Thursday, November 18, 2010

A French Gourmet Adventure

Kathryn Ireland 's picturesque French farmhouse home set on fifty acres of farmland and pastures. The main house dates back to 1880.
A French Gourmet Adventure
By Ronda Carman (

There is no question that my impulse to travel is strong and ever growing. In part, the ability to travel throughout Europe played a key role in our decision to decamp from the US and call Scotland home.

When I am not dreaming of travel destinations, I am anxiously awaiting my next trip. There is little I relish more than renting a private home in some small village in Majorca or a wee Scottish town so that I can learn more about the local foods, beverages and customs. Maybe my family just has fantastic luck, but it seems that we always end up wishing we could call our latest destination home.

Perhaps the only thing I love more than discovering somewhere new on my own, is being invited to a friend’s home in a far-flung part of the world. The mere thought of temporarily residing in unfamiliar surroundings with people who actually know the local secrets and have embraced the local customs fills me with happiness.
Relaxing in one of the many hammocks was my much anticipated daily ritual.
I could not have been more delighted, then, when international interior and textile designer Kathryn M. Ireland invited me to southwest France in September. Shortly after meeting Kathryn, she declared in her wonderful British accent, “Darling! You must come to my home in France! It’s heaven!” She did not need to convince me, the one who suffers wanderlust, to make the journey. Who in their right mind passes up the opportunity to visit heaven on earth? Little did I know that she would be so right (it is heaven on earth) and that the trip would be so enchanting.

Kathryn’s picturesque farmhouse, La Castellane, is set on fifty acres of farmland with the southern view overlooking the Tescou Valley and, on clear days, Spain and the Pyrenees. La Castellane has long been available to friends and family, but most recently Kathryn partnered with Nikki Maxwell, Proprietor of Picnics in Provence, to widen the circle of guests and visitors. A passionate cook, world traveler and ardent Francophile, Nikki specializes in offering off the beaten track tours of France, complete with glorious food, bustling markets, beautiful vineyards, superb scenery and of course, delightful company. And, as the name of her company suggests, Provence has long been the main focus of Nikki's exclusive gastronomic explorations.
The beautiful blues and greens of Kathryn Ireland's home. Chef Daniel de la Falaise preparing our seafood extravaganza for an evening dinner.
Local rosé was a daily staple of our diet. Sheep cheeses. All of them made in the traditional artisanal way. And most importantly, from the milk of the same herd.
That was until she met Kathryn and traveled to the Tarn et Garonne region of southwest France. Convinced that Kathryn’s lovingly restored home was a perfect backdrop, Nikki painstakingly devised an eight-day getaway offering an insider’s rambling through southern French country markets, vineyards and out of the way restaurants.

After a short flight to Toulouse, I made my way to La Castellane with British fabric designer Hugh St. Clair. As we journeyed through the tranquil French countryside our stress levels melted away with each kilometre. Once established at La Castellane, our first evening began with local, pale pink rosé on the terrace and a multitude of canapés, including crudités with basil aioli, foie gras and quail eggs with fennel flower salt. The night was improved on only by a candlelit dinner in Kathryn’s refurbished Dutch barn. It takes only one evening in the charming barn to see why Vogue Living magazine called it “one of the 100 most beautiful outdoor rooms in the world."
Kathrynʼs fabrics made for perfect pillows at
our lakeside picnic.
Fabric designer Hugh St. Clair.
Above: "le garde-manger de la falaise" Daniel’s own flavored oils crafted from the Tuscan olive oils of his Godfather Giuseppe Maria Sesti. Right: Daniel prefers to serve a young cheese alongside a blue cheese and an aged full flavor hard cheese.
A working lunch. The shaded cabana proved to be an ideal spot for napping. Who doesn't love an outdoor bed in warm weather?
As a self-proclaimed lover of food I was elated to this learn that Chef Daniel de la Falaise was the man responsible for our gastronomic evening. But more importantly, that we were going to be in his epicurean care of for a week. The grandson of celebrated fashion model and food writer Maxime de la Falaise, Daniel, much like his beloved grandmother, is a passionate cook. A food purist, everything he prepares is fresh, locally sourced and without extraneous or unnecessary elements.

