As I swirled the hot pan, the generous knob of butter sizzled and skated across its surface. Just before it browned, I ladled in two beaten eggs which sizzled and spat as they hit the butter.
According to Julia, my timing was spot on."You should hear the eggs sizzle as they hit the pan," her distinctive, melodious voice instructed in the vintage French Chef video. Seconds later, after vigorously shaking the pan to fold the mixture over, the omelette was done.
"Then flip the pan upside down and onto the plate." As I turned my omelette out onto the green ceramic plate that looked suspiciously similar to those in her iconic TV series, a sense of wonderment washed over me.
Here I was in the South of France, in Julia Child's former kitchen learning her favorite way to make an omelette. For a lifelong foodie, it just doesn't get any better than that.
Our culinary mecca had taken us across the pond to La Pitchoune, Julia and Paul Child's home in the South of France where they spent many a blissful Summer sipping rosé and cooking "à la Provençale." They built the modest home, complete with stucco walls and a red tiled roof, in 1964 on the property of Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking co-author and dear friend, Simone Beck. The handshake deal between the friends specified that once the Childs were done using it, the home would revert back to Beck's husband's family.
The Childs decided to call their home La Pitchoune, or "The Little Thing" (also affectionately called "La Peetch") and it was a dream come true for both of them. Standing there in that hallowed kitchen, I certainly shared their sentiment.
While used for cooking classes over the years, La Pitchoune is currently under new ownership and home to The Courageous Cooking School where we were enrolled in its first official, week-long cooking retreat. The six of us students resided at La Peetch during that time (the house has three bedrooms, all with en suite bathrooms) and all of our cooking classes took place in its wonderful kitchen, still adorned with outlined pegboards, an array of copper pots and pans and other reminders of its past.
Our fearless leader for the week was the property's new owner and founder of The Courageous Cooking School, Makenna Held. A statuesque six feet tall, Held has a lot more in common with Child than just her height. Like Child, she is also an American-born Francophile and Smith alumna with a passion for the culinary arts and a dynamic drive. While only in her early thirties, the uber-accomplished Held already had an established career as a Business and LifeCoach prior to purchasing La Pitchoune with a group of investors.
Held did a remarkable job planning and executing our week long curriculum despite a few minor curve balls, including the unexpected, holiday weekend closure of the local épicerie and boulangerie which provide the ingredients for our cooking classes. Well accustomed to the nuances of life in rural France, Held made the experience feel more like an adventure than an inconvenience.
As we arrived at La Peetch on a sunny, Sunday afternoon, we were greeted with a glass of Champagne and a tour of the beautiful property. We quickly became acquainted with our classmates for the week, a fabulous group of Canadian gals, as we eagerly feasted on a mouthwatering, Provencal-inspired meal.
The spread included succulent, freshly shucked oysters; a trio of French cheeses; a divine charcuterie board featuring prosciutto, saucisson, French pepperoni, cornichons and tangy Dijon mustard; a duo of savory tapenades served with bright green, crunchy endive leaves; plump green and black olives marinated in olive oil and herbs; a delightful mixed green salad, and a loaf of crusty, country bread with oodles of heavenly French butter.
We washed the deliciousness down with a seemingly endless supply of Champagne and rosé. Needless to say, La Pitchoune had a certain je ne sais quoi that made The Miskews feel right at home!
Our cooking classes began bright and early each morning at 8:30am. In between our classes, we were treated to yoga classes, field trips to local purveyors and winemakers and, on our last full day, a fabulous, multi-course lunch at a local Michelin 2-star restaurant.
Day one began with the mastery of the aforementioned omelette which turned out deliciously well, although not the most perfect thing I've ever made. But that's what Julia was all about, after all - NO apologies, NO excuses!
And when finished with some additional butter and a generous sprinkle of chopped thyme, marjoram and parsley plucked straight from La Peetch's garden, it was so delicious it didn't matter that it didn't look perfect.
