The perfect partner to put out a Corsican cheese fire.
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
Chinon is the perfect escape with only a 3-hour drive from Paris. It’s over 18 years since we were here last. Don’t ask me why but family life just got in the way. So when Jamie Schler and her husband, Jean-Pierre took over the Hôtel Diderot at the start of the year, it was the best excuse to return to the Loire Valley with Antoine for a few days.
We couldn’t resist, however, a slight detour en route down via the medieval town of Loches. I hadn’t heard of the place but Antoine was right to stop, as the royal town behind the hill’s fortifications is worth seeing. You must check out the local speciality for a teatime treat: may I tempt you to some Breasts of Agnès?
Angès Sorel as the first official mistress of the Kings of France. Her liaison with Charles VII was legendary and so her beauty was too, apparently. Antoine and I bought a couple (of course) and as one of us devoured and another nibbled, this rather heavy cake revealed a shortcrust pastry encasing an amaretti tartlet with hints of candied citrus fruits. Oh-là-là! Not for the faint-hearted, as I did find them rather heavy. I’ll leave you to think of puns on that one, as I contain myself.
I’ve followed Jamie through her inspiring writings on Life’s A Feast for the past 4 years, thanks to discovering her via the fun MacTweets blog, where macaron lovers would rise to Jamie and Deeba’s monthly insane challenges and post their artistic macaron Mac Attacks.
I miss it but Jamie is forever juggling many other projects on the go: such as Plated Stories, a talented creative duo with photographer Ilva Beretta including workshops, to to mention Jamie’s writing career with books (note the plural) on the near horizon.
How Jamie manages to do all of this and run a hotel with 26 rooms beats me. And she’s so relaxed and welcoming with all of her guests, stopping to chat outside under the shade of the banana tree. So what does she do in her spare time?
“I make jam”, she says. Proof for starters is layer upon layer of jam classics and intriguing combinations stacked to the brim in her confiture dresser in the dining room, ready to serve at breakfast.
I thought foolishly that I could try them all during our stay: fig, pear & grape; banana & mango; strawberry & rosemary; greengage; 3 plums; banana; raisin & rum; confiture pour les Soeurs Tournet (rhubarb and raspberry for a couple of regulars); orange marmalade with cocoa; warm kisses (strawberry, cherry & cinnamon).
The list goes on but who couldn’t also try the fresh local goat’s cheese with walnuts and honey and chives from the neighbour’s garden?
With such a start to the day what is there to do around the medieval town of Chinon? The beauty of the Hôtel Diderot is it’s so central and within easy walking distance to the castle on the hill (there’s now even a lift!), museums, churches and restaurants (we particularly loved La Part des Anges in rue Rabelais).
On Thursday mornings, the market is just next door in the square of Joan of Arc. References to Jean d’Arc are all around the town, as is the Renaissance writer, doctor and humanist, François Rabelais, born in Chinon. In our room were a few fun quotations like
“Half of the world doesn’t know how the other half live“.
A surprisingly familiar Art Deco statue was looking down on us from the hillside just above the hotel. Known as the Sacred Heart of Chinon, this 7.4m statue has been watching over the town since 1943 thanks to the local priest, Archpriest Vivien.
He intended that this statue provide divine protection during the war. Sculpted by Paule Richon, it was influenced by the Christ the Redeemer (Corcovado) statue in Rio. Coincidence on our return from our family holiday in Rio de Janeiro?
Can you imagine living in the Royal Fortress dominating the Vienne River just before it joins the Loire, the longest river in France?
We headed to Candes-St-Martin, one of France’s “Most Beautiful Villages”. I’ve shared a few views of the town on social media, complete with a stunning panorama point where the sandy banks of both the Loire and the Indre rivers merge.
Cyclist tours are popular here – it’s largely flat and there are so many attractions to visit, including wineries. That’s another of our hobbies. Just saying. That would take another post!
This region around Chinon is the Touraine, also known as the Garden of France. Driving from Candes-St-Martin along the l’Indre river, I’d recommend a stop at the Château at Rigny-Ussé.
The gardens at Ussé were designed by Lenotre, just as with Vaux-le-Vicomte and Versailles.
