Les bons contes font les bons amis. (Rabelais)
This was certainly true of my recent cooking tour in France, hosted by South African master chef Marlene van der Westhuizen. Entertaining stories were shared at each meal, enlivened with delicious food and fine wines. Indeed, Marlene’s colourful tales about the inhabitants of Charroux became a veritable opéra comique! I suggested she write a book – another book – recounting her bons contes, as she has already written four beautifully-illustrated cook books (More information here.) These include, along with her tried-and-tested recipes, amusing anecdotes and useful tips:
I prefer to leave my fresh, market-bought tomatoes in the sun on the kitchen window-sill until they are sweetly red-ripe.
A delightfully easy way to chop garlic is to “slice” the cloves with the prongs of a sharp fork (p66).
To make a fresh green salad: …Add whatever ingredients you like…And do use your fingers. Marco Pierre White famously reminded all of us cooks that since we have fingers, we should burn them! (p47)
It is one thing attending cooking classes in a sunny Johannesburg kitchen (Sally Williams), Tuscan cuisine with Jacky Murray in Parktown, or even Swedish culinary classes with my friend Jessica Gripberg in Stockholm, the snow lying deep and crisp in the garden outside. It is quite another savouring the flavours of France in a French kitchen – and being initiated into the secrets thereof.
The epicentre of Marlene’s tours, which take place annually from April – September, is the cooking-cum-dining area in her renovated 15th century house, Bagatelle, in the village of Charroux in the Auvergne. Here Marlene demonstrates her culinary skills, instructs, and inspires her participants.
Sometimes we watched her at work, and sometimes we rolled up our sleeves and cooked ourselves!
Lunch is enjoyed in her shady, flower-scented garden on hot summer days, and is typically a buffet of fresh salad, Auvergne charcuterie, and an incredible variety of cheeses, served with fresh and toasted breads.
I have enjoyed several novels written by intrepid ladies who acquired a run-down or “historical” property – a villa in Tuscany, an olive farmhouse in Provence, a house in Fez – who then went to great pains to renovate. All of them had to grapple with, and delicately navigate their way through, the intricacies of bureaucracy. For electricity and water to be installed or re-connected, documents had to be signed, stamped and sealed – all with the correct connections established – and recalcitrant officials appeased. It was thus with great admiration that I learned of Marlene’s two year mission to convert her historic property into the comfortable home – and cooking haven – that it is today. How exciting, and rewarding, the journey to achieving this challenge must be!
And so it was with greater appreciation that I partook of Marlene’s hospitality: dinner graciously served by her well-trained assistants at her large hardpear table, which every evening was beautifully laid with thick white napery, antique silver, and delicate glassware, some of which she had carefully picked out over the past eleven years at the local brocantes.
Great attention is paid to detail, all indicative of Marlene’s philosophy about the essential, sensual and intimate nature of food. Be mindful of what eating is all about in the deepest sense; she writes, and what a real honour it is to “feed” each other with your fingertips, figuratively speaking. All too often, in the hurry and flurry of our daily lives, we forget the simple pleasures of preparing and sharing food, and the atmosphere in which it is created and consumed. Consider the ambiance: in the background there is gentle music ranging from opera to Baroque to Luz Casal, all contributing to a delectable symphony of the senses.
The wonderful meals that we prepare with passion and serve with respect and love, feed both our bodies as well as our souls….the fact is, that to place a plate of food in front of another, to share and eat together, is a most intimate act.
Our first dinner included cold tomato soup with a generous dollop of avocado-and-crème fraîche, served with chunks of crusty white bread, lamb with green beans and toasted almonds, and a compote of plums served on crumbled biscuits, topped with whipped cream. Another night we savoured her delicious oxtail casserole with ratatouille, and pears poached in white wine served with a rich caramel sauce.
Marlene’s 5- or 6-day tours (not courses) include more than attending cookery classes. With a perfect balance of cooking, sight-seeing, marketing, gourmet dégustation dining, shopping, walking in the countryside and exploring Charroux and nearby Vichy, she imparts her knowledge and love of the French culture and countryside.
