To explore La Vie en Périgord, begin at La Combe

March 26th, 2010

In between intensive culinary programs, a cooking school in the Périgord relaxes with guests for a week of adventures outside the kitchen.  In 1998, when Wendely Harvey left culinary publishing in San Francisco, she embarked upon a new challenge:  organizing classes with top American and Australian cookbook writers and teachers in a French country cooking setting.  But this Australian woman’s energy and enthusiasm for the Périgord overflows into just two or three weeks each season, especially designed for curious travelers.  Beyond a hands-on session or two in the kitchen, most of the la Vie en Périgord week is an adventure in La France profonde.  With the gentle guidance of historian Robert Cave-Rogers, Wendely’s husband and business partner, guests experience a multi-dimensional view of the region.  And if, after caves, castles and markets, you hanker for a glass of wine – Robert can advise on this “natural resource” as well.   For more details, visit their site: Photo at La Combe by Roger Stowell.

A French country fair for all…

March 12th, 2010

Oxen in action

The vagabond expected everything from greens to goats in Le Buisson’s spring fair, Foire aux Bestiaux de St. Vivien. In the tradition of medieval fairs, this event has long been held early in March, on the day of St.Vivien, drawing traders and farmers with their calves, donkeys, horses and sheep. Le Buisson’s  location on the road from Bergerac to Sarlat sprawls across a major intersection, luring shoppers to its Friday morning market and annual foire.  Eager to see what has changed in the passing years since we last strolled through the fair, I could hear load speakers as we approached the center of town.

Tools and plows of yesteryear

Where the stalls of calves, cattle and sheep once lined the aisles, now space was cleared for a demonstration of a working ox team.  Driven by a farmer in clogs and peasant shirt,  it struck me as théatre as he drove his ox team back and forth for over an hour, shouting at the beasts and cracking his stick on their backs if they didn’t go as directed.  A few old plows sat forlornly aside, as pieces of folklore planted next to the oxens’ path. We found no goats, no calves, but there were donkeys and ponies for kids to pet – and one enormous bull to admire (but I wouldn’t venture to touch its broad chestnut back).  A couple appeared to be bargaining for a pair of donkeys, however that was the extent of trading that I observed, and moved along hoping to find a basket in the marché.

Dark willow baskets, for shopping or walnuts

And baskets there were, many shapes and sizes – but not all local.  Instead of the old basket maker I remembered – who demonstrated and readily discussed traditional materials -  a basket dealer had spread his wares on the ground.  But I did find a basket:  a garlic vendor displayed small oval garlic baskets, just what I need to keep this staple at hand until  new shoots of aillet arrive in upcoming weeks.

Pink garlic from Lautrec, a good "keeper"

Relieved that more products from the greater southwest were represented, I popped for garlic and the basket before moving along to chat with a prune seller.  It was clear that he had shucked many walnuts for his oil, spread many plums to dry, pressed chestnuts for purée and was proud of his products – all organic, I was assured. I’ll  cook the prunes in tea and spice to tenderize the skins, we’ll  enjoy them in a simple prune whip or clafoutis, and recall the wizened artisan at the Le Buisson marché.

Prunes, walnuts and chestnuts pass through an artisan's hands

A need for greens…

March 11th, 2010

First spinach & roquette of the season

Early in March, I hunger for greens. After weeks of myriad variations on white endive salad lunches, the menu changes drastically. March brings  snappy spinach salads with hot bacon dressing, the bite of roquette/rocket in a mixed toss of lettuces – and especially parsley mixed into everything.  All of this is inspiration to stir up a bowl of  spring tabouli, with scallions and heaps of just-plucked parsley and mint. Today all of the above were packed into my basket at the épicerie, toted along main street and hauled up the hill.  But I have to admit it was not all strictly local (if one sticks to the 100 mile radius to define local) produce, as I noted the spinach was from the Perpignan area – but still it grew in southern France, not on a distant shore.  And when the shopkeeper, Francis, agreed that it was a fine cluster of spinach he added the usual:  “Are you going to draw it before you cook it?”  Oui!

Why greens, why now?  Just when we are ready for a spring tonic, nature’s own detox system is right there in a pot of fresh, dark greens. The chlorophyl in greens acts to rid the blood of toxins, among many other benefits. Greens help stabilize the body’s PH, balancing the acid and alkaline in our systems. Greens’ hefty amount of antioxidants stimulate the immune system to fight spring colds and flu germs. But that’s not all:  phytonutrients in greens fight the ravages of age and pollution on our eyes.  Don’t forget the Popeye story of  “eat your spinach for iron and strong muscles” – not only iron, but potassium, magnesium, calcium, B, K, C, E vitamins  – a load of enzymes and nutrients for bodies to better function. Oh, before I forget, to stimulate brain function, greens’ omega-3 essential fatty acids go to work for us. It is clearly time to stir up a soup with greens, this time adding mussels for a dash of zinc and texture.  Watch for the recipe …soon.

It's almost time to mow the sprouts - more greens...

What’s coming into your markets to inspire and satisfy? I am curious…

Welcome spring’s lighter, longer days

March 7th, 2010

Woodland daffodils, tiny but hardy

Waves of grey cranes float like ribbons of pencil-dashes across the sky, sending their burbling cries, and always a frisson of delight down my spine:  nature is on time, for another season.  It’s not that frosty nights are over, but the daylight hours now let the vagabond dig in the garden until suppertime.  March means a list of favorite tasks can be ticked off – black currant bush and a merlot vine are pruned, old aster stalks are cut and borders cleared of dry leaves, while I note that red knobs of rhubarb and the earliest peony shoots are slowly nosing through. All these signs of spring are a little tardy this year, as are the greens in the market. For vagabondgourmand readers, March holds more on greens, a visit to a French country livestock fair, a peek at a Périgord cooking school, and some lamb and kasha to keep us fortified for longer hours outdoors.  Bienvenue mars!

Snowdrop lingering in a shady corner