Monday, March 14, 2011


Those of you who know me well know I love to bake. OK, I don’t do it very often in Dubai (have you seen my impractical kitchen? Or my waistline?), but there’s nothing more relaxing than getting out the butter and sugar and whipping something up. And is there anything like the smell of vanilla to lighten a gloomy day?

In Dubai, we do have something in the way of a cooking school: L’Atelier des Chefs at the Meridien has general classes with a slightly French bias, and Chef Gregory gives the occasional pastry class. They’re good fun, but if you are sharing a class with others there’s only so much hands-on you get to do… plus he has prepped everything in advance, so you don’t actually feel as if you’ve done it all yourself. For some things the pre-prep is necessary—the macaron class was only two hours, and it takes longer than that start-to-finish to make three different kinds of macaron. So we made fillings, for example, but some of the fillings we actually ate had been made beforehand. So although I enjoy Gregory’s classes, I’ve done pretty much all of his pastry classes, and it was time for The Big Time.
So I had been searching and searching for a class I could do – about a week long—on my spring vacation. I had planned to do it in Italy, Vienna or maybe Budapest, since they all have excellent pastry traditions; France I shied away from since I speak about six words of French and none of them intelligibly.

Internet searches got me nowhere. Everything was either touring/wine tasting with a casual class thrown in, or going to full-fledged professional pastry school – way, way above my skill, budget and timeframe. Le Cordon Bleu may be very nice, but not at all what I wanted—or indeed, could handle. Scary chefs in toques barking at me in French? I don’t think so.
I was going to settle for a pizza course in Rome or maybe a gelato course in Sorrento when, two days before I HAD to make a decision, the website where I’d found these courses (GoLearnTo) sent me an email saying there was a new pastry course in Bordeaux. It didn’t sound too, too scary-chefs-in-toques – they said I could be taught in English and I really, really wanted to do pastry, so I contacted them. Back and forth over email, then a phone call – they couldn’t take me right after the wedding in Barcelona, but would 9th-13th work? Sure--why not? I figured I could hang out in Paris for a few days. Sign me up.

And that’s how I found myself at a country inn in France, up to my elbows in patisserie.

Le Gargantua is absolutely charming. It’s an 1850’s stone built farmhouse about an hour out of Bordeaux, and chef Marlene and her English husband Marc restored it and built an inn/cooking school out of the barns. They live in the house with their two delightful little girls, a cat on the prowl for tidbits, and the quietest dog I’ve ever met. The rooms are all exposed stone and wooden beams, and very comfortable. The inn’s restaurant is en famille, which means we ate whatever menu was being prepared and everyone sat together – apparently typical at country inns , but a challenge for me, since my French is those six words and my fellow diners (except for the Spanish teacher) didn’t speak English. (Though one evening, they spoke to me in French and I answered in a mix of Italian and English, so we did all right.) However, Marc and/or Marlene generally joined us for dessert at least and they kept conversation going and translated where necessary. Marc did most of the day-to-day cooking, and I would say it’s a brave Englishman who will cook in France, but his food was superb! Parsnips? Cauliflower? Pate? Goat cheese? Quiche? ME?? But the pureed vegetable soup I got for lunch one day was absolutely delicious, as was the cauliflower and potato soup we had for a starter one night. I even gladly ate the goat cheese and honey salad, and asked for the recipe. (My Goat will love this). I would hold up any of the meals I had here against anything produced by the scary-chefs-in-toques in Paris. Pork with prunes, Toulouse sausage and endive, onion tart, daube en croute, duck l’orange with potatoes and broccoli (!), and on and on… French country food is lovely.

And the pastry? Ooh la la! Marlene called me before the class to ask if there was anything I particularly wanted to work on. I’m not a rank beginner, but I’ve always felt hopeless with a pastry bag and nothing I make is ever ‘pretty’, although it tastes good. So, of course, she designed my classes around pastry bags (Religieuse au chocolat and Paris-Brest) and doing things that were pretty (mille feuille, white & dark chocolate mousse cake, etc). And – quelle horreur!—she told me that the results of my class would be served in the restaurant that night. Nothing like knowing you are going to have scary French people eat your French desserts to make you pay very close attention to what you’re doing!

And I did pay attention. And took copious notes. Not that anything was actually that difficult in the end. So far from the scary-chefs-in-toques I was dreading, cooking with Marlene was like cooking with a good friend who knows lots more than you do and is willing to share all the secrets. Is the mousse for the bavarois aux fraises a little bland? Easy to fix: put a scoop in another bowl, add a flavoring, mix it in well, and then fold that back into the main mousse. Egg whites won’t whip up enough? A bit of lemon juice does the trick. She showed me all those things that books never tell you which can only be learned by experience. And did I get experience!

