Gastronomicom et Cap d’Agde part Deux

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We had our first French test last week, and most survived – although, the instructor was fairly forgiving of our cryptic frenglish.  Some students have dropped off the edge.  Many rumors have surfaced, but like the stories of the supposed stalking burglar in the complex, no one really has all the facts.  Apparently the programs offered here aren’t for everyone, but it’s a shame those details weren’t sorted out prior to them signing up, paying tuition, and travelling all the way to France!


We’re all still bumbling along in the kitchens as well.  I blame the chef (he’s not here) because as everyone knows, they are unpredictable at best.  To be honest, so far chef has had the patience of Gandhi.  There was only one time last week where I saw him lose it when some younger students were acting up.  I kinda missed the crux of it, but it was clear he’d had enough.  We had one assignment in cuisine where we were meant to implement the techniques we learned thus far with the ingredients for Boeuf Bourguignon.  “Allez, allez!” Chef said.  We stared at him blankly.   Without our handholding instructions, we were like frightened deer in the headlights.  Slowly it clicked that we did actually know some stuff already…but now we had to make boeuf bourguignon, well, pretty.  This is normally a very rustic looking dish.  And to make it even more challenging we had to use beef tongue in place of the usual cuts, red wine, lardons and mushrooms.  Other ingredients could be added, but the dish needed to taste like boeuf bourguignon in the end.   Some student balked at even being in the same room with a giant mammalian tongue wagging on the table.  And after cooking it for 24 hours until reaching a lovely shade of grey, skinning it and lastly the chef slicing it up with a fervor, seriously pushed some culinary envelopes.


I was teamed with G-how from Malaysia.  He’s a good guy, and handy in the kitchen but he did have his own plan and insisted on trying to do everything, and of course is ESL.  Well, after our trials and tribulations I suggested we do tongue ‘Carpaccio’ and mash potatoes with duxelles and red wine sauce.  It came out fairly monochromatic on the plate, and I’m not sure I would serve it outside our little kitchen, but Chef gave us the ok during presentation so we took that as a good sign!


Currently we have a break for what is meant to be spring, however it’s raining, windy and about 50f. So Steve and I are huddled in blankets planning a trip to nearby Avignon.  It is supposed to be a lovely little city, full of history and hopefully sunshine.  We’ll let you know if our travel plans prevail!  Until then…

Oui! Gastronomicom!


It’s our 3rd week here at Gastronomicom in southern France, and I think we’re finally getting a handle on the overall operations.  Upon arrival a student takes a French test to determine their fluency and then placed in a group according to their ability.  The range is basically from butcher to almost fluent; I fall into the former.  Students have 3 hours of French sometime in the day and then usually 3 hours of either Cuisine (savory cooking) or Pastry (breads and sweets), or Sommelier (wine appreciation and drinking heavily).

Although, some people have opted out of French and taken up another course that they originally were not signed up for.   My new friends Trudy and Kyle have done just that, where Trudy was originally in pastry and now has added cuisine after dropping French, and her husband who was just in cuisine has now also added pastry….so now they’re a mad cooking duo, making delicious meals with beautiful dessert to boot!   I see a potential weight problem forming there, so I’ll stick with my original plan of cuisine and French.

It’s been a challenge for most for various reasons.  First there are the language difficulties.  Not only do most of us not know French, but also most are ESL (English as a Second Language)….including the instructors, who are teaching in English. Some of the countries represented are: Zimbabwe, Australia, Estonia, Brazil, Korea, Malaysia, South Africa, Argentina, Colombia, India, England and Greece!  So essentially everyone’s mother tongue is one that is never being spoken throughout the day, while we bumble through both English and French hoping to get our messages across.  One of the more ironic situations is there is a French born student here and he can’t understand the cuisine chef during our 3 hour lesson because the chef is teaching in English (sort of) and the French student doesn’t speak any English….because  he’s French, in France, at a French school cooking French food.