While Daniel trained at his great-uncle Mark Birley’s Harry’s Bar in London under Alberica Penati, and later launched George Club, he now lives in France where he keeps an extensive vegetable and herb garden and works solely as a private chef.

Our first dinner far surpassed expectations, and served to whet my appetite for the days to come. And while our meals still remain fixed in my memory, our tour of the local market with Daniel as tour guide was a highlight of the trip. At market, amongst the rabbits, live chickens and local produce, we gathered all the ingredients for a private, hands-on cooking class, complete with the preparation of my favorite food—soup.
Starting our market tour with Daniel. Rabbits at market. Sadly, I donʼt think they went home as pets.
Beautiful bread.
Fresh flowers at every turn.
As most people know, with any good soup you must start with a good broth. Much to my surprise, Daniel’s recipe for broth solely comprised chicken and mineral water! Where were the onions, garlic and salt? I was skeptical. In fact, I told Daniel as much. But, once he painstakingly prepared his broth I also had to concede the flavor was amazing, well beyond what I could have imagined (hence the reason I was not the chef for the week).

So why was the broth so flavorful? The most obvious reason is the better the chicken, the better the broth. But I also learned that you should remove all skin to achieve a rich essence. Another important step is to cover the chicken in mineral water, not tap. Mineral water imparts a clean, pure flavor. But most importantly, according to Daniel, broths are to be simmered gently, with bubbles just breaking the surface. NEVER boil.
Left: Daniel making the chicken stock for carrot tarragon soup.

Above: Generous branches of tarragon infuse in an oil.
Soup. Glorious soup. Happy and satisfied. Food for the soul.
Each day proved to be a culinary and cultural adventure in some small way. Discovering, tasting and experiencing, while trying to understand the local flavor and history all heighted my appreciation for the region. From touring neighboring vineyards, sipping coffee at hilltops cafes, picking fresh figs for breakfast to feeding the horses apples straight from the orchard and 'putting the chickens to bed' at night, I was transported to a state of happiness, even if for a brief moment in time.

But perhaps no day was as memorable as the lakeside picnic at Daniel’s remote home. Sitting by the secluded lake, surrounded by happy faces, artisanal foods, local wine and the warmth of the sun above me, I felt as if I were a million miles from nowhere.
Dorade Royale caught off the Vendée coast.
A fresh fig right off the tree. Rounding up the chickens and putting them to bed.
Another wonderful day comes to an end. I am counting the days until I return. The lovely Nikki Maxwell, founder of Picnics in Provence.
Our first course of regional cheeses had everyone begging like children for candy long after the plates were cleared. Roquefort made from sheep milk and the La brique de Ségala crafted by the Marty family at Laparrouquial in Aveyron were like no other I have ever tasted.

Third generation sheep cheese makers, Daniel has been buying from the Marty family in local markets ever since “the first morsel passed his lips” years ago. The family has a flock of 800 sheep that graze on their pasture from February until November.
Overlooking the Tescou Valley.
Robert and Bernard Plageoles are perhaps the most renowned producers in Gaillac. The family is committed to using Gaillac's obscure varietals and producing high quality organic wines.
During the winter they are fed home grown hay and cereals to ensure exceptional flavor and quality. As we learned, the magic of their production is the subtle variation of flavor across the year. Just as the characteristic of pasture varies throughout the seasons, so does the flavor of milk and consequently that of the cheeses. 

Just one more pearl of wisdom I garnered during my stay. A week of learning, waking to the sounds of crowing roosters each day (no alarm clock), streams of sunlight flooding my room, glorious breakfasts, friendly faces and our cherished lakeside picnic, all proved Kathryn correct. La Castellane truly is magical.

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