from SOMMTV Cooking with Wine- Episode 4 Sauternes
I started these words as a note to myself, like an extended sticky note, that might help explain this new book I am writing. So bear with me if you are looking just for recipes or travel inspiration; join me if you are curious about how we curate our edible memories into a book. I was inspired by this article about the 25th anniversary of the Cuban Buena Vista Social Club and the conversations about the intersection of nostalgia and creation. And that led me down this rabbit hole thinking about a past that I never really experienced but have recreated again and again in my kitchen at Camont—that Impressionist’s painting of a French country table reflecting life in Gascony before I was even born.
In my faux memories, I swim back and forth across Monet’s pond munching on water lilies and wearing flouncy dresses while serving paté en croute to men in swallowtail coats. While I can imagine cooking a meal, how would I even know what feeding a hungry crew of post-war grape harvesters felt like? I usually live alone. And while I have occasionally raised chickens and ducks, then sheep and goats, I still buy my meat at the butcher’s shop or grocery store. Can I be openly honest about my own memories or must they be cloaked in soft light with a gauze-like focus? I keep going back to what John Berger wrote in one of his many wonderful essays on art- The Eyes of Claude Monet. It explains for me the relationship I have fostered with these kitchen memories—an intimate relationship between the sensory theatre of my imagined cuisine and the actual food I am cooking. These nostalgic bouts of rural French art de vivre fed by a lifetime of romantic images inhabit Camont, too.
First The Premise: This is the first part of my work in writing a book, figuring out want I want to write without diving into the often too murky pool of nostalgia and understanding how to do this. It’s not a straight forward list to follow, but a bit more ‘round my hat’ thinking that takes me in and out of ideas and anecdotes, until I get a clearer, if still circular, approach to how to write a cookbook/memoir/field guide.
It has long been in my mind to write another book, the big Gascon cookbook, that curates these great recipes that I have been learning, cooking, and teaching for thirty years. Perhaps not a definitive Gascon volume (although there doesn’t exist one to date). Rather this book will be a personalized version of those ‘essential’ recipes and versions of recipes as I experienced them in a critical turning-of-a-century and all the changes in lifestyles that ensued. This is also a very personal book, although I hate to use the word memoir since it conjures up confessional drama and long hidden secrets that I find… well, not so interesting. No one said you have tell everything. Anyway, I tend to be a ‘going forward to the next thing’ sort of person rather than a ‘looking back’ sort of person. But what I do find interesting is how I stayed still long enough, maybe in multiple passes, to learn how to cook from a certain set of people—neighbors and friends that have influenced my whole life. It’s not really about the food, but the connections and relationships developed along the way.
So this book seems to be a circular kind of chronicle as well as a curated collection of recipes that are completely anchored here, yet I loosely call Gascon. It is also the story of how I came to France, what I discovered about life here in rural France (i.e. not Paris), and most importantly—how I learned a certain approach to cooking.
My Gascon Life began under a veil of romantic travel adventure- I bought a canal barge and sailed her across Europe, eventually breaking down in Agen, found an old farmhouse on the side of the canal, and dug in some roots to stay and grow in this fertile Garonne River valley. There was a boyfriend, a husband, and a lot of friends coming and going. That’s the first couple of years in a nutshell.
But Learning to Cook was a lengthier affair since I didn’t know what I was getting into. I shopped until I learned to shop. I tattooed ‘Shopping is Cooking’ across my brain. I tasted and ate and watched and mimicked until I learned the recipes. Later, much later, as I accrued confidence in a dish, I began to dissect the elements, sort out what was essential, what wasn’t. I reorganized how I looked at certain way of cooking- a braised pheasant wasn’t a bird drowned in wine and cooked to death, but rather a tender release of juices from a few well chosen vegetables and just enough added liquid to create a sublime sauce. How to amend that sauce, modify it’s texture, and burnish it until it shone would come even later.
So that’s what I am working on. How to describe that longer journey of learning to cook, in France. Yes, there will be stories. Yes, there will be lots of recipes. And yes, this will be a field guide of sorts to learning how to cook. I am defining what is Classic Gascony—those recipes that I identify as specifically Gascon, and Essential Gascony—the ways of cooking (techniques) the good food of this darling region in France. If you are enjoying these newsletters, keep reading and support the writer. And please share. Numbers make it all happen; the more the merrier.
Tonight (Sept 18th) I am doing a Live Zoom Cooking Class exploring some of those essential ways we cook with wine. This will feature in the new book and I am happy to offer newsletter subscribers a 20% discount code for this 90 minute class (code: monet). Grab a bottle of wine or a cup of coffee—depending on your time zone—and let us explore just what it means to marinate, braise, baste, and deglaze… with wine. You can sign up here- there will be a video recording later if you miss it.
NY Times article- Buena Vista Social Club 25th Anniversary https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/16/arts/music/buena-vista-social-club-anniversary.html
John Berger- Selected Essays: The Eyes of Claude Monet https://nemaloknig.net/read-282528/?page=66
Live Zoom Class Sept 18th, Sat. 6:00 France time https://katehillcooks.thinkific.com/courses/live-zoom-class-how-to-cook-with-wine-part-i-basic-techniques
all paintings by Claude Monet; see more here- https://www.claudemonetgallery.org/