Sunday, July 19, 2009

My Article for the DA Record

(This is the article I wrote for the Durham Academy Record, our bi-annual magazine that was just mailed home to our families, faculty, alumni friends. My photo of lavender was used on the cover! This is quite an honor for me. I dedicate this blog to Dr. and Mrs. Keith Brodie, our generous benefactors who make the sabbatical program a reality for the DA faculty. I am forever changed because of this experience.)

Little did I know in 1987, when I took my first group of Durham Academy students to Arles, France that I would return twenty-one years later to spend six months living as an Arlésienne. That March, we spent two weeks in the south of France and Arles was one of our stops. Libby Lang was with me on that trip as a student and recently provided details that I had long forgotten (she may never forgive me for using it in this article). I do remember visiting Roman ruins and imagining that I was standing in the same exact spot as Julius Caesar himself. I have quite an imagination sometimes, but history came alive before my very eyes. Quite an adventure for a girl from the Appalachian Mountains.
In 2005, I returned to Arles courtesy of a DA summer grant. I spent two weeks wandering around town, visiting museums, following in Van Gogh’s footsteps (he lived there for 15 months), picnicking in various parks where he painted and taking a cooking course. Érick Vedel has offered Provençal cooking courses in his home since 1995. He is a native of Arles and a self-taught chef. The other amateur chefs and I spent our days visiting local artisans and our evenings in the kitchen preparing dinner. I began the new school year invigorated and full of stories about Roman ruins and the sights, smells and tastes of Provence.
In the summer of 2006, I returned to Arles, this time with a group of adults. I offered a trip to Paris and Provence through DA’s Academy Nights. For the first time, I celebrated Bastille Day in Paris, watching the military parade on the Champs-Élysées before heading to Arles on the TGV. Chef Érick took us to visit wineries, lavender fields, a goat cheese maker, a chocolatier in St. Rémy de Provence, and a potter in the village of Séguret. We named ourselves the Arles 6. Once again, renewed by a visit to France and an extended opportunity to speak French, I returned to the classroom even more enthusiastic and ready to share my experiences with my students.
In the fall of 2006, I was offered the chance to spend the following summer working as Érick’s assistant, translating for guests who did not speak French and working in his five-room bed and breakfast in exchange for room and board. I had not spent longer than two weeks in France since 1979 when I was in still a student at Appalachian State University. I accepted the offer and left for Provence as soon as school was out in June.
Those two months went by in a blur of cooking classes, outings with guests, cleaning rooms, and handling reservations. August came quickly and I said good-bye to my new friends and returned to Durham in time for opening meetings and the beginning of the 2007-08 school year. I felt as if I had taken an intense two-month course in the language and culture of southern France. If master’s degrees were given in cooking, eating and learning kitchen vocabulary under fire, I had certainly earned one. I felt like a student all over again when Chef Érick asked me to fetch une louche during one of the first classes in June. I had never heard the word. I considered faking it and handing him anything, hoping that he would think I just misunderstood. After a few seconds hesitation, though, I decided to come clean and confess that I had no idea what he wanted. He demonstrated its use and I realized he needed a ladle.
I returned to DA for the 2007-08 school year a much more confidant French teacher. For our annual 8th grade trip to France, I decided to take my students to Paris and Arles. My students cooked with Chef Érick, went horseback riding in the Camargue, home to pink flamingoes and black bulls, and roamed around Arles with much more freedom than is possible in Paris. Very little English is spoken in this town of 50,000 residents; therefore they had to practice their French. It was a joy to share “my” Arles with my students.
Feeling that I was now ready for my doctorate in Provençal life, I applied for and received the Durham Academy faculty sabbatical. Chef Érick needed an assistant and I felt I needed to spend more time in France. Coleman Birgel Whittier, a DA grad, was hired to take my place during the first semester of the 2008-09 school year. As soon as I turned in my grades and comments, I bid my family and friends a tearful good-bye and departed for six months this time.
My sabbatical began with a reunion of the Arles 6 in the Dordogne region, in southwest France. We visited prehistoric caves where I gazed in amazement at the drawings of bison and horses. We shopped at a different local outdoor market each morning and prepared meals together. After ten days, I left my friends and headed to Arles to begin work.
My days began at 6:00 am in the kitchen preparing breakfast for guests in the B&B. Homemade preserves, seasonal fruit, my own orange brioche, crêpes, baguettes and croissants were on the table, waiting to be enjoyed with freshly squeezed orange juice and coffee or tea. If a cooking course was going on, a picnic needed to be put together for our daily outings. Salads, quiche, locally made sausages, fresh goat cheese and wine from a nearby organic vineyard were added to the basket. We would return in time for the clients to rest for a couple of hours or take a stroll through town. The clients, under the supervision of Chef Érick, prepared the evening meal. He has developed approximately 1,000 recipes using only ingredients found in the area around Arles, some of them researched from texts dating back to Roman times. During the weeks when no cooking courses were scheduled, I cleaned rooms after guests checked out and attended to the never-ending pile of laundry.
There is no clothes dryer within the 10th century walls of the house I was living in. I hung sheets, towels, pillowcases and dishtowels on lines strung outside a second story window on the family side of the house. Luckily, it rarely rains from June to October in Provence. There is also no dishwasher, at least not an electric one! I did dream of manicures and hand massages at the end of a five course meal, each with a different plate, attended by as many as 18 guests. A large kitchen that was at one time a stable for lambs joins Chef Érick’s home and the B&B. It is a very welcoming, comfortable room, decorated with maps of the region, copper pots and cupboards full of beautifully decorated serving platters and handmade dishes.
I spent part of each day answering e-mail requests for rooms and information about cooking courses. The majority of the clients do not speak French. I worked with Chef Érick, putting together recipes for the cooking weeks, arranging outings based on the clients’ interests, and creating brochures about the cooking school for the Arles tourist office and local hotels.
Not all of my time was spent working, however. I took long walks along the Rhône River. I would sit in a café located at the foot of the Roman Arena (a two minute walk from the house) and write long letters home while watching tourists catch their first glimpse of this amazing monument and locals breeze past it on their way to or from work. I quickly learned never to leave the house without my camera after missing a parade of Roman soldiers marching through the center of town during one of the many summer festivals.
In mid-August, I came to terms with the fact that the 2008-09 school year would begin without me. I wrote an article for the Durham Herald-Sun about missing my first opening day of school since 1964 and they took me on as an occasional columnist. Although I had already been in France for two months, I felt as if my sabbatical was now truly beginning. The new friends I had made now felt comfortable correcting my French. I was greeted as the assistante américaine at the open-air market. A chef friend from Carrboro stayed with us for a month while working on her novel. Friends from home met me in Italy for a week. I spent two weeks in northern France with my friend, Ghislaine Mauduit, visiting her school, Collège Anne-Marie Javouhey, in Senlis. She and I went to Reims for a glorious fall weekend, visiting champagne cellars. In November, I traveled to Paris to spend a week visiting museums, finally surrounding myself with Monet paintings at the Musée Marmottan. In early December, I went truffle hunting in the Vaucluse with René, a seasoned hunter, and his dog, Sony. I visited the walled city of Carcassonne and the Pyrénées Mountains. I came home in mid- December with thousands of photographs of vineyards, festivals, friends and food. I am still not a chef, just an excellent assistante, with much improved cooking skills and a bit of a Provençal accent!
Although I was not enrolled in a formal degree program during my sabbatical, I learned several valuable lessons. These are lessons I hope that I pass on to my students. Be adventurous. Take chances. Leave your comfort zone. You are truly never too old to learn. Experience is the best teacher. Never turn down a road trip (but always take along a toothbrush and contact lens solution in case it turns into an overnight trip). Never refuse anything edible (even if it is boudin or blood sausage). Do not worry about sounding like a native; just speak French. I could never pass for a French woman and have finally come to terms with that. This was truly the experience of a lifetime.

