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Cooking Class #3: Co-Queen of the Chateau Cuisine

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Trains, planes, and automobiles. I’ve logged time in all three this last week, and today was no different. In fact, I’m on train #2 today after spending the afternoon cooking with Suzanne Bourdais at Chateau Lavergne outside of Bordeaux. My train from Paris arrived early this morning. Quelle chance! And after an amazing day in Suzanne’s enchanting French kitchen overlooking the countryside, I should have known my luck was bound to run thin.The train I’m on now from Bordeaux to Toulouse was delayed for whatever reason. Had I been able to hear the announcement over the coughing, flat-topped seatmates of mine, perhaps I could have deciphered the reasoning in French. The only thing making this delay more manageable is the dog standing in the aisle looking longingly for his owner who just went to the bar car. That’s right–dogs are allowed on the trains in France. Pack your bags, Henri…we’re moving.

Suzanne was the most gracious of gracious hosts and more and more, I feel like I‘m winning the Google lottery with the people I‘ve been meeting on this trip. She picked me up from the train station, and we were at her Chateau in about ten minutes flat. We drove in past a small vineyard, a few out buildings (I’d find out later their purposes), and into the porte cochere at the entrance. I would be co-queen of the chateau’s cuisine for the day. “Cuisine” is French for “kitchen” in case you were curious.

The house was magnificent. It is styled in the manor of Napoleon III from the Second French Empire, which combines functionality with design. As she flung open the door, rooms flowed into adjacent rooms, yet each section had its purpose. It looked like a living museum, although the flat-screen TV was a giveaway that someone resided there. The kitchen, however, was a modern marvel replete with a wood-burning fireplace that stared back at whoever was manning the helm (the stove). Yet the Style Napoleon III was well-preserved in this room as well, as it was in the rest of the buildings on the property. Suzanne has a dedicated building with a demonstration kitchen for her classes, dining space for her students or groups that rent her facilities, an indoor pool, and a rentable space for events. That’s right ladies– you can have your wedding at Chateau Lavergne! Word of caution: it‘s booked about a year in advance.

Inside, Suzanne and I put together an aesthetic lunch salad (vous mangez avec les yeux d’abbord) with concentric circles of carpaccio-style potatoes, mache, sliced mushroms, and paper-thin slices of magré du canard fumé (smoked duck breast). We topped it with a homemade vinaigrette. Simple. Marvelous. The duck wasn’t having much luck in our kitchen today because our plat principal also involved the billed species, only this time, we turned our focus to the legs. Suzanne keeps a mason jar of duck fat on her kitchen counter to cook with; I will be keeping a mason jar on mine from this point forward. Over low heat, she cooked the duck legs in fat until they were tender, not dry.

In the meantime, we sautéed diced red onions in butter with a bit of cinnamon. These were so good. They formed the base in our buttered casserole dish, and the duck legs were proudly perched atop. We deglazed the onion pan with a bit of vinegar (stand back, or you’ll get a horrific smelling facial), and added in two tablespoons of honey. This popped a bit at the beginning, so again, another time to be alert so you don‘t get burned. After the sauce reduced and thickened a bit into a carmelized mixture, we added in some chicken stock, dropped in the dates, and poured it over the casserole. We both agreed that had we added more chicken stock at the pan stage, the sauce would have been a bit better consistency and not have thickened up quite so much as we finished the dish in the oven. She prepared a bit of long-grain rice to accompany our chicken dish, however, potatoes or a root vegetable purée would have been nice too. The dish was finished with a sprinkling of toasted almonds, and although mostly comprised of sweet ingredients, was a perfect mélange of salty and sweet.

I think I’ve eaten more duck this week than I have in my life, but in true culinary argumentation, I learned today that duck fat is proven to be fairly healthy. I hope that’s true, because after one week in France, j’adore le canard. We ended our meal with a sheep’s milk cheese from the Pyrenées region of France, quite near Spain. Traditionally, this cheese is eaten with black cherry jelly, and when you enter fromageries in the region, there are jars of the jelly in corresponding displays. I had mine with some of Suzanne’s homemade fig jam, and it was fresh and fabulous.

We washed this all down with a 2005 Bordeaux (excellent year for Bordeaux’s, by the way), and then headed out to the city of the same name to look around before my train departed on a schedule all its own. I guess traveling is a bit like cooking in that you have to be flexible because things don’t always go as planned. I’ll get to Toulouse a bit late tonight, but if I know my friend there, he’ll have sangria waiting for me at the train station (if he hasn‘t finished it all himself waiting).

Chateau Lavergne
Suzanne Bourdais

Next Stop: Toulouse

A Penny for Your Thoughts...

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