A little while ago I enjoyed a glass or two of local wine with Sarah Pernot, a fellow Brit and founder of Discover Provence; a tour company offering authentic trips around the region. Sarah suggested I come on one of her newer trips, a Provencal cooking experience, to the home of Marie-Hélène tucked away in a pine forest just outside Aix en Provence.
A few days later I was picked up and driven to her home with two visiting Americans. It was an unusually cool, rainy day so we were all happy to be indoors away from the cold Mistral winds. We knew that we were in for a treat…….. but that’s all……. always the best experience – a surprise!
As the car crunched up the drive way I had arrived to a special place; a beautiful old provencal house complete with stone swimming pool and huge trees protecting it from the wind. Marie-Hélène greeted us warmly and immediately opened her house by showing us around. She joked that her children always enjoy it when mum has her cooking days as they can feast on any left-overs………
One fabulous french coffee later and I was chopping vegetables all fresh from the marché in the Place de Richelme in Aix; aubergines, courgettes, artichokes, fresh garlic, tomatoes, shallots, onions. All the true essence of Provencal cooking! Tips and tricks on cooking were discussed; where to buy the best meat; the best olives with fennel; the very best baguette and of course, the best wine!!!! Conversation about French women and how they look so chic and slim (hmmmm… I’m not sure there are entirely telling the truth; I’m following their instruction and the belt around my jeans is feeling somewhat tighter!!!!!).
Marie-Hélène’s son arrived, charmed us all and left as we shouted after him…… no left overs today!!
The smell of fresh garlic was truly intoxicating…… I ate a little… delicious! Time for the tapenade to be prepared along with the aubergine caviar and the deep fried courgette flowers. Oh that smell…… Marie-Hélène prepared the Creme brûlée! We chatted as if we had been to her home many times before as we chopped and stirred and her parrot joinnd in too!
Time for an aperitif (very important in Provence)!… beautiful local rose wine with olives and tapenade in her salon. Then to the table, so pretty, with a small gift for each of us. Starter of Artichokes in a delicious casserole followed by Lamb with more exquisitely prepared provencale vegetables with herbs de Provence. Colourful and delicious with local red wine. The treat……… creme brûlée with thyme and lavender for dessert. The thyme infused dessert was a new experience for me. WOW!!!!
There were left-overs…… so much food……so I think the family will be happy when they return to this house full of charm and warmth. Marie-Hélène is a natural host who loves what she does. I could have stayed all weekend and I’m sure my American friends felt the same. She spoke some English and Sarah, our guide translated the difficult bits. A truly authentic experience away from the chef schools and commercial cooking classes. Special…. very special!…. I have learnt a thing or two in this provencal kitchen and now it’s my turn to try to re-create …….