I didn't realize just how far into the middle of nowhere I was headed when I signed up for the French Cooking School in Brittany. After transferring to my second train on the trip from Paris on Sunday evening, I plowed deeper and deeper into the darkness of the French countryside, stopping at tiny village stations with only a bench and a sidewalk to their name. After getting off in Lamballe, Chef Poul picked me up and we drove another half hour on dark roads, careening over hills without sign of any other headlights.
I awoke early the next morning and took a walk, curious to see where I had landed. In the crisp morning light it felt as though I was walking into the pages of Tess of the D'Urbervilles, whose pastoral images came flooding back to me from hazy high school English class memories. I walked down the narrow lanes of the tiny village and stumbled upon a field of enormously fat sheep with their long, angular, and surprisingly ugly faces staring at me, shocked to see a stranger in their territory.
The town of Kerrouet itself is actually a tiny little hamlet of barely sixty people. Most seem to be retirees from different parts of the UK and the occasional elderly French person but I'm sure I am making an over-generalization. The houses are quaint, but also a bit forbidding with their thick and dark stone walls and small shuttered windows, they seem turned inward to protect against the cold and the wind. Once upon a time the town had a cafe and bar, both of which have long since shuttered. I've seen one or two people walking yappy dogs but otherwise the village is silent. It really feels like the best thing to do is hibernate in a room with a fire and good food, which I did a lot of over the course of a very relaxing and laid back week.
The school itself has been around for the last three years and is in a beautifully renovated and refurbished home that once housed the town notary. Chef Poul, who is Danish, and his Irish partner have modernized while maintaining and accentuating all the most charming parts of the original architecture. The best room (and the only one that has been heated while I've been there) is the kitchen, which is professionally outfitted but feels totally homey at the same time. In addition to the crackling fireplace, the windows overlook the herb garden and sit in front of the giant porcelain sink. Cream tiles cover the walls around the stovetop, knives and pans hang from exposed wooden rafters, and a giant wood prep table – it would make anyone with countertop space issues jealous – occupies the center of the room. The oval wooden farmhouse table is illuminated by a candlelit chandelier, which lends gravitas and intimacy to each meal. A bonus of the cold temperature is that we can use the front hallway as an extended refrigerator when we run out of space for our copious leftovers in the kitchen.
There is only one other student in addition to me, a British girl a few years younger than I am, and Poul has been kind enough to take us on a few afternoon jaunts to see a bit more of the Breton countryside, including gothic Josselin and medieval Moncontour. The countryside itself is beautiful – rolling hills of green or brown flanked by single rows of silhouetted trees and an endless blue sky, punctuated by billowing clouds and sudden bursts of rain. Hefty black and white cows graze in a region known for its dairy. Root vegetables, including artichokes, leeks, potatoes, and carrots burrow underground to protect themselves from the cold. Apples are also a common crop and are frequently turned into a mildly alcoholic cider that I can imagine farmers drinking throughout the day to stay warm.
On the whole, it feels like I have stepped back in time, to a slower world where you use a wood fire to heat the rooms you plan to use, cook what grows in the fields, wander the bucolic countryside, and hope for good weather!
**My camera is holding all my lovely pastoral photos hostage. Will post when I can.**