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Cookin’ with Class


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Once we are back at the school Alex is delegating rapidly. Each student is tasked with melting chocolate. chopping onions, shallots,  leeks or peeling garlic. Alex is constantly teaching professional shortcuts and knife skills, (use the whole blade to cut, don’t chop).  As one task is complete we slide swiftly onto another.  Alex produces a fearsome looking cleaver. Time to prepare the chicken legs, which will be the base of our jus. Each student is coached on exactly how a cleaver operates. A single swift blow should chop the chicken leg through and through. It is surprisingly difficult. Most students are a little nervous of the extremely sharp blade but very quickly there is a pan full of chicken and veal bones rapidly browning. Mounds of mirepoix appear and then we are peeling Jerusalem artichokes. Two students are cracking eggs and separating egg whites. Another student weighs ingredients for the chocolate soufflé that is to be our desert. “Aller, Aller, Aller, Aler!!” shouts Alex, “Go, go, go!!” the classroom is a hive of activity now.   Christina is not idle, her knife skills are awesome. While the other students fumble with their pile of produce Christina’s knife is a blur, gunfire fast and… she’s done!

The Turbot is slapped on the table. Alex explains how to cut out the spine of the flat fish; fins are removed and the remaining carcass is cut into 5 palm size chunks. I’m tasked with preparing the second fish; I manage not to make a mess of it. That done, the bucket containing 40 very active crawfish is dumped on the table. Alex shows us once, grab the head, firmly pull and twist the tail and all struggling decreases. Then the middle fin of the tail is turned, twisted and pulled thus removing the intestine.  All the crawfish heads are thrown into a bowl and transferred to a liquidizer (yes really) and ground into an unappetizing brown slush. Think the color and consistency of dog vomit.  A large pan is already smoking hot on the stovetop. I tip the brown mess into the pan starting the sauté process; the aroma of this mess cooking is less than appealing. Alex throws in a cup of Cognac the pan flambés and suddenly my saliva glands recognize, lobster bisque. The 5 other students have been equally busy. Christina has found two bottles of white wine, Voila!  4 Duck breasts appear. Tendons, otherwise known as sliver skin are removed, the fatty skin is scored with a sharp knife and the breasts are trimmed and are speedily transferred onto the stovetop. Lots of activity now. The artichokes are being simmered in cream. The fish chunks are being transferred to a smoking hot pan, leeks are simmering and the duck is starting to smell wonderful. Plates are put in the warming drawer and Christina is pouring more wine.   We quickly plate with a swirl of pureed vegetables and beautiful presentation.  Was it all delicious?  Oui!

A Bite of Paris

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The flight over the Atlantic was as ever, uninteresting but as we descended into Frankfurt it became a little tense, the pilot warning about some turbulence with snow and ice.  Frankfurt was snowed in and the air traffic chaotic, making our onward connection to Paris 2 hours late.  On arriving in Paris, feeling rather grubby and sandpaper eyed we discovered one, not two checked bags spinning drearily on the belt. So sorry for you.  Yet another hour was spent dealing with the missing baggage.  Our driver met us in the arrivals hall and whisked us to a Mercedes Transporter and drove us by way of the Champ Elysees to our apartment in Paris’s  7th Arriondissement.  The first recognizable landmark on the drive into was the dome of Notre Dame the second the Arc de Triomphe which was, despite the gusty wind and the grey freezing rain teeming with tourists.  We were both thinking this would be an excellent place to avoid in summer.   Our rep from Paris Perfect met us in our apartment and proceeded to give us a very long, very detailed description of the use of every electric appliance, plumbing, heating, windows, light switches, door locks, washer/ dryer, garbage disposal and French manners. Probably all very necessary but all we wished to do was collapse in a heap and sleep for 12 hours. Which we did.  Our first impressions considering we haven’t stepped outside the apartment yet… the Apartment is tiny not at all like the photographs suggested.  But this is Paris and space is limited. We do have a lounge with a view of the Eiffel Tower, a small kitchen, two bathrooms and two bedrooms which is good for those who snore and those who think they don’t! The river Seine is much wider than we expected and the Eiffel Tower is EMORMOUS, probably accentuated because it’s only one city block away.


