From filleting fish to spinning sugar, my 6 day “Gourmet Explorer” french cookery course at the French House Party near Carcassonne was a culinary delight.
It was held under the supervision of two masters of the art, Michelin Star Chef, Jean-Marc Boyer and Chef of the Year, Robert Abraham. We ate like kings, and friendships were forged, all under the sunshine of south-west France.
On arrival day it was good to familiarise ourselves with the well-equipped kitchen, by making blinis and crispy rolls: canapés to accompany the evening’s aperitif. A minor personal victory, as my mayonnaise dip actually worked! The course began in earnest the next day and we set off to source ingredients at a local market in the medieval town of Mirepoix. Here half-timbered houses supported on wood pillars create an arcade and a splendid backdrop for the local produce, in which fruits, vegetables, honey and cheese all have starring roles. As we took our purchases home we were as yet unaware that thanks to Jean-Marc’s supervision our lunch would include salmon ceviche with guacamole followed by fig melba.
French House Party is situated in Pexiora, a rural location but just twenty minutes drive away from the medieval Walled City of Carcassonne, a World Heritage site. Our home during the stay was a 200-year-old barn, which has been converted into luxury Art Deco style accommodation for 16 guests. The large living spaces include a games room, swimming pool and tennis court and although it was sunny, sitting by a wood burning fire each evening meant a cosy end to each full day.
During the year other courses are run here besides cookery. Including song writing digital movie making, drama and creative writing. In truth we were spoiled silly by owner Moira Martingale, who has a PhD in Gothic Literature and teaches on the “books and drama” course. She is ably assisted by Bill, who picked us up from the either Toulouse or Carcassonne airports, and generally looked after the place. Linda the cook was there to step in whenever we were doing something else other than making our own nutritional inspiration, and lastly, Regine, tidied up after us, quietly clearing the kitchen, whatever mess we seemed to make.
The course was invaluable. By studying the chiefs we picked up so many good habits, from how to fillet fish, to the best way to make the plate look remarkable. We also discovered the importance of time management in the kitchen and realised too that nothing was wasted. Jean-Marc uses two bowls, one for vegetable peelings another for the vegetables themselves. He then adds water to the peelings to make an excellent stock which is there when needed for soups or sauces.
During the 6 days we went out for two meals. One, taken inside the walls of the fortified town of Carcassonne. We also visited L’Oulibo an olive co-operative and had a guided tour, talk and a taste of the different oils, which was a real insight into the history and cultivation of the trees that never die. We were told of some examples that were hundreds of years old. The local variety is called Lucques, and many refer to it as the Rolls Royce of Olives. They are delicious, meaty and sweet, and not salty at all.
On another occasion we visited a local Cavé for a wine tasting where I discovered my personal favourite, a red called Domaine le Fort.
It was sad when the course finished we had enjoyed every moment and learn so much. I understood perfectly why it is included in the book “The 100 Best Worldwide Vacations to Enrich Your Life” –