My dream of cooking in a real French kitchen just came true.
Welcome to Abzac, a French commune in the picturesque Charente department in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region of southwestern France. Along with Sydney we have been fortunate to call Abzac home for the past six years.
One of my very first blog posts was about the region and our life there. The blog was called “A Home in France” and included my Potato, Leek and Goat Cheese Flan recipe, along with a long lunch menu I served up that year. You can read it here. It will give you an understanding and some background into our love for all things French, and France.
The title of this blog is not about our little Charente kitchen which has produced kilos upon kilos of culinary wonders if I do say so myself 😉 – it is actually about our French neighbour Elisabeth and her kitchen.
We met Elisabeth more than six years ago and we have become great friends, she is even visiting Australia for the first time soon.
Elisabeth is the best neighbour you could ever wish for – knowledgeable, kind and very welcoming. Over the last six years we have shared home-made food, dined in local restaurants and enjoyed the earthiness of her home grown vegetables.
“I’ve always thought that food culture and food sharing creates such great natural friendships, it’s a very simple way to connect from the heart. When you invite people into your home or make them a dish to enjoy, you’re giving them not just a meal, it’s a gift of your time and love. You can never underestimate the gift of food.”
We had been into Elisabeth’s little Charente kitchen many times but never to enjoy a meal together. Certainly never to cook a meal. I remember five or six years ago thinking how amazing it would be to cook with a french local in their kitchen and make classics like a Galette or my partner Andrew’s favourite, Tarte au Citron. This year my dream came true.
This summer Elisabeth introduced us to a friend of hers who teaches English. We enjoyed a few glasses of local wine, cheese of course and some delicious toasted squares of a new type of bread I discovered in town. Positioned on our front deck watching the sun slowly creep down the valley, we had many laughs and got a chance to catch up on the local gossip. And most importantly reconnecting with Elisabeth and getting to know her friend.
“I mentioned to her my dream to cook in a real French kitchen and before I knew it she said “nous allons cuisiner ensemble” – we will cook together.”
We had been travelling and working on a new renovation in Cognac and when we returned to the Farmhouse Elisabeth stopped by to remind me that our cooking day needed to be soon as she knew we would be returning to Paris the following week. She presented me with three options and we decided to go with the next Thursday for a 9am start. This was perfect as we had 16 people for dinner the next evening and I was in dire need of inspiration.
Elisabeth was highly organised as she presented to me the menu for the day. She said, “today we will be making three french dishes, a Galette, a Crepe and Tarte au Citron” – I should have referred to my Larousse Gastronomique many years ago to remind myself of the difference between a Galette and a Crepe. There is a lady who runs a caravan creperie down by the river and I always wondered why our lunch time crepes were brown and not white. I also wondered why they were folded into a square and not quarters. I was about to discover the reason for this.
A Galette is a form of crepe made with buckwheat flour. These are traditionally used for lunch time or dinner meals with savoury ingredients, think ham, mushrooms, artichoke, cheese. And don’t forget a swirl of fresh cream! Very important.
A Crepe is a form of crepe. You knew that right 😉 – a crepe with a little bit of sugar added to its batter to accompany its ingredients which are of course sweet. This Crepe is made from white flour.
Elisabeth informs me that you can have a white flour crepe with savoury by simply omitting the sugar but today is all about sticking to traditions and I am not complaining.
Understanding these differences also helped me further understand the menu at the Caravan Creperie. I could now understand literally, thanks to our french lessons at Alliance Française de Sydney the importance of combining ingredients. The fresh cream was an important addition I had never considered. I always put far too much cheese in my crepes which is great for the lips, but certainly not the hips!
Preparing food with Elisabeth was a lot of fun, not just from a learning perspective, but also to get to know her more, how she prepares food, what food she enjoys to eat and in what season. I also discovered her AMAZING galley pantry. With its narrow shelving from floor to ceiling and stocked full of french dry goods, the kitchen staff from the Le Meurice, Paris could even whip up a storm in here.
Our agreement was to prepare lunch for three. It also included three other rules:
- No speaking english
- The recipes were to be in french
- I would do all the cooking under Elisabeth’s supervision.
Our menu included:
- Galette’s with Ham, Mushrooms, Emmental Cheese and Fresh Cream – there was also the choice of goat cheese or a combination
- A Green Salad with a perfectly balanced Home-made Vinaigrette
- and to finish:
- Crepes with our choice of Nutella, lemon, or Elisabeth’s home made Fig Jam.
Andrew, Elisabeth and I had the most wonderful day. It all started at 9am and we left Elisabeth’s kitchen just after 2:30pm.
I learned a lot from Elisabeth who is actually a retired and highly respected school principal from the nearby town of Confolens. Elisabeth is also a natural leader simply by her desire to teach others new skills and with sharing her knowledge and experience, you always leave feeling richer, fuller and happier.
The most important thing that has stayed with me is to not rush. We get so caught up with quick meals and food on the run. In the city it feels like a competition sometimes on who can make the easiest or fastest meal. Taking the time to prepare, cook and enjoy food is far more satisfying than throwing together something random simply for the sake of eating. I’d rather eat nothing at all.
One of my other favourite french dishes is the classic Boeuf Bourguignon – you can get my recipe here. For Elisabeth’s version we will have to brave the French winter as only tourists eat Boeuf Bourguignon in summer and tourists we are not.
I would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
As always, Bon Appétit, Mike X