Monday, May 9, 2011

Cooking classes in Provence - L'Auberge de la Camarette at Pernes les Fontaines

The Auberge de la Camarette is a bit of a hidden treasure in Provence. In open countryside just on the edge of the pretty village Pernes les Fontaines, it's set in its own vineyard with a panoramic view of Mont Ventoux, the 'Giant of Provence'. A former 17th century magnanerie, or silk farm, it's a restaurant and chambres d'hotes full of character where you dine selon le marché - that is, you get what the chef decides to make on the day, according to the best local produce available.

The talented young chef, Hugues Marrec, also gives cooking classes on 8 Saturdays each year and this year, for the first time ever, I took a Provençal cooking class. It was on the 7th of May, my birthday, and a friend offered me the class as a birthday present. Three of us went in the end and it was just one of the best ways to spend a birthday or any Saturday morning.

The idea is that you work under Hugues' expert guidance between 9am and 1pm to create a 3-course meal and then you sit and enjoy it with a bottle of the Camarette vineyard wine. (I don't know how much it cost as it was a present, but around 75 euros I think.)

Now, I've lived in France for 11 years and have picked up some principles of French and Provençale cuisine from friends but I wouldn't claim to be any kind of chef. Nevertheless, Hugues proposed that the eight of us (there were 5 locals as well as me and my two girl friends) would produce the following menu:

Duo de petit pois et l'asperge: soupe froide de petits pois et menthe fraiche avec un flan de petits pois
La caille farcie avec une mousse d'asperge et asperges blanches frites
Un gratin de fraises de Pernes les Fontaines

The first thing we had to do in this well-organised but somehow relaxed restaurant kitchen, was debone the quails. Hugues made it look supremely simple. You plonk the deplumed quail on its stomach and remove the wings. Then you cut a fine line along its back. You hold the knife near the point and follow the bone down to the leg joint. Once you cut that, you turn the bird and do the same on the other side. A nip here and a tuck there and, with the chef's supervision, you have your quail ready to stuff. We made the farce and stuffed the birds, covered them with crépine (a delicate ivory-coloured film of sheep intestine which disappears in cooking), trussed them with string and then set them aside.

We turned our attention to the flan, the soup and the mousse. As we worked, Hugues gave us tips and explained various general principles about working with poultry, cutting vegetables, making meat and vegetable stock. I was pleased to see he worked in a very natural way - no fussy hairnets, no hygiene hysteria. We all washed our hands at every stage of cooking and Hugues washed the work surfaces down as we went along.

It was a hot sunny day, as the 7th of May often is, and a bunch of small kids were playing in the courtyard, peeking in through the kitchen window and giggling every so often.

We made so many lovely sauces and jus for the entrées, main course and dessert that my head was spinning after three hours. The last touch, the sabayon for the gratin de fraises, was simple given the wonderful effect in terms of taste. Throughout, our chef/teacher was relaxed, unhurried and supremely in control of processes and timing.

As it got near to one o'clock, I was a bit stunned to see customers coming in through the heavy old door, heading into the restaurant for lunch. The chef had spent 4 hours teaching us and timing our dishes and he had a restaurant full of customers to deal with too. We took our seats for an aperitif and were called back to the kitchen for the finition, or garnish, of each course.

Among us 'students' there was a local couple who were planning to replicate the entire meal for 6 friends that evening. Rather them than me!

There were a number of Americans lunching as ordinary customers and they asked why our table was different. They had waitress service. We kept vanishing into the kitchen and reappearing with our plates five minutes later. We explained the cooking course and Hugues, who has worked in England and America and speaks English, told them a bit about the preparation of each course.

It added so much interest to our meal, the fact that we'd prepared it ourselves (with quite a lot of guidance...) Foolish perhaps, but I think we all felt quite proud of our work. It gave a different perspective, too, to understand just how much talent, skill and hard work a chef puts into the preparation of a good 3 course meal. Somehow it made a very good lunch taste even better.

L'Auberge de la Camarette has space for just 30 diners and seems to rely on reputation and word of mouth locally for its business. The week before this cooking course I'd never heard of it. The owners do very little advertising and the vineyard is simply signed on the route out of Pernes by a tiny signpost.

It's a blissful spot though and well worth visiting whether you want to stay, dine there, take a cooking course, or all three. The website is:

The nearest towns are Pernes les Fontaines, Isle sur Sorgue and Carpentras. I'd really highly recommend the place.

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