to improve my French and find immersing myself in the culture has more flavour than taking French classes.” Would she recommend the course? “You learn basic things from watching Eric that aren’t listed in a recipe. For example, this week, it took one hour to learn how to make sauce for lamb.”

The collective enthusiasm for food in the room galvanised me; I found myself ooh-ing and ahh-ing over creamed butter and sauces but, really, why bother with all this fuss? “Cooking can be as simple as it can be complicated,” Eric insisted. “A nice beef done in a open-fire shared with friends ... le côté convivial. That’s the frustrating part of being a chef, you have no contact with the people who eat your food.” Courses start at €58, which includes sampling Eric’s dishes (with wine, bien sûr).

Cannes

If cooking at Moulins de Mougins is Pachelbel’s Canon, then Le Nôtre in Cannes is Vilvaldi’s Four Seasons: a high-tech kitchen with lots of hands-on hustle and bustle (aprons mandatory). Groups are taught afternoons from 15h to 18h (cost: €90) in French but English can be arranged.

“Learn from your mistakes,” Chef Romain Ghiboudo, 25, sous-chef at Le Nôtre, Mouans-Sartoux, advised. “Recipes are just books – you need to learn by le tour de main. It’s true, some people are naturals but for the rest, know your ingredients and prepare them in advance.”

Our recipe: the traditional French macaron – meringue-like domes with sweet filling – dating back to the 18th century. “During the holiday season, Le Nôtre in Paris makes 25,000 macarons a day,” Romain said. I’m quite certain I won’t be hired for seasonal help during this surge. Every time I leaned over to squeeze filling on my “coques” (shells!) my apron would slip. Why had they given me an extra large? Finally I realised that aprons are to be tied around the front, not the back.

“I tried without success to make macarons at home,” my baking partner Nathalie told me. “So when I found Le Nôtre’s course online, I signed up straightaway.” So did the Gagginis who were on holiday from Switzerland and wanted to experience this renowned school. It’s worth noting, Le Nôtre in Cannes (www.lenotre.fr/en/ecole-lenotre-cannes.php) offers two-hour children’s courses (ages 7-14) for €40.

Nice

Rosa Jackson’s Les Petits Farcis (www.petitsfarcis.com) combines market tours in Nice with culinary classes, all in English. Originally from Edmonton, Alberta, Rosa spent nine months as an interpreter at the Cordon Bleu Cooking School in Paris before carving out a career as a food writer – with three cookbooks under her belt – and has been offering Paris Market and Edible Paris tours for many years. She now divides her time between Nice and Paris with her French husband and son Sam.

Rosa’s walk around tour of le Cours Salaya offers local history and food facts such as niçois olives are only real niçois olives if, like wine, the letters A.O.L. are noted. Or tidbits such as the drop of red wax seen on a pear is to slow ripening, rose salt complements foie gras, and a Breton artichoke, the large ones, can be steamed for 30 to 40 minutes when the petals can then be pulled off and dipped into a vinaigrette (don’t ask me how to make that ...). Perhaps most surprising – and somewhat disappointing – for me was to read the label “produit de la CEE” on those famous blue and yellow tins of olive oil.

“It’s good to follow recipes,” Rosa recommended. “It’s like learning music, you must learn the scales first. Improvising doesn’t work at the beginning.” Fair enough but Rosa has 400 cookbooks for, as she puts it, “inspiration”.

Paula Williams, a vivacious, up-for-anything Californian, is crazy about cooking and dinner parties. Last year she spent a week in Almalfi to learn about Italian cuisine and discovered it was the best way to relax and learn local culture while on vacation. “Rosa’s a wonderful teacher and already I’m thinking that I’d like to come back for her four-day class sometime,” Paula told me.

Rosa Jackson American Paula Williams, left, and Rob Morphew from Australia with Rosa JacksonIt’s true, Rosa is a great teacher. Our menu of the day was pissaladière, rack of lamb with a mustard herb crust, artichauts à la barigoule (artichokes cooked in white wine) and fig tart. Incredibly prepared, Rosa demonstrates cutting artichokes, kneading dough, pouring almond cream – before handing over the task to a “student”. This all takes place in her super-funky classroom: the kitchen and dining room in her Vieux Nice apartment. Forever smiling, she has a lovely disposition and the knack for explaining. Most importantly, her menus are local but not impossibly complicated.