We were meant to attend a wine and cheese tasting lunch this morning but the vacation gremlins crept in and switched dates on us. We took a taxi to the venue and met with our hosts who were happy to reschedual for the28th. While we were in the area we visited the bakers mecca MORA and E.DEHILLERIN,  shops that stock everything for the French kitchen. The French equivalent of America’s Williams Sonoma on steroids.  Chanting a mantra “we don’t need it” we kept our hands firmly in our pockets, although I had to be reminded constantly, don’t touch!  There are lots of nice shiny toys here.  We walked back to our apartment via the bridge of locks strolling down the river Seine. Although we think we dress like most Parisians, (jeans, black coats and scarves). We obviously stick out as tourists because twice, gypsies who “found” a valuable ring that she may have dropped approached Christina. Their slight of hand skills were abysmal but their trick is of course to engage you in conversation and sell you a scam or pick your pockets. By midday we were both starving and we stepped into a typical French bistro for lunch.  We shared a plate of charcuterie, then each had a plat de jour, mine was sausage from Leon, Christina’s duck breast. Nothing outstanding, it was pretty standard tourist bistro fare. After our leisurely lunch we staggered back to our apartment and slept off some of the jet lag. Or was it possibly the effects of a nice bottle of Saint Emillilon Gran Cru.

Feb.27th: Today we have an early start. Awake at 6 am – bolted our breakfast and in the taxi headed for cooking class by 8.30am.  After coffee and croissant we met with Chef Alex Dreyer for the morning market tour. We paused briefly at a horse butchery – our guide Alex explaining that only horsemeat is allowed to be sold from these especially licensed outlet. Pass. The market that we toured in the 10th Arrondissement has been serving this community since the early 1800’s.  Our first stop is a butchery shop (horse and donkey free), spotlessly clean and odorless despite piles of meat parts stacked into sparkling glass cases.  The cases show off rabbit, quail and several chicken types including milk fed chicken!  Who knew!? Cheap (he he) at only 180 Euros per bird.  The rabbit carcasses are left with heads intact, apparently to prove that you are buying rabbit and not a kitty cat. The rabbit’s stomach cavity, sans intestines, is left open with liver exposed to show that the meat is really fresh. Likewise all poultry is sold with head and feet attached, again proving the freshness and authenticity of the produce. There is the normal selection of beef, lamb and pork but also proudly displayed are the brains, tongue sweetbreads and all other offal. The veal counter was extensive.  Why have Americans become squeamish about eating veal? Milk fed lamb is delicious, as is suckling pig why not calf? Our cooking group comprised 4 Americans, and two young ladies from Hong Kong. We decide to cook duck. Canard not Connard, which is a very rude French word, pronounced similarly!  Check out google translate for that one ;).  The best fatty duck breasts originate from the South of France and are a by-product of the duck foie gras industry. We also buy a few pounds of chicken legs and veal bone with which to make a jus. Next stop the Poissonnerie or Fishmonger. The Poissonnerie‘s stall is set up in the open with very fresh produce for you to inspect. Alex shows us how to test for freshness. Dark clear eyes, red gills, the presence of boogers ( yes, really), and resistance in the flesh of the fish.  Scallops and other bivalves should move after opening. We learn that the orange sac attached to the scallops is the roe sac and is very edible. American fishermen discard this because the sac spoils rapidly.  We buy 30 -40 small crawfish and two large turbot (sort of a large sole) and move on to the Fromagerie  or Cheese shop also referred to as the FOB by locals Fromage, Oeufs en Burre (Cheese, eggs and butter). The shop is immaculately clean but it stinks, in a good way. It smells like the feet of angels. That would be, angels with very smelly feet. The smell is so intense that it is impossible for one of the guests to join our group inside the shop.  She eventually does join us, very gradually moving from the doorway, where there is more oxygen, to the inner sanctum where it is fully pungent.   France has over 400 types of cheeses, and we found ourselves surrounded by a very large selection. Alex stopped before each showcase and explained the cheeses origin and the method of making the cheese. The goat cheese selection was truly impressive.  We were also lectured as to how well mannered people would cut cheese. We discover as a result that almost all Zimbabweans’ and most Americans are savages and Philistines.  We discussed butter in depth.  The shop offers 5-6 types: with salt, without salt, demi sel, (some salt), and two hand made butters, both of which are divine.  Christina and I buy our own secret stash of butter and three cheeses. A pungent Roqueford, a mild chevre, and an amazing velvety smooth Comte, embedded with tiny salt crystals.  Moving on we walk (carefully because of all the dog shit) to a small green grocery where we pick up leeks shallots garlic carrots thyme bay leave and Jerusalem Artichokes. The latter are referred to as a forgotten vegetable.  Apparently they were the only vegetable readily available during the Second World War and the older French population view them with distaste – we found them delicious!  For me one of the market tour was, was visiting the artisanal boulangerie. The sign outside indicating the bread sold has been made in house in the cellar by the owner, a one person operation.  The original floor was soil until it was remodeled 5 years ago.  By French law, a round-a-bout must have a boulangerie and the fellow craftsman have to coordinate vacation time as to have at least one boulangerie open at all times.  More later on the cooking course and other shenanigans!