In four days of cooking, I made eight complete recipes. The first day we had a tasting from a professional bakery, so I would know what the finished products should look and taste like, followed by my first cooking session (pate choux), but the other days had two sessions each (though we ditched Tarte Tatin so I could go shopping for supplies to take back to Dubai). I came to cook, and we cooked! And I learned so much. The choices Marlene made when designing my course gave me a broad range of techniques to work on. Although I had had some experience of most of the techniques, Marlene could tell me how and why something worked (or wouldn’t work) and let me in on those little secrets that make such a difference. And doing all the fiddly bits of putting it all together is what really made it shine. I did the work (she mostly supervised and measured, and demonstrated new techniques before handing it back over to me), so I could look at the lovely results and think “I did that…and I know how it all works now so I can do it again.”

And as you can see by the pictures, I think it was a roaring a success! I got honest to goodness compliments all round, and some of the inn’s customers actually had seconds on dessert. Maybe I couldn't understand all the words, but I could see the smiles. I had a super time, and am leaving with a lot more confidence in my cooking than I started with. Now if I practice up on these skills, maybe next year I can get Marlene to teach me sugar skills. From cream puffs to Croquemboche with cracked caramel... Mmmmmm...

Thursday, March 10, 2011


Being a language teacher, I should be good at foreign languages, one would think. I’ve lived nearly half my life in non-English speaking countries and have visited countless more – surely I’d pick up languages easily, right?

Wrong. I’m hopeless. But, being a language teacher, I generally manage to communicate pretty well, even if I have little or no common language with my interlocutor. As long as everyone is willing to try, I usually do all right.

So I’ve been in France for the past few days, and struggling along with bits of the language, but even when I thought I was doing all right with the words, the communication hasn’t always been there. For example, when the hotel clerk told me that getting to Montparnasse was “Tres easy. A few minutes by metro,” it was logical for me to think ‘a few minutes’ was 10 or 15, wasn’t it? When I got there 40 minutes later and 10 minutes after my train had left, I looked around at the vast number of confusing directional signs and managed to follow one that seemed to point to the information window. “Bon Jour, Madame” says I “Parlez vous Anglais?” “Un peu,” quoth she. Oh good. So I started speaking, then realized a few seconds later that I was not actually communicating anything to her. So I tried again. I pointed to my reservation time, made a sad face, and shrugged a Gallic “what to do?” shrug at her. She understood, and fixed me up with the next train to Bordeaux. “Merci.”

From Bordeaux, I had to catch the 16:14 to Tonneins, an hour down the line. This meant another ticket. Following signs similar to the ones that had worked for me at Montparnasse, I dragged my suitcase up a flight of stairs and found another clerk in another window. “Bon Jour, Madame. Parlez vous Anglais?” “Un peu”. Uh-huh. Here we go again. This one spoke enough English to tell me it was not her desk. I must go “Left, and how you say? Under?” “Downstairs?” “Oui, don der stairs for billet.” “Merci.”

So I dragged the suitcase back down the flight of stairs I had just dragged it up and looked for “billet”. Found an arrow. Went that way. Dead end. Went back. Saw another sign: “Information. Billet” in the other direction. Followed that. And found a machine. In French.

OK, I thought, I can do this. It’s logical. Ticket machines all work the same way. And indeed it did. Until I got to the payment part. Fifteen euro. Fine. Out comes my trusty Visa card, in it goes and I’m told to take it out again. OK. Then a violent stream of French words flashes across the screen and I’m told I have one minute (I think). For what? I quickly enter my PIN. Nothing. It bounces me back to the entry screen. No ticket. Did it charge my card? I wait for the telephone bleep from HSBC. Nothing. I try again. Same story. I try it in a different direction. Nope. I try my gold MC, and then my US Visa. Nothing. Great. Bloody machine won’t take my foreign credit cards. Merci.

