Last summer a few friends rented a farmhouse on the grounds of Château de la Barbée in France’s Loire Valley. I joined them as the unofficial chef, preparing most of our dinners during our two-week stay. One day the proprietress of the chateau asked if I would like to cook dinner with her. (Never, ever pass up an opportunity to cook with anyone in France!) We met the next morning in the farmhouse kitchen.
Mary arrived with a freshly slaughtered rooster wrapped in paper, a bird that had been annoying the hens that very morning; several bars of very dark chocolate; and a bowl of eggs from the aforementioned hens.
We went to work making coq au vin and mousse au chocolate amer. That evening she and her husband joined us for a dinner under the stars. We uncorked bottle after bottle of Loire Valley wines while dining on the coq au vin— that tough old bird had transformed into a succulent, savory, tender poulet. After sopping up the wine sauce with our baguettes we were ready for dessert. The dark chocolate mousse was unlike anything, anywhere, that any of us Americans had experienced before; the six of us wiped the bowl clean — technically 16 servings — which partially explains why I don’t have any pictures from the dinner!
A few days before we were scheduled to leave, Mary approached us with the idea of starting a small cooking program. She proposed opening the château to people who were interested in learning traditional French cooking (and would relish the chance to “live” in a château!).
I worked with her throughout the winter to develop a program that would be fun, share an insider’s knowledge of the region, and offer French cooking lessons in a relaxed home setting. Eight months later her program, La Vie du Chateau, is making its debut—with a gorgeous website: www.lavieduchateau.com.
A few weeks ago cookbook author Ann Mah wrote in The New York Times Travel section about her travels around France in search of traditional regional dishes—authentic, cooked-in-a-local-bistro-or-somebody’s-kitchen kind of dishes. I think Mary’s cooking classes will be like that—good French cooking that you would want to serve your family or friends.
We went back and forth on whether she should offer weekend or week-long programs. She decided to offer both, each with a mix of cooking and visits to local farmers markets, wineries, medieval villages, and grand chateaus.
She refreshed the bedrooms with a new coat of paint (guests will stay in one of 18 bedrooms in the château), scrubbed the floors, and polished the silver in eager anticipation of hosting people from all over the world.
As an American who has lived in France for 30 years she wants to create a welcoming environment for those who are both new to France and those who are well-traveled, sharing the France that has become her home. (And we can pretend, for a couple of days, that we are aristocrats.)
But NoNoJulia readers can get a 15% discount (worth as much as $430) if you mention that you heard about it from this blog.
Please share this with anyone you know who might be interested in cooking those beautiful products from the farms of France, this year, or next, or in the years to come.