The Joy of Cooking (in France)

It took a trip to a cooking school in Perigord, France, to reignite our dining critic’s culinary interest. She and seven kitchen novices enjoyed a week of truffle hunting, trips to market, and foie gras.

BITES AND SITES: (left) Our four-hour lunch in Trémolat, France, was one of the trip’s highlights. At the four-star Le Vieux Logis, we sampled this oyster creme glace. (right) A quiet side street in the picturesque 17th-century town of Sarlat.

The mirrored doors of the elevator opened on the fifth floor of the elegant Royal Hotel in Paris, just off the Champs-Élysées. The sounds of a cocktail party from down the hall greeted me. Clinking glasses, laughter, and the raspy, sparrow-like voice of Edith Piaf singing “La vie en Rose” perfumed the chatter. Above it all, an infectious Texas accent: “Hey, y’all. I am so glad you’re here,” said Paula Lambert, the celebrated Dallas cheese maker.

COOKING WITH CLASS: Paula Lambert in the living room at La Combe Cooking School in the Perigord region of France.

The door to Paula’s room stood open, and I did my best to slink in unnoticed. Eight of us acolytes had followed Paula to France for a week-long cooking school at La Combe Cooking School in Perigord, the region known for its truffles, walnuts, wild mushrooms, and foie gras. Twice a year, Paula leaves her Mozzarella Company in Deep Ellum and escorts small groups of dedicated foodies to the famous cooking school, where she not only teaches them how to cook but leads them on a journey through Perigord culture.

Fortified with Champagne and pâté, I did my best to mingle with the roomful of strangers. The group seemed nice enough. Susan and Lollie were best friends and lived in Salado, Texas, where Susan raised lavender. Jennifer, a single woman who lived and worked in Baltimore, loved to cook for her boyfriend when she wasn’t busy solving computer problems for a major corporation. (Computer literate and a boyfriend? I marked her as trouble.) Lifelong pals Ruthie and Mary were good-old Dallas girls, and we discovered we had loads of friends in common. And then there was Len and his wife Nanci, also from Dallas—excuse me, Preston Hollow. Len was the only man in the group.

“So, are you just along for the ride?” I asked Len.

“Hell no,” he said. “I’d never cooked in my life. That is, until I signed up for this class six months ago. I got in shape for this by taking cooking lessons in Dallas. We even redid the kitchen to help me get ready for this.”

They redid their kitchen so he could learn how to cook? Who does that?

Perhaps it was the jet lag or maybe the glare from Len’s wife’s diamond ring that put me in a cynical mood. I really hate to cook. I did it all my life, even got paid at one point to cook in restaurants and cater parties. It was a satisfying way to make a living years ago, but that all changed when I got a job writing about food. To me, cooking is something to be avoided. Like getting cavities filled.

I stepped out on the balcony and gazed at the sunset backlighting the Arc de Triomphe. How would I be able to spend seven days in a kitchen with a bunch of overexuberant, wealthy chef poseurs who flew halfway around the world to learn how to make a soufflé and eat foie gras? I felt sorry for myself and the poor, abused ducks and geese. The bubbles in my Champagne went flat.

The next day, after a four-hour train ride south, we were met at the Angouleme station by La Combe co-owner Robert Cave-Rogers. He left the stability of his management job with the Mandarin Oriental Hotels to run his cooking school. His wife and partner in their “midlife crisis adventure,” Wendely Harvey, retired from her position as a book publisher for the Williams-Sonoma range of cookbooks after 20 years. She was readying their home for our rowdy bunch.

As our car hit the slushy gravel driveway at La Combe, Taty, the resident dog, ran out to greet us. It was raining hard, but Taty didn’t seem to mind. Thankfully I’d have a dog to hang out with. The school was a charming 18th-century stone country house on 30 acres. Robert and Wendely lived in the house and had renovated the adjoining barns and stables into four guest suites filled with local antiques, handmade soaps, and luxurious linens.

STUDENT UNION: At our first class, Len prepares roasted guinea hen with citrus and braised baby artichokes while Jennifer looks on.

We dropped off our luggage and gathered in front of the fireplace in the living room, where Paula, Wendely, and Robert briefed us on what to expect. For the next week, our itinerary would include cooking classes, museums, castles, Eleanor of Aquitaine (think The Lion in Winter), and Cro-Magnon man, who lived just down the street in a cave above the town of Les Eyzies 35,000 years ago. 

“And y’all,” Paula said. “Not only are we going to eat foie gras every day, we are going to do something that no tourist can do. We are going to witness the découpage of a duck.”

“How un-PC is that?” I thought. The force-feeding of ducks to fatten their livers—foie gras—is one of the hottest topics in the culinary world. Cities like Chicago and Los Angeles cite cruelty to animals as the reason for banning foie gras from pricey restaurant menus. Now, rain-soaked in France, I wouldn’t just be eating the stuff, I’d be an accessory to a duck murder. PETA would be waiting for my flight when I landed at DFW.

