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!

 

 

Burgundy–More Than Boeuf Bourguignon Friday, Oct 15 2010 

It’s fall in France and the U.S. and for me, it’s a return to winter cooking. I love gratins—vegetables such as potatoes layered with cheese and cream or milk—and hearty plats (main dishes) cooked with wine, mushrooms and onions. Sweaters and fires in the fireplace complete the picture.

A quintessential French winter dish of course is boeuf bourguignon (literally, Burgundy beef) which has enjoyed quite a renaissance lately due to the book-made-into-a-movie Julie & Julia. Julia Child’s recipe for this noteworthy stew made with Burgundy red wine is my favorite (pages 315 to 317 of Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol 1 or click here to see it online) and brings the region of Burgundy right into the kitchen.

But Burgundy is much more than its justly celebrated cuisine and wine: art, history, politics, culture, castles, nature, and more make this area of France worth exploring over and over again. Fortunately for several cities in the U.S., Burgundy is coming to us for the next two years—through its art. The spectacular exhibition “The Mourners: Medieval Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy” kicked off its American journey at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this past spring, made a stop in St. Louis and is now at the Dallas Museum of Art.

In the late 1300’s and 1400’s, the Dukes of Burgundy were powerful nobles and significant patrons of the arts. Two of the dukes, Philippe le hardi (Philip the Bold) and his son Jean sans peur (John the Fearless), were commemorated after their deaths by spectacular tombs housed today in Dijon’s Musée des Beaux-Arts.

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While the Dijon museum is undergoing extensive renovations over the next few years, it is sharing the exquisite alabaster sculptures of mourning figures from the lower portion of John the Fearless’s tomb.

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These pleurants, or Mourners—from the French verb pleurer meaning ‘to cry’ or ‘to weep’ in English—are about 16 inches tall and pack a powerful emotional punch. There are nearly 40 of the sculptures representing a funeral procession at the Duke’s death. As Sophie Jugie, the Director of the Dijon museum and exhibition curator, notes in the catalogue:

“The mourners from the tombs of the Dukes of Burgundy are deeply affecting works of art. Beyond their evident visual & narrative qualities, we cannot help but be struck by the emotion they convey as they follow the funeral procession, weeping, praying, singing, lost in thought, giving vent to their grief, or consoling their neighbor. Mourning, they remind us, is a collective experience, common to all people and all moments of history.”

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But the Mourners exhibition is far from sad or depressing. The figures are breathtaking as oeuvres d’art (works of art). They are sculptures that appear both medieval and freshly modern at the same time. And they are a witness to the artistic vision of the various sculptors who worked on them six centuries ago.

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I have seen the Mourners several times—both in their native habitat in Dijon and at the Dallas Museum. The benefit of their American visit is that the figures can be appreciated to their fullest extent—i.e. we can view them on every side. In Dijon, the tombs provide a luxuriously beautiful context but the Mourners can only be viewed at a partial angle as their backs or sides are adjacent to the tomb.

Besides appreciating the figures ‘in the round’, other suggestions for getting the most out of this art exhibition are: 1) When viewing the hooded mourners whose faces aren’t immediately visible, be sure to bend down and look up into their hoods–their entire faces are there in wonderful human detail, 2) Go to the museum at a quiet time for a more contemplative viewing of the sculptures. Noisy, crowded galleries detract quite a bit from these artworks. 3) Take the viewing experience one step further and walk through it with medieval religious music playing on your IPod headphones. I can’t wait to do this last one!

Here is the Mourners exhibition schedule in the U.S.:

Dallas Museum of Art:  Through January 2, 2011

Minneapolis Institute of Arts:  January 23, 2011- April 17, 2011

Los Angeles County Museum of Art:  May 8, 2011 – July 31, 2011

Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Legion of Honor:  August 21, 2011 – January 1, 2012

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond:  January 20, 2012 – April 15, 2012

(Before they return to the capital of Burgundy, however, the Mourners will make a final stop at the Cluny Museum, also known as the Musée national du moyen âge / National Museum of the Middle Ages, in Paris in 2012.)

The ideal would be to see them both in the U.S. and later when they go home to Dijon. Il faut rêver, n’est-ce pas? (We have to dream, don’t we?) At the very least, we are fortunate that Burgundy and a special part of its art will be in the States for about two years. Be sure and mark your calendar to see the Mourners exhibition closest to you—it is a gift of France not to be missed.

French Take-Out™ ~ La France à emporter

If you have not been to Burgundy, one of its signature images is its colorful roof tiles. The center of Dijon has several examples covering the roofs of houses and mansions built by the wealthy from the Renaissance until the French Revolution.

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In nearby Beaune, you have one of the more flamboyant examples of roof tiles on the Hôtel-Dieu, the city’s former hospital. This fifteenth century building of Burgundian and Flemish architecture is a showstopper in every sense. In anticipation of seeing the real thing next time you are in France, you can pick up a charming carte maquette (paper model) version at The Whimsey Shoppe French antique store (Henderson location) in Dallas.

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They also have several other paper models of beautiful French landmarks including the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. To visit The Whimsey Shoppe online, click here.