Lunch with Madeleine

After a nervous night of extreme winds and showers with a similar forecast, we expected a white knuckled flight into Lake Union.  The cheerful yellow dehavilland beaver arrived in sunshine and delivered us on the lake without fanfare or sic sacks filled.  An even more unexpected delight was having lunch with Madeleine Albright – yes, really.  Well, not really really.  She did dine at our next door table and I’m certain I saw her give Steve a quick wink.  After stuffing our bellies with steak and veggies, we bid Madeleine ado (very surreptitiously) and sacked out in our hotel room.  Steve thought it was rude that people interrupted Madeleine’s lunch and asked for her autograph or just introduced themselves as if they were cozy neighbors.  Where Steve comes from, Africa, it just wouldn’t be proper!

After our much needed nap, we indulged in a couple of facials and pedicures, or in our case maybe more like a visit to the farrier.  We dashed back to the hotel in time to freshen just before making it to our Morton’s Steak House reservation…..yes, yet more meat.  Don’t think I’ll eat meat for a good 24 hours at least.

Our push me – pull me vomitous ride in the taxi has landed us mostly in one piece at sea/tac where we are killing serious time until our jog to Frankfurt – then finally on to Paris!



Until then…..

Orvieto & Cortona

The talented, irritating, humorous, chef Alessandra Federici of Cortona is brutally honest –   Both in her opinion on “Italian Restaurants” and badly behaved tourists. Alessandra has been written up in many publications, so if you do any kind of research you have a good idea of what to expect from both chef and the content of the class.  If  you are hoping to be mollycoddled during her classes this program is not for you. If you want to learn about “real Tuscan food”, some food history and you are prepared to LISTEN…Then book this course ASAP.  Do not eat a day before. Get your liver in training. White wine, red wine, limoncello and grappa. Si?  All four of us say 2 big thumbs up. While stumbling home at 7 or 8 pm ish (you see I’m still confused) I distinctly heard Greg slur Yesh. Whata day, best day, EVER.

The duomo in Orvieto was truly incredible. Impressing us all even the heathen Zimbabwean. I enjoyed Luca Signorrelli’s  artwork, in particular how the artist immortalized the lover that jilted him by painting her being carried to hell by a flying demon. Bitch!  After our final dinner in Cortona we wandered the narrow streets back to our car and watched a drunken flute player spin around like a whirling dervish, frightening dogs and small children.  Greg and I had sensitive ears and walked away. The ladies followed later giggling. Was it the wine or the “music”?

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Eating and Drinking in Tuscany

Whatever you do when you get to Tuscany, get your buns to an up and coming boutique winery Leuta.  Enzo is a young passionate winemaker who recently traded in a banker’s desk to devote himself to the art of winemaking.  We were able to see firsthand the destemming and pulping of syrah grapes.  FYI 2012 Tuscan wines will be an exceptional vintage.

Besides learning about wine and winemaking we ate a lot of bisteca.  There was some exploring of Montepulciano. This town was surprisingly tranquil with lots of meandering, streets to stroll.

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Positano and surrounds

My sister JoAnnne and I are on a girls week exploring Positano, Amalfi, Capri and Sorrento.  So far we have found the area to be a lovely mix of crowded streets and crowing roosters.  Like so many who have visited before us, our mediterranean diet consists of copious amounts of gelato, wine, pasta and seafood – with the heat and the unavoidable and ubiquitous vertical climbs to get from A to B all the calories seem to get burned up.  We hope we have captured some of the areas stunning topography, and you’ll have to excuse or inclusion of dorky tourist shots for the family back home.  Enjoy!

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