Listed as one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, the picturesque medieval village of Charroux lies in the heart of the country, on the northern edge of the Massif Central. It is about 35 km northwest of Vichy, the point of arrival when coming from Paris by train (Bercy Station, 3 hours). If not making your own way to Charroux by car, Marlene and her assistant collect the participants from the Vichy station.
A guided stroll with Marlene on our first evening revealed the many interesting attractions of the village. There are two stone gateways, one with a portcullis, sundial and bell-tower, the other simply supported by a massive oak beam and archway.
The 12th century Church of Saint-Jean-Baptiste, with its curiously truncated bell-tower, is an interesting example of the cross-over period between the Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles, as can be seen in the presence of both rounded and pointed arches. This is Bourbonnais, the historic province in the centre of France, corresponding to the modern département of Allier.
There are 350 inhabitants in Charroux, and 350 wells – one for each person, so the saying goes!
And a museum dedicated to historical clocks. All day and night the church and gate-tower bells ring out on the quarter hour; the locals are so accustomed to their chimes that they don’t even hear them anymore. (I resorted to ear plugs). Otherwise, the acoustic environment of this bucolic sanctuary is little more than the cooing of doves in the eaves, and chirps of the blue tits and their feathered friends in the trees.
Once a fortified village and trading centre, today there are several attractive stores in Charroux where visitors can buy gifts and souvenirs. These include hand-crafted candle and soap shops – all deliciously scented, and a purveyor of fine purchases for the pantry at La Remise:
Another store, selling a vast range of jams and preserves, is housed in the Maison à Colombages – an old 14th century half-timbered house. Here you can find jams and chutneys made from every fruit imaginable, with and without the addition of alcohol (whisky, rum, and cassis).
Bagatelle, No.4 in the cobbled rue de la Poulaillerie (bring good walking shoes!) stands opposite the famous Charroux Mustard Shop, and this was where, early one morning, we witnessed the mustard-seed-milling and bottling processes. The wares from this small workshop are used by a number of famous chefs, and are exported around the world.
This, and the age-old craft of walnut oil pressing, were part of our culinary education during the tour.
Saturday morning is market day, so off we set to the nearby town of Gannat, to savour and purchase the mouth-watering fresh produce on display in the covered market hall: fruits and vegetables, cheeses, processed meats, herbs and spices, plucked birds (chicken, quail), fish and flowers, patés and terrines.
In the afternoon, a visit to an antique shop in nearby Saint-Porcain-sur Sioule, overflowing with beautiful old table linens, glassware, heavy silver cutlery, copper-ware, crockery and antique furniture.
On Sunday mornings open-air brocantes (flea markets – rather like the loppisar, or garage sales, in Sweden) – take place in the villages near Cherroux. They work on a rotation basis so that each village has the opportunity to host an antique market during the course of the year. We went to nearby Jenzat, where their brocante was set up in a shady square near the old church. Saint-Martin, one of the painted churches of the Bourbonnais, dates from the 10th or 11th centuries:
Each week unwanted items from the local French homes are displayed on trestle tables for visitors to peruse and purchase. Occasionally, if one is lucky, a treasure may be found among the general junk which ranges from clothes and bric-a-brac to car parts. One just needs to know how to look!
Our next destination was Vichy, a beautiful belle époque town on the banks of the Allier River. Although not a major tourist town, it has the faded elegance and luxury of a bygone era. The source of the Allier is in the nearby Massif Central plateau, a few miles to the south, and which is known for its volcanic activity. All the volcanoes in the area have been dormant for at least 110 years, but are the direct cause of the many thermal springs in and around the town. These were enjoyed by the Romans as early as 52 BC. The spa and resort town was the seat of the Vichy government of “unoccupied France” during the WW II, under the rule of Marshal Pétain.