Our omelette lesson was followed by a lesson on knife skills taught by our two resident Chefs for the week, Dominie and Sandrine. We each took turns thinly slicing potatoes and layering them in a deep baking dish, seasoning generously between each layer with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.
The layered potatoes were then drenched in a fragrant, garlic-infused cream before being baked in the oven until golden brown and bubbly. The end result? Heavenly Potatoes Dauphinoise!
Next, we tackled a duo of tartares: salmon and steak to be exact. We continued to hone our knife skills by chopping each protein into small, lustrous cubes, although, that's essentially where the instruction ended. You see, The Courageous Cooking School doesn't focus on individual recipes per se. Rather, it promotes the mastery of techniques which can have many useful applications, as well as learning to trust your own taste.
The ingredients for both the salmon and steak tartares were set out for us to experiment with and guidance was readily available from our resident Chefs. In addition to knife skills, this exercise focused on layering flavors and textures and learning how they synergize with one another.
In the end, we each had a slightly different, yet delicious incarnation of these classic dishes which represented our own unique, individual styles. As someone who didn't like salmon prior to the trip, I was pretty much hooked after this class! I've already made our version of Salmon Tartare twice since we've been home (please see recipe below!).
A mid-afternoon yoga session was the perfect remedy for our weary, jet-lagged bodies after a long morning in the kitchen. Held, who's also a certified yoga instructor, led us on a 30 minute, non-intimidating session focused on relaxation, stretching and breathing. With my pre-existing orthopedic conditions, I was reluctant to participate but ultimately, VERY glad I did. It left me relaxed and back spasm free for the rest of the day!
And what better way to end one's day than with a trip to the local confiserie (aka candy shop)? The beautiful drive through the back country of Grasse to the small town of Gorges du Loup where the confiserie was located was a welcomed chance to bask in the sheer beauty of the day. The brilliant sun, verdant scenery and heavenly temperatures were true sensory ambrosia.
Located at the foot of a towering viaduct along the banks of a roaring river, Confiserie Florian was nothing short of enchanting. Founded in 1949, the confectionery welcomed us with charming, creamsicle colored walls and intricate wrought iron gates. The interior was also elegantly decorated with 17th and 18th century French antiques and beautifully patina-ed candy making equipment.
As the perfume capital of the world, Grasse is home to many fabulous fruits and flowers such as violets, roses, lemon verbena and clementines. Confiserie Florian transforms this bucolic bounty into its signature candied clementines, floral and fruit jams, as well as crystallized verbena leaves, violets and rose petals.
Our guided tour led us through the traditional, time intensive processes used to make many of these specialties. Our wonderful tour guide also allowed us to sample some of their offerings including the citrusy, minty crystallized verbena leaves; sweet, perfumey candied violets; and lightly sugared, fruit flavored bon bons.
That night back at La Pitchoune we happily enjoyed the fruits of the day's cooking classes as our dinner before falling into bed with visions of candied clementines dancing in our heads. Stay tuned for Postcards from La Pitchoune: Day 2!Print Recipe
“LA PITCHOUNE SALMON TARTARE”
Author: Stephanie Miskew | The Glamorous Gourmet
1 pound, skinless fresh salmon filet
Light, neutral flavored olive oil
1 teaspoon Dijon Mustard
2 Tablespoons chopped fresh chives
4 Tablespoons capers, roughly chopped
2 teaspoons caper brine (the liquid the capers come in)
¼ cup fennel, finely chopped
2 Tablespoons fresh dill, chopped
Juice & zest of 1 lemon
Sea Salt & freshly ground black pepper to taste
Chop raw salmon into ¼-inch dice and place into a medium sized mixing bowl.
Add all ingredients to diced salmon, stir well and adjust seasonings to taste.
Let mixture marinate in the fridge for at least 30 minutes and up to 3 hrs before serving.
When ready to serve, pack chilled mixture into a metal ring or ramekins, place ring or invert ramekin onto serving plate, garnish with fresh dill sprig and serve.