As I sit in a toasty kitchen with a fire blazing in the hearth and light pouring in the windows onto smooth wooden countertops, there is nowhere else I would rather be on a blustery afternoon in Brittany. Poul, the Danish chef of the French Cooking School, has just started up a second fire in the sooty black pot-bellied stove to add further warmth and charm to an already cozy scene.
The school is perfectly suited to its environment. We start in the morning at ten with a cup of coffee and a talk through the menu with music in the background and then spend the next few hours preparing lunch in the homey but professionally outfitted kitchen. We usually eat between noon and one (certainly late enough to justify a glass of white wine) and then have a break in the afternoon before resuming at six to cook a multi-course dinner. The afternoons are ideal for curling up in front of the fire, walking around the village bundled up and with a camera in hand, or hopping in the car with Poul to see a bit more of Brittany.
Poul's teaching style works well for me, and I'm quite glad I'm doing this class after my three weeks in Italy. Poul explains the process and demonstrates the techniques upfront and is extremely knowledgable and patient in explaining the answers to every possible question I can come up with as we cook and once we sit down to the meal. It's quite nice after cooking in translation for the last three weeks because it gives me a chance to go further in depth on questions of technique, preference, and ingredients. I also feel much more comfortable in the kitchen after my time in Italy and can sense certain instincts kicking in so that I can anticipate and understand more intuitively why we might cook something in a certain way or how I might be able to tell if a dish is done. This allows me to take advantage of the instruction in a different way than I could before.
And of course, the food is delicious – the hit rate of tasty dishes that I would replicate at home is quite high so I'm certainly enjoying eating everything we prepare. And with that, on to the food:
We started on Monday morning with an ambitious set of dishes to prepare. First up was whole grain bread. We mixed the fresh yeast with water and then used a mixer to make the dough with flour, salt, and sugar. We let the machine work the bread for ten minutes, let it rise, divided it into two loaf pans with olive oil and let it rise again, and then baked it. The crust was crunchy and the bread was dense without being heavy. It was interesting to feel the difference in consistency between the many Italian breads we made fully by hand. As a loaf, I preferred this one to the Italian loaves but in terms of sheer decadence, it's hard to compete with a crunchy, salty Italian focaccia. That said, this was the perfect accompaniment to our cheese course of local French specialties, which we managed to squeeze in at both lunch and dinner. I think the moral of the story here is that I really like bread and luckily for me, I've made a lot of great ones over the last few weeks!
Next up was chicken stock, which we would be using as a base for our sauces for the week. I was really excited to learn how to make this using traditional French technique and curious to see how we incorporated it as the base for numerous sauces. The base of chicken stock is, unsurprisingly, chicken but in this case we roasted it first, unlike a broth which you would make by boiling a raw chicken. The first step was breaking down a whole chicken and we learned the painstaking technique of boning chicken legs (the knuckle is definitely the trickiest part!) and got down and dirty with chicken anatomy. We roasted all the chicken bones as well as some chicken legs with the meat still on (for extra flavor) and then put all of it into a pot of water with leeks, garlic, carrots, celariac (the root of celery – a new one for me), tomato puree, herbs, and pepper then let it boil for hours and hours. I learned that you never put salt in a stock because the flavors condense as you reduce it so it's best to salt the sauce you are making from the stock, rather than the stock itself.
Lunch itself started with Gazpacho, which we made by blending tomatoes, garlic, onion, cucumber, red pepper, and celery and then seasoning the mixture with balsamic reduction, lemon juice (this really brightens it up), tobasco, and of course, salt and pepper. The soup was light and refreshing in texture but packed with flavor and vitamins in taste.
Up next was a Scandinavian dish of salmon fishcakes with a remoulade sauce. We blended fresh salmon with eggs, onion, garlic, cream, lemon juice, and seasoning then learned how to make quinelles (ovals shaped with a spoon in the palm of your hand – or by two spoons if you employ the traditional French technique) from the mixture which we then fried with butter and oil. We served this with a flavorful remoulade sauce made with creme fraiche, lemon juice, capers, cornichons (sweet and salty), shallot, and surprisingly, yellow curry powder. The combination of the fish, sauce, and salad made for quite a nice lunch and I'd certainly try the dish again at home.
With lunch under our belts (which had to be loosened – couldn't resist the pun!) and a visit to the neighboring village of Josselin complete it was time to start on dinner. Our starter was artichoke in a citrus soup. Artichokes are grown widely in Brittany and our preparation was Provencal, typical of southern France. We made the soup from freshly squeezed orange and lemon juice, sugar, herbs, peppercorns, onions, and carrot “flowers,” which we learned how to carve. We cleaned, boiled, and cut the artichoke separately and then introduced it to the rest of the soup, which was served with a piece of fried pancetta on top. The dish was surprisingly tangy and had a very summery, sunny taste to it.
Our main dish took advantage of the chicken legs we'd boned in the morning by stuffing them with shrimp and blanched spinach leaves and tying them up to pan fry and then bake. We made the sauce using our reduced chicken stock and simply brought it to a boil and then added tarragon leaves and a bit of lemon juice as well as a syrup of reduced red wine and shallots. We also made a side of pan fried Jerusalem artichoke, which we looked up to learn more about their origin. They look like turmeric root on the outside, and have nothing at all to do with either Jerusalem or artichokes but seem to have their origin in Native American cuisine and are often called sunchokes in the US. Interesting.
As if this wasn't enough (and I'm getting full again just writing about it!), we also made a side of Pommes Anna, a typical French preparation for potatoes. We sliced the peeled potatoes thinly, layered them with minced shallot, garlic, and butter and then baked them, making for a very buttery and rich side dish.
Dessert was Italian Panna Cotta in a mango sauce. I hadn't actually made this in Italy so it was nice to continue to expand my Italian repertoire. It was quite simple to make: simmer cream with vanilla beans, sugar, and a little bit of lemon zest and then add in gelatin leaves that have been soaked in water and let everything set in the fridge. Basically, a fancier version of jello. We made the mango sauce by blending the fruit with Cointreau and lemon juice and then artfully arranged everything on the plate. It was light and rich at the same time and quite delicious.
Overall it was a lovely first day of cooking and a nice surprise to get exposure to a mix of Scandinavian, British, and Italian cuisine alongside the base of French cooking.