Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Cooking at La Varenne, Burgundy

Monday Afternoon, September 11, 2006: By 4:00 p.m we are assembled in the kitchen of La Varenne to begin a master class with Anne Willan. We are each covered with a white La Varenne smock apron. For me, this is akin to working with culinary royalty and it is mesmerizing to watch Anne and her colleague chef Randall demonstrate a variety of French dishes from the Burgundy valley. As they work with different tools and demonstrate preparation of each dish, they are a bit like the maestro conducting a symphony.

Anne and Randall walk us through an historic Michelin map developed by Monsieur Curnonsky, known as the “Prince des Gastronomes.” The diagram depicts the location all of the star restaurants and classic dishes found across the country of France in black type. The cluster of type in Burgundy is dark black. Why is Burgundy so famous for food? Anne says it is the ingredients, all of which have strict requirements for production. Chef Randall points out that Burgundy is known for the Holy Trinity of bread, wine and cheese, which really does explain why French food can be a religious experience.

After demonstrating several techniques, Anne withdraws and we are assembled into teams to prepare the evening meal. My partner from Canada and I agree to prepare the main dish. We walk to the garden with Chef Randall and pluck long, sun-drenched green and purple sage leaves from the herb garden. Shortly, I am pounding escallops of veal with a huge, scarred kitchen mallet that looks like it belonged to the Norse gods. Above the entryway to the kitchen, there is a color photograph of Anne, a French chef from the La Varenne professional school and Julia Child clustered around the same counter where we are working. They appear to be smiling down on us.

The final dishes are assembled for presentation and inspection. Ann provides pointers on proper use of plates and color – yellow plates are good for fish, incidentally, and decorative plates can detract – and how to arrange the food to be pleasing to the eye. The class is given a round of bubbly aperitifs and we adjourn to the dining room to enjoy our meal. The tender escallops of veal make for a rustic dish, and the taste of sage infuses the meat. The staff pours a smooth vintage of red Bordeaux with wonderfully intense flavors of mineral and earth, perfect for our French country dinner.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

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