Cash? Ha! Coins only. Who carries 15 euro around in change? I could not face dragging that suitcase back up the stairs to try to find some change, so I left the building and walked up the ramp and saw a little luncheonette across the street. Great. Maybe he’ll have change. “Bon jour, Monsieur. Parlez vous Anglais?” “Un peu.” Super. “I’m trying to buy a ticket in that machine but…” No communication here, either. So I get out my wallet and change purse, point to the station and myself and say “ I want to buy une billet, but…” “No, no. No billet” “Oui, oui – non! Ummmm….” Embarrassed giggle. Deep breath. On with the pantomime. I start pointing at the station: “Une billet pour moi. Machine pour billet. Oui. Euro fifteen -- quinze – But…” and I pulled out my charge cards “Etats Unis Visa – non! Etats unis MC –Non!” And I tugged my hair and made that frustrated growling sound you do. He laughed. I pulled out a ten and a five. “Euro quinze –non!” And then held up and shook my change purse “Euro quinze -- Oui!” And then spilled my measly three and a half euro in change onto his counter. “Euro trois.” Sad face, plus Gallic shrug; then breaking into English: “It only takes coins and I don’t have enough. Can you change this?” and I held up the bills with a bit more of that very useful sad face. He (and by now his buddies who had gathered around) grinned broadly at the lunatic, but took my bills and came back with a handful of coins. “Merci!! Merci monsieur, tres gentile – you are very kind.” And my suitcase and I trotted back to the station. I waved. “Merci!”

I poured my change into that foul, xenophobic ticket machine (and did an air punch, since I knew they were watching), grabbed my precious ticket, and proceeded to drag my bag back up the stairs to look for the train. I went past the first desk I’d asked at and learned yet again that language does not always mean communication, and “Un peu Anglais” should never be trusted. Because had I turned RIGHT out of the office instead of left, I would have eventually run smack into the main part of the station, with a lovely escalator to take me and my bag downstairs to a ticket plaza, complete with real people selling tickets from booths, two of which had British flags displayed in their windows – which is French for “I speak more English than just un peu.”


Tuesday, March 08, 2011


There seems to be a new thing in thievery in Paris these days. I was walking in the Place du Concorde and not once but TWICE someone pretended to have picked up something valuable from the street and insist that I had dropped it. One was (I think) an earring and the other was a gold ring. I didn’t stop for the first person (I was on the phone) but the second managed to engage me long enough for me to see she earnestly felt that the ring she'd “found” should be mine. She seemed surprised that I didn’t claim it. For the few seconds we were talking, I was looking for her accomplice and wondering why I looked like an easy mark – my bag was across my chest and underneath my coat, and I was resting one hand through the upper loop of it. Perhaps it was my big, breezy coat that looked easy to search through? There was nothing in my pockets anyway. And I did not see anyone near us, either, so I’m not quite sure what her game was. Perhaps the trick was to hope a greedy person took the bait and then loudly complain to the police that she’d been robbed, maybe ‘proving’ the ring was hers by an inscription in it? I have no idea what it was all about.

Still, my amble through the pricey district of Paris was amusing. I kept looking in the windows of the jewelry stores and designer boutiques on the Champs Elysee and thinking “the price of that watch would fund my entire Japanese bath in the Cyprus house” or “I could have hand-made kitchen cabinets for the cost of that rather ugly ring” or “Who would spend that kind of money on a trendy coat that will last a season when the same amount could put in an entire orange grove that will last years?” I somehow seem to have acquired distinctly middle-aged values somewhere along the way.

Even so, there is no place like Paris for sheer indulgence. In my perambulations about town, I have been making a minor study of patisseries and Salons de Thè in preparation for the course I’m about to embark on tomorrow. I have decided that I could never tire of eating macarons or brioche, though the very pretty chocolate desserts are frankly too rich for me. Pastry cream, praline and fruit seem to be much more the thing. And of course I’ve had both brioche and croissant everyday for breakfast this week. Delightful. But in peering through café windows around town, I was amazed to see how many seemed to offer tarte tatin and crème brulee as the only sweets on the menu. And the desserts and pastries some displayed next to their several-thousand-dollar barista machines weren’t even tempting to look at through the windows. I can’t understand how so many in a city renowned for its desserts can have such world-weary offerings. Paul, which is a café chain (!) had some lovely things, and tea at Dalloyau was indeed splendid. But elsewhere? Disappointingly mediocre.

I am interested to see what the Chef has planned for me this week. I left the content of the course up to her, though I did mention that mille feuilles would be nice to be able to make. I just want some time in the kitchen with someone who really knows how it all works and can give me a good foundation to go on and create on my own. Pastry is so very delicious to work with, and though I’m not supposed to eat it, I can always give it away. My colleagues will be very glad of a Cake Fairy in the staff room, I have no doubt. Meanwhile, the Musee d’Orsay and the tea rooms of the Left Bank await my last day in Paris. À bientôt.
eXTReMe Tracker