Thursday, October 9, 2008

A culinary experience in Menerbes

Menerbes is a village in the heart of Provence, in the picturesque Luberon area, now on every tour guide, after Peter Mayle wrote his New York Times bestseller, "A Year in Provence".

We prepared for the experience by learning a few French culinary terms. The plan was to take a cooking lesson from the chef at Cafe Verona, and then eat the results. We were hungry and curious when we arrived at nine in the morning, the town barely waking.

We were divided in groups of twelve. A few just sat and watched. One group went shopping for the ingredients, another toured the town, and a third began chopping and prepping with the chef. Each group participated in every activity.

Menerbes is one of the prettiest villages in France,on a promontory with stunning views of the Luberon and Monts de Vaucluse. Vineyards and farms surround the town; one main road winds up all the way to the top.

Before Peter Mayle changed it forever as a tourist destination, Menerbes was famous for having remained staunchly protestant.

Back at the restaurant, Chef Maurice showed us how to prepare and assemble the various dishes. He made sure every one of us knew how to chop, roll, cut and assemble. We learned to make gaspacho, croustillant de volaile aux herbes, and clafoutis aux figues. I had made gaspacho, but the chicken rolled in phillo dough with herbs and tapenade was new to me. And clafouti? I thought it was too hard to make.

I learned more in one hour with him than all the hours of watching cooking shows on television, even from Julia Child's. I learned how to choose the brightest, freshest and most ripe tomatoes for the gaspacho.Nothing else will do.

There is something quite uplifting about being in a bright kitchen, neatly organized, with sous chefs all around promptly responding to requests. Three-four hours after we arrived,everyone had been exposed to France's patrimony of growing the best, harvesting the best, and constantly looking at ways to improve a product. In the middle of town was the Museum of Gastronomy,with a whole room dedicated to the Truffle, what it is, where to find it, how to identify its many forms, and how to cook with it. We could have spent the equivalent of a child's college fund bringing back a jar of this product.

When the forty of us sat down for lunch, the experience was enhanced by the beautiful surroundings and the knowledge that the food was prepared through a cooperative of farmers, winemakers, purveyors and restaurateurs, all dedicated to eating well and living well.

At the end of our meal, we were all appreciative as we thanked the chef and left clutching the recipes.

Now, I just have to sit down with a dictionary and translate.

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