It's nearly Christmas and in Provence that inevitably means thinking about food over the Christmas weekend. This year I was lucky enough to have a friend offer me a cookery class at the fairly sublime Auberge de la Camarette, just outside Pernes-les-Fontaines in the Vaucluse, as a Christmas present. La Camarette seems to be a bit of a secret around here - it's excellent and almost always fully booked and yet I've mentioned it to a number of people - even a couple of Provençal chefs - who don't know the place. It's set in its own large vineyard, in a former medieval silk farm, with a lovely view of Mont Ventoux - and fabulous, light, well-judged cuisine. The set menu each day uses the best local produce and wine from the vineyard is included in the 32 euro 3-course menu. No wonder the place is always booked out - it offers just about the best value in Provence.
The last time my friend and I went to cook with the talented young chef, Hugo, in May, we made stuffed quails with velouté d'asperges as an entrée. This time we made foie gras, brioches and pineapple chutney. At each stage, Hugo demonstrates what needs to be done and then helps you realise the dish. The first thing to do with the foie gras (duck, not goose, in this case) was to open the foie, trace the nerves delicately with your fingers and lift them out. Then you season the foie using black pepper, salt, a prune liqueur and cognac. (There are several different alcohols that work well depending on your taste, including muscat.)
Then we put the foie into terrines, compressed them to force air out and put them in the fridge to rest. We started on the brioches, making the pate for customers who'd dine at the Camarette during the evening. As the pate needs to rest for hours, Hugo had made our brioche pate the evening before. It was simply made with flour, yeast, water, eggs, salt and a touch of sugar. A mound of butter was then added and the mixture was left to rise. We took the dough that was already risen and rolled it on a floured surface to make round brioches which we packed in aluminium cases and put in the oven.
The fois gras was then cooked in a bain marie for around 20 minutes.
While the brioches and foie gras were cooking, Hugo made a pineapple chutney explaining the possible variations. He used fresh diced pineapple, fresh chopped ginger, raw cane sugar, wine vinegar and garlic cloves. (The garlic was left whole, just to lightly flavour the chutney, and then removed.) The result, once he had made the mixture meld and brought the flavours out, was delicious.
Now, everything stopped for a while to make a fuss of Hugo's small son who came trundling into the kitchen holding a cane far taller than he was. He announced that he wanted to see daddy and had a bit of a chat with everyone, then beetled off outside again. Hugo gave us an update on the progress of his baby daughter who is now five months old and the image of her mum.
The terrines of foie gras were now taken from the bain marie and we put weights on them to force out the melted fat. This needs to be melted on a low heat and then poured back on to the terrine to solidify. The dish can be kept for up to two weeks in a fridge but the five of us who were cooking today planned to serve it over Christmas.
The brioches came out of the oven. Hugo glazed them quickly with a little of the duck fat on a brush. He cut one brioche which we all tasted. Heaven. It was subtly flavoured and very light.
Throughout the morning, we learnt a hundred and one cooking tips as we went. Hugo is a terrific teacher as well as a terrific chef. At noon, as we worked, he served the Camarette's lovely apéro epicé - rosé or rouge as you prefer. And the kitchen, which had seen three dishes made by six people over four hours, looked as pristine as it had done at 9am.
Hugo is a very talented young chef who can teach while he cooks, help others cook all morning and then cope with a restaurant full of diners at lunchtime and in the evening. Somehow, he does it as if it's an effortless exercise!
The Camarette is rather hidden away just outside Pernes-les-Fontaines, but well worth finding. The vineyard's wine is pretty decent but the real show is the restaurant and the food. The cookery classes are really good fun and informative and make a great present for yourself or a friend, or both. Here's the website, below, if you feel like spoiling yourself while you're in the Vaucluse - at 32 euros all in for an evening meal, the value really couldn't be better.
www.domaine-camarette.com or tel.: 04 90 61 60 78.
The Camarette has rooms available too, by the way, but I don't really want to recommend them as I have a lovely apartment to rent out at my place near L'Isle-sur-Sorgue!