My husband has given me a new nickname: Femme Brulee.
That’s me: The woman who went all the way to France to cook dinner, and managed to set herself on fire.
After he flung a glass of dishwater on me and surveyed my scorched scarf and ruined shirt, Wayne asked if I was going to change clothes.
“In a minute,” I said. “I need to get this last course in the oven.”
He shook his head and laughed.
“No one can say you aren’t burning with the desire to cook,” he said.
Some people think “vacation” and picture beaches, mountains or umbrella-drink resorts. Me, I think of food. In December, when we decided we were overdue for a really good family trip for our son’s college graduation, we sifted brochures, scrolled travel websites and quizzed well-traveled friends.
Eighteen years ago, we had gone to Paris and fallen in love with the city. But I had always wanted to see more of France – the place where Julia Child learned to cook, where Peter Mayle wrote “A Year in Provence,” where the cheeses are fresh and wine is born.
We knew what kind of trip we didn’t want: A group of strangers, a different hotel every night and someone with a microphone waving at sights through the window of a tour bus. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of travel, but it wasn’t for us.
One midwinter night, my husband asked what I did want.
“I want to go to a village market, buy food and cook it,” I said.
We picked Provence, the area of southern France revered for locally grown food and village life, and we hit the website VRBO – Vacation Rentals By Owner, an endless list of apartments and houses. We skipped farm houses (too isolated) and big towns (too much traffic). We made a list of small towns big enough to have shops and restaurants: Gordes, Apt, Orange, Menerbes, Lacoste, Roussillon.
In January, we found a link too intriguing to ignore: An apartment in a 12th-century castle in Bonnieux (bon-YOU), a steep hillside village with a population of about 1,400 people in the agricultural Luberon Valley, an hour east of Avignon and 450 miles south of Paris.
Seriously, 12th century? We emailed the owners and were assured: Yes, and it has a kitchen, for about $180 a night. We crossed our fingers and rented it for four days in May, part of a two-week trip that would include Avignon, Dijon and Paris.
At play in the land of food
In the years after Julia Child and her co-authors published “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in 1961, fresh food was a revelation to many Americans. We were a processed-cheese nation, and food lovers who went to France had their worlds widened.
These days, food in America has grown up. Many of us live a food life that is at least a little French-inspired: We shop more often at farmers markets, get harvest subscriptions and cook locally raised ingredients. We know crusty, fresh bread and appreciate good olive oil.
But there are still revelations in the home of the food revolution. Driving our rental car east from Avignon, it was hard to tear my eyes from the fields to focus on the road. “Terroir” is a French term that means things taste of the place they are grown. Traveling through France, I kept thinking that the way a place looks also tells you what its people value. Good fields mean good food, and this is a countryside of good fields.
Stopping at a roadside stand, I picked up a Cavaillon melon, a small cantaloupe grown nearby. It smelled floral and sweet, begging to be eaten. We got Carpentras strawberries, half the size of American strawberries and twice as sweet, and cherries from the fruit-loaded orchards we were passing.
In Bonnieux, our apartment was as old and picturesque as promised – with stone floors, stone walls and vaulted stone ceilings, it looked like a movie set from “The Three Musketeers.” The view from the terrace, perched halfway up the steep village, was like something from a storybook – poppy fields, vineyards and orchards ringed by lush mountains. The promised kitchen was small but adequate.
And then, I met the “feu.” Feu is a French word for fire, and it’s slang for a stove. If I spoke the language better, I might have known to beware – it also sounds like the French word “fou,” which means crazy. This crazy feu was at least 30 years old, fueled by a propane tank under the sink. The tiny oven roared like a jet engine and the three burners, topped with thin metal racks, apparently only had two settings – high and off.
Did that stop me? Au contraire, mes amis. I had flown almost 5,000 miles to cook.
Food shop until you drop
For three days, we crisscrossed the Luberon Valley, going to winery tasting rooms (pull into any dusty driveway with the sign “ouvert,” for open), lavender honey farms, olive oil mills and village markets. We bought olives, saucissons (cured sausages), melons (oh, those melons) and cheeses for roadside picnics.
Early each morning, I walked two steep blocks to the boulangerie, where the doors open early to send the aroma of fresh bread into the corkscrew of streets. And I made a plan for a home-cooked dinner: A small pork roast from the local butcher, coated with bread crumbs and mustard. A bottle of wine from a local winery. Toasted baguette slices topped with fresh cheese. Sugar-snap peas and potatoes flavored with garlic from the village market in Lacoste across the valley, where the lights shine every night on the ruins of the Marquis de Sade’s castle. (There’s a Sade Cafe named in his honor – don’t order anything whipped.)
As I cooked that night, it was getting chilly on our stone terrace. So I tossed a scarf around my neck and ducked into the kitchen to check the roast. Spying the cherries, I had a quick inspiration: Cherry sauce for the pork.
I pitted a couple of cups of cherries, tossed them in a saucepan with sugar and water and put them on the stove to reduce. Pulling the roast from the oven, I added the cooking juices to the sauce and looked around for something to deglaze the hot roasting pan: A little bourbon, from the stash my husband had packed along.
Good idea. But I wasn’t thinking about how small the room was and how strong the fumes would be. Suddenly, I was holding a roasting pan of flames, with no lid to put it out.