“Sixty per cent of my students are American, twenty per cent Canadian and English and the rest Australian and Scandinavian. Many Irish and English with second homes here sign up for my 4-day course – a two-hour class each day without the market tour. People can request the menu within the range of what I do – traditional Provençal and niçois cooking. I’d be able to do bread workshops on request.”

A few tips: cook with one hand – this always leaves one hand clean (Rosa learned this during her stint at Cordon Bleu); before slicing an onion, put its skin on top of your head to avoid tears (it works); when making an omelette dissolve salt in butter as it makes the eggs hard when added directly.

Market tour and cooking day costs €200 per person; the four-day course is €480. It’s well worth it. When you finally sit down to enjoy the jointly-prepared lunch together, it feels like family. I didn’t want my Rosa Jackson day to end, and not just because there was leftover fig tart.

Plascassier

Cooking with Friends in France (www.cookingwithfriends.com) run by Kathie Alex, is a “culinary immersion program” with a chance to cook in Julia Child’s old kitchen. Running May-June and September-October, the itinerary includes market and butcher shop tours, visits to cheese ripening caves, classes with professional chefs and visits to Michelin star restaurants. Students stay at the former home of Julia Child in Plascassier from Sunday to Saturday, preparing sit down lunches together, with evenings free to explore the region on their own.

Kathie is a veteran in the gastronomy world and was the first woman to work at the Moulins de Mougins restaurant, back in 1983. In fact, it was there that she first met Julia Child who came with Good Morning America to Roger Vergé’s renowned establishment. “Nothing razzled Julia.” Kathie told me over lunch. “When she arrived at Moulins de Mougins, I was awed but had to keep working in the kitchen. When amongst all the chaos she asked me, ‘Kathie, what do you think you’ll do with all you’ve learned? Open a restaurant?’ I replied yes, not even thinking.”

Kathie Alex In Julia Child’s kitchen, Kathie Alex demonstrating with her French rolling pinThe years following, Kathie divided between working in the US and France before starting an international catering company out of Antibes. Then in 1991, Simone “Simca” Beck – who co-wrote Mastering the Art of French Cooking with Julia Child – died and the following year Julia gave up the Plascassier villa. “Simca’s in-laws asked me to start a cooking school here and in 1993, I did.”

There is a six person maximum to Kathie’s classes ($2450US for six days including accommodation, breakfast and lunch). I joined an American group of foodies on their second day of their stay in France with Kathie. “This is an amazing experience. Julia Child was the essence of cooking and she translated her passion for French food to America,” Celia Keller exclaimed.

Our lunch menu and task at hand: molded zucchini custard, cod with croute d’olive and garlic mashed potatoes and citrus tart from Menton (made in Julia Child’s pie tin). Plus an easy to make amuse bouche of smoked salmon and Herbes de Provence. For those of you who are wondering what exactly is Herbes de Provence? Think STORM: Savory, Thyme, Oregano, Rosemary and Marjoram.

All one needed was Julia Child’s inimitable voice, for all else is there in her kitchen where the walls remain covered with her gadgets. In this “classroom” setting, Kathie goes through the recipes step-by-step, demonstrating before having students take a crack at it themselves. “Not everyone can cook and there are people who don’t like to,” Kathie shared with the group. “When men come here to cook, sometimes their wives don’t even come into the kitchen.” And what advice did Kathie have for me? “It’s always helpful to see something made first. Don’t try cooking a whole new meal – only try one thing you’ve never made before.”

Kathie confessed she was an accountant for twenty years in another life. “I used 365 Ways to Cook Hamburger and loved it. It was my unwind time. And then the Time-Life cookbooks came out and I couldn’t wait for it to arrive every month to experiment. Once I even unhinged a door to make a table for my Japanese dinner.”

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