Rich in art nouveau architecture and ornamentation from the fin-de siècle, the raison d’être of Vichy is the mineral water springs that to this day gush forth from brass taps in the Hall des Sources, an ornamental atrium. I enjoyed the cool green atmosphere of this mysterious place, if not the naturally fizzy, and slightly salty, mineral water. Named Source des Célestins, the remains of the Convent of the Célestines, in the park of the same name, date from the 15th century, and were originally part of a Benedictine Monastery.
It was Napoléon III (1808-73) who first drew attention to the spa waters industry of the area. Visitors can still see the ornate buildings and grand hotels where those who came to “take the waters” stayed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
From the wrought-iron covered promenade, gallery of boutiques, and ornate bandstand in the park, to the opera house and Casino, the art nouveau style which prevails struck me as representing a modern version of the Rococo – a delicately feminine variant of the masculine Baroque Era. But the town offers a mixture of architectural styles from past eras, Byzantine, Moorish, Venetian, neo-Gothic, the Flemish Renaissance, English and art deco influences.
Free visits are available to the source of the natural Volvic mineral water. For more information click here.
But our principal destination in Vichy was Maison Decoret for a splendid dégustation luncheon. This culinary term refers to the careful, appreciative tasting of various foods, whilst focusing on the gustatory system, the senses, high culinary art and good company. It usually involves sampling many small portions of all the chef’s signature dishes – in one sitting. Which is precisely what we did, during no less than ten, beautifully-crafted and utterly delicious courses.
Beginning with several amuse-bouche appetizers which included delicately-flavoured potato crisps, cockles and pea soup, we progressed to asparagus – with roasted leek and little touches of orange-muscat sauce, burbot (freshwater fish) with a black pudding sauce and slivers of turnip, delicately roasted pullet with a crab-and-kohlrabi gravy, and cheese – “to showcase the Countess of Vichy”. The idea was experience a vast range of flavours and textures.
This was followed by two desserts: fresh strawberries with sorbet to match, and a light fruit salad – Cassez la croute! (Break the crust!), four delicate biscuits and coffee or tisane (herbal tea):
Although each serving was small, we each felt entirely satisfied, and delighted by the array of imaginative dishes that had appeared magically before us. A gastronomic treat indeed!
As was another degustation lunch at Le Prince de Condé restaurant. Thierry’s specialty is his foie gras, for which he enjoys nationwide acclaim. This delicacy was preceded by a platter of smoked duck fillets on a bed of salad with poached pears, and followed by a light fruit salad with raspberry sorbet – all beautifully crafted by culinary maestro Thierry.
There is a fair range of accommodation in Charroux, ranging from smart bed and breakfast establishments such as Les Templiers and Le Prince de Condé to Le petit Café Bleu to a simple room in a private home. For more information about accommodation in Charroux, click here.
I enjoyed my comfortable stay with Mme. Bardet, in a large terrace-top room with a shower and wonderfully comfortable large bed. Each morning this kind and erudite lady offered me a delicious breakfast and interesting conversation, while gently correcting my mediocre French. All to the accompaniment of soft Baroque music.
Each time I entered my hostess’s beautiful and tranquil garden, I received a warm welcome from her affectionate black kitty, Cachou. You may e-mail and book with Marie-Chantal here.
Recipes from SECRETS of a French Cooking Class
by Marlene van der Westhuizen
Gruyère and Onion Tarts with Hazelnuts (Serves 6)
1 roll shortcrust pastry, defrosted
1 T butter
I medium onion, finely chopped
150 g Gruyère cheese, finely grated
150 ml + 100 ml full cream
Salt and white pepper to taste
2 T white wine vinegar
2 egg yolks – reserve one white to brush the pastry
4 T melted butter
125 g hazelnuts, lightly toasted and skins removed
Heat the oven to 200˚ C
Line 6 well-buttered small flan pans or one large one with the pastry. Brush with beaten egg white before spooning in the filling. This will ensure that the pastry will not become soggy during the baking process. Reserve the yolk for the hollandaise sauce for the topping.