This recipe is from Chef Érick's file. I have almost used all of my lavender honey, sad to say. If anyone out there knows where I can find more around the Triangle, I'd love to know! I plan to experiment with the recipe soon to see if I can infuse it with lavender grains, as in the lavender ice cream recipe I posted earlier here on the blog.

Fresh Ricotta/Brousse Cheesecake
w/ Lavender Honey and Orange zest

Fresh Ricotta, or Brousse as it is known in French, is a delight. If you’re unable to obtain a fresh ricotta or brousse (cow or goat milk works), find a good ricotta at the grocery store, and most definitely avoid a “skim milk” ricotta.

For 6-8:

500grams – 17oz Fresh Ricotta/Brousse
1/2 cup lavender honey
1/2 cup sugar
3 eggs
the zest of one orange
the zest of one lemon
3 tablespoons lemon juice (or a bit more to taste).

In a mixer, or with a wooden spoon, blend the honey into the ricotta, then the sugar, the eggs one at a time, and then the lemon juice and zest.

Pour into a lightly greased spring-form pan, and bake at 175C/350F for 45 minutes or until just about set, with the center still a bit wobbly. A bit of light browning along the edges is fine.

Remove from the oven, place in the refrigerator to cool and set. Serve the next day if possible. Fresh berries along side are wonderful. Just choose whatever is in season.

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