There are times when our thoughts go in slow motion. Here’s how mine went: Flames. Pan. Oh – scarf fringe. (And before I get a few hundred emails, you’re right – you should never cook in a scarf.)
Luckily, my husband’s thoughts went faster: Wife. Flames. Water. He tossed his pre-dinner cocktail in the sink, dipped his glass in the soapy dishwater and gave me a douse. I finished what I was doing, putting slices of baguette in the empty roasting pan to toast, then changed my clothes and served dinner.
We ate slowly, savoring the flavors and the view over the valley that had produced our food, happy to be where we were, safe and only a little singed.
I like to think that somewhere, Julia Child was raising a glass. And dousing me.
Food discoveries in today’s France
Yogurt. Yes, America has come a long way on better yogurt (thank you, Greece). But France still does it better. At one hotel, the owner made fresh yogurt for breakfast. In stores, even Nestle sells La Laitiere – natural yogurt made with whole milk. Drizzle it with lavender honey.
Olives. Provence is close to the Mediterranean, and olives aren’t just for oil. Almost every outdoor market has an olive dealer, and usually a half-dozen varieties of tapenade. Even in Paris, every cafe and brasserie presents a little dish of olives as soon as you sit down.
Prepared foods. You don’t have to cook to eat well. Every market and bakery sells slices of savory tarts, terrines and pissaladiere, square slices of pizza, that you can take home to warm up.
Market tricks: Villages hold their markets on different days, and it’s easy to find schedules. Take euros (particularly 1E and 2E coins) and your own baskets or bags. Most French stores charge a little for bags, but sturdy straw bags with leather handles are sold in most markets and make great souvenirs.
Try the wine: In some wine regions, particularly Burgundy, you need connections and appointments to tour wineries. But in the Luberon, most wineries are farms, with tasting rooms that welcome visitors. Just watch for the “ouvert” sign (for “open”). They’ll pour as long as you want to taste and usually don’t charge for samples.
Want to take a class? Our schedule didn’t allow time, but if you want a home-based cooking lesson, try Cuisine de Provence in Vaison la Romaine. Owner Barbara Schuerenberg teaches half-day classes for 2-4 people for about $89. www.cuisinedeprovence.com.
Want more help? Cathy and Charley Wood of Tennessee live in Bonnieux part of the year, where they operate a tour company, The Luberon Experience. They’re booked for 2015, but their website is useful for local information and links: www.luberonexperience.com.
Far Breton Cake
A cross between a custard and a cake with a dense texture, this simple, homemade cake originated in Brittany and is often served at breakfast. We encountered several versions, from a savory style with cheese to the more familiar sweet version with prunes. From www.davidlebovitz.com.
10 ounces (about 2 cups) pitted prunes
1/3 cup Armagnac, cognac or brandy (see note)
2 cups whole milk
2 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup melted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
Warm the prunes with the liquor (or sugar syrup) over medium-low heat, stirring a few times, until the liquid is absorbed. Cover, remove from heat and cool.
Put the milk, eggs, yolks, sugar, melted butter, vanilla, salt and flour in a blender. Blend until smooth. Refrigerate the batter at least 4 hours, or overnight.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Generously butter the bottom and sides of a 13-by-9-inch baking pan or ovenproof baking dish. Dust with flour and tap out the excess. Scatter the soaked prunes over the bottom of the baking dish.
Stir the chilled batter a few times, then pour it over the prunes. Bake 45 to 50 minutes, until the top is lightly browned. Cool completely, then slice into squares. Can be refrigerated up to 3 days. Serve at room temperature.
Note: If you don’t want to use alcohol, bring 1 cup of water to a boil, stir in 1/2 cup sugar and add the prunes. Remove from heat and soak about 30 minutes to soften them.
Yield: About 8 servings.
Croque Monsieur With Bechamel
Bechamel is one of the easiest French sauces to make, and it’s essential for a great Croque Monsieur, the ham and cheese sandwich. From “My Paris Kitchen,” by David Lebovitz.
1 tablespoon butter, plus 4 tablespoons melted butter
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
3/4 cup whole or reduced-fat milk, divided
Pinch of salt and cayenne pepper
4 slices sourdough or country-style bread
4 slices proscuitto or thinly sliced Black Forest ham
2 thin slices Comte or Gruyere cheese
3/4 cup coarsely grated Comte or Gruyere
Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the flour and cook, whisking or stirring often, for 1 minute. Whisk in 1/4 cup milk, stirring to smooth out lumps, then whisk in the remaining milk. Cook about 1 minute, until the bechamel is thick and creamy, like thin mayonnaise. Remove from heat and stir in the salt and cayenne. Set aside to cool a bit.
Spread the bechamel over four slices of bread. Top 2 slices of bread with ham, slices of cheese and remaining ham. Top with the remaining coated bread, bechamel-side down. Brush each sandwich well with melted butter.
Heat a broiler and place a large skillet or grill pan over medium-high heat. Place the sandwiches in the pan and drape a piece of foil over the top. Place a heavy skillet or flat object on top and cooking until the bottom of each sandwich is brown, removing the weight and turning the sandwiches to brown both sides.
Remove the weight and foil and strew grated cheese over the top. Broil until the cheese melts. Cut in half to serve.
Yield: 2 servings.