A French Food Conversation with Anne Willan Sunday, Jul 22 2012 

This past week, I had the privilege of speaking with British-American food writer and cooking instructor Anne Willan. Anne is one of the world’s foremost authorities on French cooking and has written more than 30 books and cookbooks. She founded La Varenne Cooking School in Paris in 1975, one of the first professional cooking schools in France to offer simultaneous instruction in French & English and accredited, professional culinary degrees. 

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Anne and her husband, Mark Cherniavsky, have just published The Cookbook Library: Four Centuries of the Cooks, Writers, and Recipes That Made the Modern Cookbook, a beautiful culinary volume and an important addition to the field of culinary history. Here are some excerpts from our French food conversation:

How did you first connect with France and French cooking?
When I graduated from Cambridge with a degree in economics, there were no jobs for women in that field. I ended up teaching cooking at a finishing school in London in the early 60’s. After a time, I realized that if I really wanted to cook, then I needed to go to Paris. So I went off to Le Cordon Bleu to get my grand diplôme and immediately felt totally at home in France.

What led you to open La Varenne Cooking School?
After Le Cordon Bleu, I had been living in the U.S. and doing some food writing there. At that time, no one was offering classes in sophisticated French cooking. I wanted to do this, and I felt the need to go right to the source of things culinary. You know, if you want true opera, you go to Italy or Germany. With cooking, you go to France. I wanted to get to the heart of the techniques, the combinations of flavors, the intellectual analysis. I decided to open a school where the teaching was done by French chefs and translated into English and where there were minimal barriers to learning a maximum amount. In 1975, I started La Varenne.

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What was it like offering classes at your chateau in Burgundy?
By the early 90’s, I realized I wanted to share the regional flavors and pleasures of the countryside in France. We closed the Paris venue of La Varenne and began to offer classes at our home the Chateau du Fëy in Burgundy. The house was built in the 1640’s and the large vegetable garden first appeared on a property map in 1751. My fondest memory of holding classes there was going into the potager to pick fresh vegetables and fruits and taking them right into the kitchen to cook.

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What would you recommend as far as cooking schools in France today?
In my opinion, the best training is to find an outward-looking, high caliber French restaurant with a good chef who will let you work in the kitchen. It’s on-the-spot learning of what fine French cooking is all about. A good example is Patrick Gauthier of La Madeleine in Sens. He always welcomed trainees from La Varenne in his kitchen.

What do you think about the latest craze for ‘molecular gastronomy’?
Well, I’m not a fan of that expression. It’s not molecular, and it’s not gastronomic. It’s really ‘modernist cuisine.’ For what it is, I find it fascinating, strange, wicked, amusing, and delicious. Generally, I enjoy it. Chefs are exploring new territory much like was done with nouvelle cuisine in the 1970’s. I am sure it will lead to derivatives and also to some dead ends but it’s interesting all the same. More important and far-reaching trends are things like serving a variety of multi-ethnic dishes on the table at one time. Or serving many different dishes tapas-style. I like how once exotic ingredients are now becoming basic in the kitchen.

How would you describe your latest book The Cookbook Library?
It’s a look at how printed cookbooks evolved in Europe from the beginning of the printing process. My husband and I collect antique culinary books and original cooking sources. Taillevent was one of the first cookbooks to be printed; it came from a manuscript from the late 1300’s. Then in the seventeenth and first half of the eighteenth centuries, the French ran away with the concept of delicious cooking. The wonderful climate of France and bountiful ingredients were part of this phenomenon. You also need economic prosperity and intellectual curiosity. The French had these things then as well. You see this in the U.S. at the moment – it’s a golden age of creativity, enjoyment, exploration and education around food and cooking.

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But back to the book. For at least 200 years or until the 1950’s, France was the repository of good food in the West. After World War II, some of the magic in France disappeared. We have seen it emerge in Spain in the last several years. I am not sure where it will go next – perhaps it will surface in the U.S.

This book seems like a wonderfully detailed ‘food family tree.’ Who will want to read it?
Anyone who loves cooking and anyone interested in the history of food. This book tells the story of food and recipes – where they came from, who wrote them, who ate them. We trace recipes way back to their very beginnings. One of my favorite sources is the book Opera by Bartolomeo Scappi that appeared in 1570. He was chef to a pope – you know the Church ate extremely well – and a true cook. His book includes over 1000 recipes and is a beautiful work of culinary art. At the end, there are 14 pages of illustrations of kitchens and kitchen equipment such as knives with rivets, a knife holder, a mortar and pestle, a mandolin, a ravioli pasta cutter. It is incredible how much is the same even today!

What is your favorite cookbook you have done?
It would have to be The Country Cooking of France. All my favorite French recipes are in there.

If you were putting a good French dinner together, what would it be?
I would make a cheese soufflé to start. Then it would have to be roast leg of lamb with a potato gratin dauphinois. And for dessert, I would make a fruit tart with fruits in season. All served with white and red wines from Burgundy since that was our home.

What would be your best advice for French Affaires’ readers who like to cook?
Seek out the best ingredients you can find. Identify local sources so you know where the ingredients come from. Then get inspired by what is fresh. And cook things simply so that the flavors speak for themselves.