Paula handed out a thick folder of recipes and explained the kitchen rules. We could partner up if we wished. Before each class, Paula would go over all the recipes of the day and solicit volunteers for each dish. Then we’d strap on our aprons and head to the kitchen, where her assistant Linda would set out the ingredients for each recipe at a station stocked with measuring cups, bowls, and knives. As we chopped and sautéed, Paula would watch over our shoulders and offer suggestions.

Once our creations were finished, we’d set the table, dress for dinner, and serve our dishes. Each chef would detail the process of the dish she’d prepared. Paula would serve three to five different cheeses each night and discuss their production. And Robert would pair the local wines of nearby Bergerac with each course. As Paula wrapped up her first lesson, I decided to pair with Robert.

How many times have you finished your morning coffee, pulled on a jacket, grabbed a pig by the leash, and gone hunting for truffles? If you haven’t, do it before you, or the tradition, dies. Once much more plentiful, French truffles have grown scarce in recent decades. The black truffles farmed in Perigord (called “black diamonds”) can fetch upward of $500 per pound. 

Gollum, the 35-pound Asiatic dwarf pig, helped us hunt for truffles, the “black diamonds” of Perigord. Young oak trees are inoculated with a truffle and grown in a greenhouse for two years before they’re planted in the fields.

We left La Combe early to meet Hugues Martin, a trufficulteur who farms about 30 acres for the highly fragrant subterranean fungus that grows in symbiosis with the roots of certain trees. Martin was darkly tan and dressed in jeans, knee-high leather boots, and a loose-fitting brown oilcloth jacket. He greeted us with his two trusty truffle hunters: a ratty-looking dog named Mickey and a 35-pound black Asiatic dwarf pig named Gollum. You see, truffle hunting—cavage—cannot be undertaken by man alone. Since truffles grow 4 or 5 inches underground, it’s not practical for humans to hunt them by scent. So we get a little help from a pig, a dog, or even a swarm of flies circling above a patch.

In his greenhouse, Martin explained how he inoculates young oak trees with a truffle and keeps them in the greenhouse for up to two years before they are planted in the field. With a lot of luck, the tree roots might produce truffles in 10 to 15 years. While he waits, he harvests his old trees and shoots at truffle poachers. There is a huge international black market for the pricey delicacy. Martin tells me about unscrupulous wholesalers who will set out the Perigord truffles for buyers, then fill the order with cheap Chinese truffles that may have been frozen and can be full of maggots. Days later, the chef has nothing but tasteless mush.

And here’s one: almost all the truffle oil sold is concocted by mixing olive oil with a combination of aromatic chemical molecules. Most of the chefs I talked to in Dallas were unaware of this fact. Very little oil that is labeled “truffle oil” actually comes from truffles.

A few hours of hunting with Martin produced a tiny handful of truffles that he wasn’t inclined to part with. So we settled for bottles of the oil and headed for a six-course lunch at the famous Le Vieux Logis, a Relais & Châteaux property in the small village of Trémolat. Somewhere between the foie gras (served brûlée-style in a small cup covered with a thin, burnt-sugar crisp) and the third dessert, I loosened up. This group of gourmands was turning out to be more fun than I’d imagined them to be. I couldn’t wait to get back to my cozy little room at La Combe and nap away the rest of the day.

But Paula had a different plan. It was time for class.

Outdoor markets feature goods like these tourteaux, a traditional cake/bread, eaten with coffee at receptions and celebrations.

The ethereal glow from the rosé we’d swirled at lunch evaporated the second we sat down to divvy up the evening’s menu. Suddenly everything turned into a reality TV show, with cutthroat competitors angling for favors. No surprise, Len—the guy who took a class to prepare for class—picked off the primo job of roasting a guinea hen with citrus and oregano. Bam! Jennifer showed her type-A corporate side, asking for two recipes for herself. Pushy broad. The rest of us divided up the remaining recipes. I got the remedial chore of marinating olives. The hardest part of the recipe was trying to figure out which plant in the herb garden just outside the kitchen door was thyme. Mostly, I just watched the madness.

Len and Nanci giggled and sipped wine as they stuffed that hen with lemons and oranges, tied up the fowl’s legs, and hustled it into the oven with the skill of Julia Child. How could this be so much fun for them? They were married, for God’s sake. Jennifer emerged as the class show-off. Her onion tart was perfectly decorated with a lattice pattern of thinly sliced anchovies and studded with Nicoise olives. “Tres jolie,” Paula said. Jennifer’s smiling cheeks were still pink from the heat in the kitchen. I wanted to pick up that tart and smash it in her face like James Cagney giving Mae Clarke the grapefruit treatment in The Public Enemy.

But maybe that was just my empty stomach. Eating dinner did a lot to improve my mood—mostly Ruthie and Mary’s amazing chocolate pudding cake. Oh, and did I mention La Trappe d’Echourgnac, a seductive, buttery, semi-soft cheese made locally by Trappist nuns and matured in walnut liqueur? Tres jolie, indeed!

