Sunday, September 10, 2006: I have arrived in the Burgundy Valley of France. Our minibus crawls up the driveway, and we are greeted at the door of Chateau du Fey by Anne Willan, noted cookbook author, food historian and founder of the prestigious professional school, Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne.
I’ve seen Anne on television numerous times, and I look forward to a week of learning from someone of her distinction. We only have a few minutes to drop our bags, and we are led off on an historic tour of the 17th century chateau. This is a working estate, and all the trees and plants are chosen to be edible. There is a chef on staff, several country dogs, and a number of students from La Varenne who are there to gain “the French experience.” We learn about the history of the estate, and stroll past age-old trees and hunting grounds where wild boars still wander. Along the way, we examine what is reported to be one of the deepest wells in the country, view a brick oven bakery and the ancient wine press that was once used by the estate.
Even the gardens are rich in history. In the herb garden, I take note of a pot of greenery labeled, “Julia Child’s Mint.” Anne takes us through the sprawling vegetable garden where we pluck raspberries and sample fresh peaches from the trees. She tells us the fruits taste better when they are “warmed by the sun.”
After completing the tour we are led to the subterranean stone wine cellar where we are given a talk on French cheeses by a local fromager. He teaches us about the origin of classic French cheeses, the different styles of cheese, and I learn that Roquefort is actually a combination of bread mold and cheese, and is described by the French as “parsley cheese” because the green flecks in the cheese resemble the herb. He serves us Roquefort that is buttery and sharply salty and seems to last forever on the tongue.
Back in the Chateau, the staff lays out a buffet magnifique on the rustic table in the entry hall, created with produce from the region or the garden of the estate. There is a vegetable tarte and a mushroom tarte, fresh pork from the local area, and cherry tomatoes from the garden adorned with sweet tarragon. We drink the local red wine from the Burgundy region, which is soft and full and converse over candlelight in the dining room as darkness falls outside. Finally, Anne leads us back to the parlor where we sample what she calls “sticky drinks” to conclude the evening.
© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved
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