Over the past 20 years the castle has been renovated and it’s quite an achievement. This castle is perfect for family outings, as the tower includes many rooms devoted to the Sleeping Beauty, as Charles Perault on coming here was inspired to write his famous classic. Like the Belle au Bois Dormant tower, there are life-size models all around the castle, which makes it all rather charming.
In the bigger castles like this one, the owners were obliged to prepare a room for their Roi, the King of France – even if they slept in them or not. Just for the record, the other nearby fairytale castle, Azay-le-Rideau (see my blog post on this), is currently being renovated but worth a visit to see how it’s being done.
Another must visit in the area around Chinon is Villandry Castle. More famous for their gardens we appreciated having a guide to take us around inside the castle. The parquet flooring also echoes the love garden theme below. The higher you climb the stairs in the tower, the more you can appreciate the gardens’ grandeur and symmetry.
Our guide told us the good news, “Now enjoy the stroll through the gardens and don’t forget that to pick the grapes and taste them if you think they’re perfectly ripe”.
Stopping in Tours on Saturday morning, returning home to Paris, the market at Les Halles is legendary. Especially the cheese counters, including a Meilleur Ouvrier de France‘s gigantic selection of the local goat cheeses. As I turned to leave, one last wink came from Agnès with these beautiful ashen-coated specimens, perfect with the local white wine of either Sauvignon blanc or Chenin.
Cheers to you from Chinon, readers, and thanks again to our lovely hostess, Jamie at the Hôtel Diderot! Well done Jamie in finding such an idyllic setting. Antoine and I have found yet more excuses to return again very soon.
I love Avignon at any time of year. Come windy mistral weather to the cigales singing in the plane trees to announce the intensity of summer heat, the atmosphere is always lively. But come July, when Avignon is in full festival swing (usually the second and third weeks in July), it takes on an even more upbeat ambience.
It’s just buzzing. Even the shops go theatrical and arty.
I was too shy to stop and ask this poet what he thought about it all. What would you have asked him? I mean, how do you start a conversation with a public poet or Poete Public? I was never great at poetry at school. Were the bikes behind him a quick escape route for people like me?
This lovely lady must have felt rather hot in her fancy dress. She was approaching as many possible theatre-goers as she could, showing off her bubbly character. At the Avignon Festival, plays are constantly being performed and so be prepared to have leaflets thrust in your hand and explanations of the plays taking place. You could easily spend a week here just trying to fit them all in!
As I was gazing up at the old buildings, my friend Sandrine just couldn’t resist these colourful head bands. Not are there theatre touts but the back-streets are full of temporary stalls of fashion accessories, musical instruments, books and silky or cotton Provençal looking tops and dresses.
Just when you least expect it, a human advert for a show appears – here in the guise of a tandem and two rather well-dressed gentlemen hooting an old-fashioned horn.
Did I tell you that the posters for each show are plastered absolutely everywhere?
Hamlet in 30 minutes? I wonder if Shakespeare would have approved of his play being fitted in to accommodate the others in a day.
Just around the corner, a judge and a couple of reporters were touting for another show, causing havoc in the middle of a restaurant as confused and amused lunch clients were treated to a quick show in rue des Tenturiers.
Perhaps this was the culprit disguised, running back to Paris? He was so fast when I took this shot that I didn’t manage to catch his training shoes at the bottom. I thought it was hilarious – obviously the locals were getting used the scene: not an eyelash blinked.
Lunchtime? Time for us girls to head back to the ranch and see what the men were up to. Barbecue lit ready for the Auvergne sausages? Check. Rosé chilled? Check – even with ice cubes during a heatwave.
During the apéritif, Valérie rustled up something quick and deliciously provençal in her kitchen with this light aubergine and tomato tart using filo pastry.
Recipe adapted with more instruction by myself from the new “Happi Food” French Magazine (special edition of Happinez N°1).
3 small aubergines or one large
3 large sheets filo pastry
100g butter, melted
100g small Roma tomatoes, cut in 2
500g crème fraîche
150 feta cheese
150g Greek yoghurt
1/2 tsp rosemary
Pepper to taste
1. Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F/Gas mark 6). Cut the aubergines into slices of about 2cm thickness. Sprinkle them with salt in a colander and leave them to give out their liquid for about 15 minutes. Rince them and sponge them with kitchen paper.