Early one morning we headed to the weekly market in Sarlat. Ingredients were needed and so was some walking around to burn off a few hundred of the tens of thousands of calories we’d consumed at La Combe. Our group traveled in two cars, one driven by Wendely, the other by Robert. Though married, they are fiercely independent. She, a native of Australia; he, originally from Wales. Before we set out, Robert, with his dry sense of humor, put it bluntly: “If you ride with my intrepid wife, you’ll get all the local gossip and see the markets and gardens. I’m the expert on everything else.”

He was right. As the week went along, “Roberites” learned the finer points of the architecture, military and religious histories, economics of farming, and just about every other factoid relevant to France. The “Wendelyites” always knew where to buy the best celery root, foie gras, chanterelles, and knives. If you switched cars a couple of times, you ended up with a well-rounded knowledge of their kingdom in Perigord.

After class, the students gather around the dining table and discuss the day’s menu, local wine and cheese selections, and receive a cooking critique from Paula.

We hit Sarlat and wandered down the narrow cobblestone streets, feasting our eyes on the sumptuous foods for sale and basking in the glory of the undamaged architectural heritage. You can’t help but feel like you’re on a back lot at Universal Studios and about to be swept away by Gerard Depardieu.

Loaded with groceries, we headed back for class. There was much ado—eight dishes in all and not much time. Plus we’d just learned from Paula that we were having distinguished guests for dinner. Marcia and Henry Stuart, longtime Dallasites who also own a successful winery down the road in Bergerac, would be arriving soon. This news gave me fits. I lived a few doors down from the Stuarts for most of my childhood. I remember Henry, the founder of Addison Airport, giving me my first lesson in French cooking when I was 12, as he baked baguettes at his cabin on Lake Tawakoni. 

Now I found myself seated next to “Monsieur Henri,” ladling him a bowl of my newest triumph, sorrel soup. The feast stretched on for hours—platters of artichoke potato au gratin, huge chunks of glistening sea bass, mounds of lime green asparagus spears. By the time the last almond cookie disappeared, so had a case of wine. My buzz was made all the warmer by the approval won for my soup from Henry.

If you support the movement to ban foie gras because you believe ducks and geese are treated inhumanely, you might want to stop reading. I have toured hog and cattle farms, chicken processing plants, and slaughterhouses in the United States, and none of the experiences have ever left me feeling good about eating animals. However, I quickly learned that the production of foie gras—in Perigord, at least—is very humane. Ducks and geese run in fields on small farms and feast on grass and local cereal. Artisan farmers follow strict guidelines. We should all be so lucky.

To understand the feeding process, or gavage, you must know a thing or two about birds. Migratory birds like geese and ducks naturally fatten themselves up before their annual migration, and the gavage artificially copies this natural seasonal process. The term “force-fed” is misleading. The birds happily line up for second and third portions that are dispensed from plastic feeding tubes full of corn and vitamins. Most farmers will tell you that once a bird has had its “dose,” it will waddle around and get back in line for more. If you love foie gras and want to be PC, only buy tins stamped with the IGP Perigord trademark.

Buoyed by our newfound knowledge, we headed to a small farm in a nearby hamlet. It’s a real working farm, not a tourist stop. We gathered around the kitchen table and presented our hostess, a skilled decoupageuse, with a 30-pound duck fresh from the butcher. As her grandmother fed the chickens and rabbits in the yard, she demonstrated the fine art of decoupage: she slit the neck, broke the beaks, pulled the tongue, broke the back, and eventually slit the stomach open to reveal the prize, a 3-pound liver. Along the way, she explained in French as Paula interpreted how every part of the bird would be used: roasted meat, soups, casseroles, pâtés, and cat food.

Later that evening, we gathered for our last supper together at the charming restaurant Au Vieux Moulin, set in a picturesque garden where the old mill still dips into the waters of a stream near Les Eyzies. Magically, most of us who couldn’t speak a word of French a week before, were nodding knowingly as the waiter rattled off our choices. The meal was a true Perigord-style pig-out: foie gras brûlée followed by sautéed fresh foie gras with Perigordine sauce, risotto aux truffes, confit of duck with house-made walnut oil, Cabecou goat cheese from Rocamadour with salad, and a warm Grand Marnier soufflé.

As the plates were cleared, Paula toasted the staff in perfect French before awarding our diplomas. Len even asked Jennifer for her e-mail address. Tears were shed. Our travels and tastes of Perigord had bonded us together for life. I looked at the bubbles streaming to the top of my Champagne glass and hummed Piaf’s “La vie en Rose.”

Now, months later, back in Dallas, my attitude toward cooking has been transformed. I find myself perusing the aisles of grocery stores several times a week instead of several times a year. When I invite people over for dinner, they ask, “Will you please make Paula’s roasted potatoes again?” They take my marinated olives for granted, thinking I picked them up at a market. I know now what thyme looks like; it grows in the herb garden outside my kitchen door. And last night, in fact, I filled a free-range chicken from the Dallas Farmers Market with oranges and lemons, just as Len had stuffed the guinea fowl in France. My once barren kitchen (save for leftovers stored in Styrofoam) is now loaded with fresh fruit, onions, and vegetables waiting to be served.

Perhaps I’ll remodel it. Happy cooks do that.

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