I have learned how to cut an olive in half.
I now know that in order to make pissaladière, a traditional and very popular French pizza-type dish, one sweats the onions, one does not brown them.
Adding olive oil to bread dough makes kneading much easier.
I have also learned that Spanish olive oil has more guts than French olive oil, but don’t tell anyone, particularly the French.
There is an art to cutting anchovies in half with scissors that I was not able to master.
Do not buy spices already ground. Buy them whole and then grind them to bring out the true flavor. But do not use anything other than a mortar and pestle made of lava stone.
These and other life and culinary lessons are gleaned from Madame Petra of the Pistou Cookery School in Uzès, France. Madame Petra is Petra Carter, a lively Irish woman, who has so far jammed several lifetimes into a single life.
Born in Indonesia, raised in Dublin, she speaks six languages, has managed tented safari camps in Kenya and Tanzania, has written restaurant reviews for the Irish Times, edited the food pages of the Irish Tatler, published her own food magazine, and now gives cooking classes in a kitchen hewn out of 16th century stones sitting upon Roman ruins.
There are readers of this blog who may raise eyebrows in surprise, unaware that the author’s interest in food extends much beyond the eating of it. Those eyebrow-raising skeptics might be onto something.
However, the author’s wife Kathy is a combination of passionate foodie and avid Francophile, and just about anything she wants to do turns out to be a lot of fun. Thus we have cooked with a chef in Barcelona, and attended the Ritz Escoffier School in the kitchens of the Hotel Ritz in Paris where I am a graduate, and where my tarte au abricot inspired such envy from my wife that she knocked it onto the floor. She claimed it was an accident. Ha!
In addition to allowing me to swagger around announcing to the disbelieving that I cooked at the Ritz and have a diploma to prove it, these classes are a great way to better know the place where you are eating. They provide a closer view of how the locals live, and invariably one meets unusually lively and entertaining people from all over the world.
Even better, after throwing myself on the mercy of the chef (“I promise you, I am the worst student you will ever have”), I usually don’t have to do much more than look interested, and enjoy a wonderful meal.
There are six of us present for Madame Petra’s class: Suzanne and Grant, a young couple from Sydney, Australia who have just married and are on their honeymoon; Traudl, from Salzburg, Austria; Kerstin from Germany who has lived in France for over thirty years; a couple of Canadians spending the month in Uzès.
As is usually the case, most of those present have more than a passing interest in food and its preparation. There is ordinarily only one outlier in the group.
“I will be the worst student you ever have,” I tell Madame Petra, repeating my usual mantra at the start of a cooking class. Madame Petra’s ready smile slips only briefly.
She then takes us through a basic course in preparing what she calls the little dishes of Provence. There will be nine in all, including the aforementioned pissaladière, where my ability to cut an olive in half came into play and which, I suspect, made me the envy of the class.
However, the dish also requires the cutting vertically in half of anchovies, a task I took one look at, panicked, and turned over to Kathy, who not only accomplished this with alacrity but also laid out the thinly cut anchovies in an attractive latticework pattern atop the pastry of the pissaladière.
I then swept in and added the half-cut olives, accompanied by gasps of admiration from my classmates.
Goat cheese was marinated in olive oil. Salted duck breast, a French delicacy that requires a lot of gros sel or sea salt and then must sit for two weeks (patience is required to be a Provençal cook, I learned).
Other dishes: moules pesquieres, a dressing made with sweet onion, green peppers, tomatoes, balsamic vinegar and fruity olive oil (Spanish, of course) that brings the taste of mussels to dramatic life; faisselle or fresh cheese, also traditionally French, served as a savory dish made with fresh herbs and crushed spices; and prawns flambéed in pastis.
Best of all were the figs. They are cut into quarters almost to their base, then pressed at the sides until they open up to allow for the insertion of a piece of goat cheese before being wrapped in thinly sliced dry-cured ham, drizzled with a lavender honey balsamic glaze, and warmed in the oven. Superb!
The price that must be paid for all this food preparation is, of course, the eating of it. When we finally sit down to lunch, Madame Petra, who also teaches a course in the stuff, brings out generous amounts of local red and white wine. Her smile loses a bit of its elasticity when she discovers that not only am I her worst student, but I also don’t drink alcohol, the sort of revelation that can get you run out of town in these parts.
Fortunately, there is no shortage of wine drinkers. The meal is, as we all suspected it would be, outstanding. But the best part—and this is true of any of the cooking courses I have encountered—is the delightful company. Everyone talks up a storm.
When it comes to lively and entertaining, Madame Petra certainly fills the bill. The story of how she met her current boyfriend is worth the price of admission: he was the one bachelor among twelve hanging out in the town square at Narbonne who had good teeth. She arranged a lunch, and invited these village bachelors. The only bachelor who didn’t attend was the guy she actually wanted to meet—the one with the good teeth. Undaunted, Petra made sure he came by later; they have been more or less together ever since.
By the time we finish the meal, accompanied by a desert of fresh peaches swimming in local muscat wine, and have gotten to know one another, it is nearing four o’clock in the afternoon.
In the glow of the end of a wonderful day with a charming, talented chef, everyone agrees that the highlight was the way in which the olives were cut in half.
I look suitably humble.
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