2. Brush the aubergine slices with olive oil and place them directly on a baking sheet. Bake for about 20 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, brush 3 large filo pastry sheets (about 40 x 40 cm) with melted butter (or olive oil) and place them one on top of the other in a round tart tin of 22-24cm diameter. Take out the aubergines and leave them to cool. Turn down the oven temperature to 180°C (360°F/Gas mark 4).
4. Cover the filo sheets with the aubergine slices and slices of tomato. Whisk the eggs, crème fraîche, feta and Greek yoghurt. Add the rosemary and a few turns of the pepper mill. Cover the vegetables with this mixture and bake in the oven for 25-30 minutes.
Serve hot with a green salad.
My version isn’t nearly as pretty, but as we’re heading off on holiday tonight, I made a version of this using the leftovers in the fridge and it was simple and so tasty. I used only one large aubergine, one coeur de boeuf large tomato and sprinkled it with thyme and parsley. Next time, I’m definitely making it with the filo pastry (I used ready-made all butter puff pastry).
Thanks for the most delicious weekend, Valérie and Hervé, and cheers to you, my readers!
Continuing our morning walk, you can really feel Vincent Van Gogh’s presence in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Reminders of his paintings appear when you’re least expecting it.
Vincent was fascinated by the enormous plane trees; they’re dotted all around town, providing welcome shade here at the Mairie or town hall.
I love getting lost in the back-streets, especially when they’re as old as this – do you?
Always look up at the buildings. I could have missed this Hospital established in 1646. Look at the scallop shell (Saint Jacques) above the doorway. Although no hanging around – I could have missed our friends who were pressing on with a delicious destination in mind.
We were heading to the most exquisite chocolate shop in boulevard Victor-Hugo. I’d heard of Joël Durand as a chocolatier (seen in La Grande Epicerie in Paris), so when I saw this sign at the entrance of his boutique, I was confused. Parfumeur?
Joël Durand not only makes his signature Chocolate Alphabet (l’Alphabet des Saveurs), in which each letter represents the most delicious concoction of dark or milk chocolate perfumed with spices, provençal herbs, flowers or fruit to name a few, but he also creates a chocolate Eau de Toilette and scented chocolate candles.
His ice creams are also welcome during these soaring summer temperatures. The day’s specials were chocolate with violet, white chocolate with mint, chocolate with a liquorice stick.
Joël Durand also honours the local cigales in the form of milk chocolate lavender or dark chocolate with rosemary. I’m also looking forward to tasting his Coriscan cédrat marmalade, salted caramel, plus some vanilla coated almonds on return from our travels but right there on the spot, Valérie and Hervé insisted we try out a selection of Joël Durand’s alphabet chocolates.
Just next door was the perfect solution to have a chocolate tasting: a wine bar (21 Chai d’Oeuvre) with tables in the shade of more plane trees and leafy vines, as we realised the chocolates would melt in a matter of minutes in temperatures approaching 100°F/ 38°C!
A platter of charcuterie and cheeses just hit the spot with some chilled local Equinox rosé wine before tasting a selection of Joël Durand’s chocolates from the alphabet. As Valérie enjoyed V for Violet, we watched our Ps and Qs: P for Provence (almond pralines with black olives from the Baux valley) and Q for Châtaigne (milk chocolate with chestnut liqueur from the Ardèche – or should that be the Q-Ardèche?). My favourites were G and L: G for Guyane with 41% milk chocolate, crunchy nutmeg and cinnamon with a slight hint of lemon zest; and L for Lavender and 41% milk chocolate.
Y, O, Y didn’t I get all the way to Z? I’ll try out the rest on my next trip to La Grande Epicerie in Paris.
Who could resist the wine bar’s humour presented at the bottom of the blackboard?
Le Calin de Titi … offert (the hug from Titi is free)
La Rire de Bruno …. offert (Bruno’s laugh is also on the house)
L’addition du Frank … PAS offert (the bill from Frank is NOT free)
That was our lunchtime apéritif. Original with the chocolate but hey, when in Provence during a heatwave, we need a plan B (incidentally, B is for Badiane: dark chocolate with flower of star anise).
