I lose my head at this time of year. This particular new school rentrée has taken nearly three weeks to cajole the family into a constructive routine, plus the blog went on sudden strike unless I carried out some pretty major urgent computer cleaning. Luckily my much needed verve to do all this was given just the right jump-start, thanks to a whirlwind culinary escapade.
I don’t normally ditch the family and jump on a train to Bordeaux at the weekend – but with a 3.5 hour train ride from Paris, it has given me food (and a wine-taster) for thought to return soon! I met Bordeaux with a stiflingly humid 40°C canicule heatwave that even a taste of the traditional canelé cakes couldn’t cure (more on that another time). The best refresher was meeting up with the effervescent Christina Conte, aka Christina’s Cucina, who had just jumped off a plane from Geneva during an epic culinary tour of Europe.
Although we’ve known each other since fairly recently online, meeting in person can’t be replaced. Within minutes our Scottish connections had us in stitches and I had the impression that we were buddies from way back. Why Bordeaux, you may ask? Our ultimate destination was at Karen Burns-Booth’s home, where we generously invited for a taste of her new cookery school in the SW French region of Poitou-Charente. It’s also the impressive engine room behind Lavender and Lovage.
LAVENDER AND LOVAGE COOKERY SCHOOL
With just an hour’s train ride from Bordeaux to Pons or Saintes (trains are regular on line 17), you’re already in the heart of the Charente-Maritime district. It’s hazardous travelling while blethering so much, as we just about missed our stop with the most cheery welcome by Karen and her husband Malcolm on Pons sleepy station platform.
Before we knew it, we hit the local Super U hypermarket in Gemozac where baguettes were used for fencing in the aisles and excuses were found for a bubbly St Germain apéritif later. We put it down to Brits Behaving Badly.
Karen showed us the local specialities, such as the Broyé du Poitou, a round biscuit-like-cake which is not cut to eat but traditionally smashed into pieces with the fist (broyé means smashed). Prices were also smashing; much cheaper than we have around Paris – so excuse enough to stock up on the likes of chestnut flour, ideal for Autumn recipes such as breakfast banana and chestnut cake.
Next was a visit to Karen’s favourite producer of Pineau and Cognac at the Domaine de Château Guynot. With the vineyard situated in one of the four vintage Cognac areas, we were taken through a tasting of both the Pineau whites (a mix of Ugni Blanc and Colombard grapes) and rosés (Merlot and Cabernet with added Cognac), from Ambience, a young Pineau mainly served as an apéritif, to a more ample Tradition.
Karen conjured all sorts of food pairings with the white (foie gras, morbier cheese) and rosé (red fruit crumble and chocolate desserts). After the final Grande Tradition with an older Pineau and ideas of roquefort cheese, fried foie gras and red fruit desserts. She had our thoughts well on to the cooking!
Malcolm drove us on to their Chambre d’hôte (French for B&B), Auberge de la Fontaine, in the pretty village of Montpellier-de-Medillan. Karen will explain the house’s quirky history, where the house was originally split into two: one for the Monsieur and Madame, and the other for Monsieur and Mistress. Oh-là-là!
This is just part of the Lavender and Lovage herb garden, where Karen picks just what’s needed to finish off many of her tantalising dishes.
The Chambre d’hôte can sleep up to 10 and each themed room (ours was the Versailles room) is homely, decorated with French antiques. As we settled in, Karen instantly made us feel right at home as she poured a mean mug of good old English Yorkshire tea. Complete with tea-cosy, this was one of the British home comfort reminders that Karen and Malcolm also split their time between this haven and home in North Yorkshire.
Then it was aprons on and straight on to the cooking programme!
Karen takes a maximum of 6 people for her cookery courses, so the ambience is relaxed and comfortable in her open-plan kitchen, complete with a cookery book corner and 2 large range ovens.
Typical courses at Lavender and Lovage include:
– CHEAT’S DINNER PARTY
This course features Karen’s deliciously easy recipes that involves no cooking whatsoever. While Christina was busy putting together the Braesola, rocket and parmesan rolls …
I had the intriguing job of crushing up some mixed peppercorns, zesting some orange, cutting up some stem ginger and garlic, picking Greek basil from the garden then topping it on sliced fresh goat’s cheese and dribbling over olive oil.
The full recipe is on Karen’s website: Marinated English Goat’s Cheese with Garlic, Stem Ginger and Herbs and I can say this is a winner! Although we served this as a starter, I prepared this as a cheese course last weekend for French friends. Served individually on slated dishes, it went down a treat since the flavours are such a surprising mix and ideal if you want to keep the dinner light – or have a particularly large dessert to follow!
– CUISINE DE BONNE FEMME, FRENCH COUNTRY COOKING. This course includes dishes ideal for families and relaxed dinners around the table with friends. One of the dishes was this succulent pork fillet with apples.
Even the veg are given the Lavender and Lovage herb treatment. This is the first time I’ve experienced lovage. It’s rather pungent, much like celery, but imparts a most deliciously unusual fragrance for that extra flavour. Karen provides all sorts of great tips.
– THRIFTY WITHOUT BEING FRUGAL
I loved how this was put together in no time: a cherry tomato clafoutis was the perfect lunch.
During each course, Karen also takes you through her photography tips at the famous table, as we know so fondly on her instagram feed. Her expertise is so catching that the queue waiting time was starting to become long …
As part of the bread-making course, we loved testing out this typical provençal fougasse. This was far better than many of the fougasses I’ve tasted in Provence, when we visit the parent’s-in-law in Saignon.
While the ambience here is both relaxed and fun, I personally came away with inspirational ideas and a zest to return to the kitchen. It’s a real home from home address where you instantly become friends with the teacher. It’s also in an area where there is just so much to see I can sense a return trip should be on the cards. Are you game?
A huge thank you to Karen for inviting us for a taster of her cookery school, for being such a perfect hostess and to Malcolm for being chauffeur extraordinaire and a real hoot! Oh, and Malcolm, I wish I’d learned French from you years ago, as I could have saved myself so much embarrassment with the French! And grazie mille to Christina for such a girlie flying foodie trip. Come back soon! To read Christina’s account of the trip including all her photographs, pop over to Christina’s Cucina.
Karen is currently on a press trip in Canada but she’s taking bookings for her return back to France in October. And yes, it’s so new that a page is still to be put on Karen’s website but in the meantime, to sign up for any of these courses, just contact her through the website below.
Lavender & Lovage Cookery School
Auberge de la Fontaine