Melt the butter in a frying pan and sweat the chopped onion until it is golden and translucent. Allow the onion to cool a little.
Spoon the onion into the pastry case(s) and divide the grated cheese among the tarts, place in the fridge.
Whip the 3 eggs and 150 ml of the cream together, season and pour the mixture into a large jug. Remove the pastries from the fridge and pour a little of the cream-and-egg mixture into each tart, making sure that you don’t fill them to the top…they might just rise over the edges of the pastry.
Bake the tarts in the hot oven for about 10 minutes, or until the filling is set and the pastry is a lovely nutty colour. (About 30 minutes for a large tart.)
In the meantime, heat the vinegar in a double boiler while whisking the 2 egg yolks into the vinegar, until you have a thick emulsion. Allow to cool down. Whip the remaining 100 ml of the cream until it forms soft peaks and fold it into the emulsion to make a smooth hollandaise sauce.
Remove the tarts from the oven and spoon the hollandaise over the tarts. Slip them back into the oven and bake for another 3 minutes until the hollandaise puffs up and becomes a lovely golden colour.
Garnish with hazelnuts and serve immediately with a crisp green salad.
Oxtail à la Beatrix (Serves 6)
Undeniably a favourite winter dish cooked by the Wilderness artist, Beatrix Bosch. She generously gave me the recipe to use in this book and also to share with visitors to Bagatelle.
If you prefer to cook the dish ahead of time, cover the dish with a wet cloth and allow it to cool down completely before you place it, covered, in the refrigerator. Remove all the fat from the surface before you reheat.
1.5 kg oxtail, portioned
2 T extra virgin olive oil
2 medium onions, and 4 cloves of garlic, all peeled and chopped
1 t turmeric, 3 t coriander, 1 t cumin, 2 t paprika, 1 t dried fennel
2 sweet red peppers and 4 carrots, cleaned and roughly chopped
4 tomatoes, peeled, pips removed and chopped
750 ml hearty red wine
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Heat the olive oil in a large casserole and braise the onions until translucent
Add the garlic, turmeric, coriander, cumin, paprika and fennel seeds, then braise the spices with the onions for about 2 minutes. Add the oxtail pieces and brown lightly before adding the sweet peppers, carrots and tomatoes to the casserole. Pour the wine over the meat and bring to a slow simmer. Place a heavy lid on the casserole and cook gently over a low heat for at least 6 hours, or until the meat is succulently tender.it should have that glorious lip-smacking stickiness that is part and parcel of a properly cooked oxtail.
Test the sauce and season. Do go lightly on the salt though…the natural salts in the meat and vegetables should be quite enough.
Serve with baby potatoes and a handful or two of freshly cooked green beans.
Apricot and Almond Gratin (Serves 6)
A rich, fruity dessert to serve after a long day.
Leave the stones in the apricots when you cook them in the syrup. This will ensure that the gratin has a lovely sunny summer taste…
500 ml sweet white wine
½ t vanilla paste
200 g honey
250 g demerara sugar
24 whole apricots
150 g castor sugar
125 ml thick cream
1 T Amaretto (almond liqueur)
250 g ground almonds + 50 g almond flakes
Preheat the oven to 200˚ C
Bring the wine, vanilla paste, honey and demerara sugar to the boil and add the whole apricots to the syrup.
Boil until quite tender. Remove the apricots from the liquid and allow them to cool before you gently halve them and remove the stones. Reduce the liquid until it has a smooth, glossy, syrupy consistency.
In the meantime, in the food processor, whip the eggs and castor sugar together until light and foamy. Fold in the cream, Amaretto and ground almonds until you have a smooth paste.
Place the apricots face, face up, in a gratin dish and spoon the almond paste evenly over all the fruits. Sprinkle with the almond flakes and bake for about 15 minutes, or until golden brown.
Remove from the oven and spoon the syrup over the gratin.
Read more about Marlene van der Westhuizen’s COOK’S TOURS here.
Charroux Tourism information here.
Photographs: Elizabeth Handley and Charlotte Armstrong