Saint-Rémy-de-Provence was closing up for siesta time. It was time for the kids’ naps.
And ours after lunch, dreaming up what Valérie would cook for another Provençal dinner! Now that’s another delicious story.
3 boulevard Victor-Hugo
13210 Saint Rémy de Provence
Tel: 04 90 92 38 25
Open seven days a week!
As I’ll be going on holiday this week, posting and responding to your welcome comments will be rather erratic (depends if I can get to a computer!), so please don’t forget to subscribe to posts (see right bar) so that you don’t miss them. It’s also easy to follow me on my travels on instragram.
What? You’ve never been to St Rémy de Provence? Valérie plopped frozen raspberries instead of ice-cubes in her refreshing homemade citronnade. She always has brilliant ideas. Would we just stay by the pool and chat during our long-awaited Bastille holiday weekend visit, or should we venture out in this heatwave and have a bit of culture next morning?
I felt embarrassed. How could I have visited the parents-in-law in their Saignon village since 1992 and not even discover one of Provence’s most picturesque villages just south of Avignon? But, in our defence, when we visit family in the south we don’t do the touristy things. We do what the family does: either sit around the house and chat, watch the Tour de France in the cool indoors, take “kid-naps” or have rustic picnics around the Mont Ventoux.
So before we knew it, Antoine and I were whisked off to the town where Van Gogh spent the last year of his life in 1889, painting his blockbusters like Irises and Starry Night while at the psychiatric centre at the Monastery Saint-Paul de Mausole.
There are no cars in the centre of the town, which makes walking around an extra relaxing pleasure. Street names are in Provençal, with the town’s coat of arms.
A must stop is at the fountain of Michel Nostradamus, celebrating the famous astrologer, apothecary and seer born here in 1503. His world predictions are best known in his publication, Les Propheties, which has rarely been out of print since the first edition came out in 1555.
I wonder if he predicted that his home town would be filled with some kind of curiosity shop around many a corner?
Or ice cream shops too?
Or restaurants serving typical provençal dishes with a base of tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and served with the local chilled rosé during the summer?
Valérie predicted that I’d be making for Michel Marshall’s pâtisserie in the heart of town, in Place Joseph Hilaire.
Michel Marshall’s exquisite artistic pastries were disappearing fast. No wonder – this talented pastry chef has worked previously with Pierre Hermé at Ladurée and with Philippe Conticini at Le Pétrossian before eventually opening his own boutique, just like the others. Had Van Gogh been around, I wonder if he would have painted them? In any case, I’d say that Michel Marshall is the Van Gogh of Pastry here – and predict more boutiques opening.
Overheard in the shop was a guide taking around American visitors – just what I do with the chocolate, pastry and macaron walks with Context in Paris, St Germain-des-Prés. Valérie encouraged me on, otherwise I was in danger of pretending I was in the group and tasting like the others – especially as I had my eye on a savoury pastry. My hand must have been shakily excited too as the photo was terrible so I’m afraid you’ll just have to imagine that the artistic topping was a giant basil leaf.
Then I found myself lingering around another pastry shop. This time with over-sized lemon meringue tarts, giant macarons, and violet Réligieuses: one bite-sized choux puff placed on top of a bigger one and filled with fragranced pastry cream. Recipes for all of them are in Teatime in Paris: A Walk Through Easy French Pâtisserie Recipes.
Stumbling on another boutique, named so prettily, “The Pastry Chef’s Daughters”, it was more of a curiosity shop. Although, don’t show that you’re too curious; the shiny-muscled pastry chef was looking rather suspiciously from the window above as he was tucking into his lunch.
Sounds are also pretty different in Provence. Above the trickling of the fountains, it’s sometimes deafening to hear the cigales or ciganes
singing rhythmically screeching in the trees. I took a video of it and will share it with you next time. Over them, we listened to a busker playing in the shade of the plane trees.
Window boxes are remarkably sweet in the town hall square. This is when I lost the others while getting carried away taking photos. Does that often happen to you too?
They had already headed towards the chocolate shop. Let’s catch up with them on Tuesday, so join me then on the rest of our walk in St Rémy de Provence, to discover chocolate!