CONCLUSION: I have taken some wonderful cooking classes with Anne in the U.S. over the years. She is a real inspiration – she writes and talks about French cuisine in a way that makes you want to drop everything and do nothing but cook. She is extraordinarily knowledgeable, passionate, articulate, polished, funny, gracious, and approachable.

My only regret is that I did not make it a priority to spend time at La Varenne in Burgundy before Anne closed that cooking chapter of her life in 2007. Today, she and her husband live in Santa Monica, California, where she offers special cooking events with top local chefs; she also spends part of the year in France. I can’t wait to savor every detail of her new book, but my favorite cookbook of Anne’s is The Country Cooking of France – only a deep lover of France and French cooking could have created this culinary work of art!

 

 

France Notes: Lavender Blooms Sunday, Jul 15 2012 

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It is lavender time in Provence. At last. Southern French fields and gardens explode with the fragrant flower beginning mid to late June. Then the vibrant violet blooms color the landscape for a few weeks – or until they are picked.

Lavender has a good history. The Romans used it to keep linens fresh and scent their baths. During the middle ages, perfumes and also healing agents were made from la lavande. It grew wild and also was a staple in monastery gardens around the Mediterranean. But it was from the nineteenth century on that lavender production really came into its own. Perfumeries around Grasse near la Côte d’azur (the Riviera) were in such need of the plant’s essential oil that systematic cultivation of le lavandin, the particularly productive variety of lavender, began.

Today, lavender and Provence are almost synonymous. You can drive around and see lavender fields especially in the Luberon, Vaucluse, Alpes of Haute Provence, and Var areas where chalky well-drained soil, a little altitude and of course, lots of sun, combine for a perfect growing environment. Much of the current lavender production is used for soaps and laundry or cleaning products. And the gorgeous purple ribbons waving across the landscape are a public relations dream. If you have an affinity for lavender, here are a few thoughts for experiencing it up close when in Provence:

Outdoor Markets:  Bouquets of lavender and sachets of lavender blooms are available for sale in season. I recently bought large bags for about 2 euros each – quelle bonne affaire (what a bargain)!

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And at the Friday market in the village of Eygalières, I came upon a local woman who has revived the old tradition of les fuseaux de lavande. These lovely objects are made from about 30 stems of lavender – the blooms are turned inward and then colorful ribbons are woven through the stems and tied at the base. Les fuseaux were typically placed in armoires and drawers to scent linens and keep away dust mites. Today, they cost about 20 to 30 euros apiece as they are labor intensive. But they are a long-lasting keepsake – the lavender flowers hold their scent for three to four years; then you can put a few drops of essential lavender oil in the top to refresh the fragrance.

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Lavender Routes:  Just as many regions of France offer special itineraries showcasing local products such as wines, foie gras or Calvados, Provence has organized les Routes de la lavande. There are six circuits that permit visitors to take in beautiful vistas, walk through lavender fields, pick the flowers, tour distilleries, attend aromatherapy workshops, and more. The Lavender Routes web site is quite comprehensive and offers lots of ideas for excursions during lavender season.

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Another highlight from Les Routes de la lavande are the summer festivals in various towns and villages along the routes…

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Lavender Museum:  The Musée de la lavande was founded in 1991 by the Lincelé family which grows and distills lavender on their nearby 80-hectare (200-acre) farm. Located near Gordes in the Luberon, the museum covers the history, culture and botany of lavender.

Special Boutiques:  The other day in Arles, I passed by a shop selling only lavender and lavender products. It turns out that Pure lavande la boutique also belongs to the Lincelé family. They sell a variety of items made from the essential oil of their fine lavender. There is a second shop located in Avignon.

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Culinary Lavender:  Lavender is also used in cooking. One can buy culinary-grade lavender and make wonderful delicacies such as lavender ice cream and lavender shortbread. Another specialty is lavender honey which has long been prized in France. I think my favorite lavender taste treat though is Joël Durand’s lavender chocolate. Monsieur Durand must-visit boutique in St. Rémy showcases his ‘alphabet chocolates’ – little squares of milk or dark chocolate featuring various flavors. The “L” version combines lavender and milk chocolate. And in season, he makes lavender caramel enrobed in chocolate – absolutely incredible!

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Being around so much lavender in Provence makes me wish I had a entire lavender field of my own. But I make do by having a few of the plants in my garden – and too, whenever and wherever I come across a lavender plant in bloom, I can’t help but gently press the tip of a blooming stem. Then the lovely lavender fragrance stays on my fingers the rest of the day…the smell of summertime in Provence.

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Lavender farms in the U.S.:  There are several farms in the U.S. that cultivate lavender including some in Texas, California, North Carolina, and Washington state. If you google ‘lavender farms,’ you’ll find specific locations and contact information.

Lavender in French gardens:  Next week, French Affaires and SMU in Dallas are partnering to feature “The Spirit of French Gardens: A Virtual Tour of Green Spaces in France.” We’ll get to see several gardens in France with a riot of lavender in bloom on July 23 from 7 to 9pm. Click here for more information and to register.