Recipes for This Story
Smoked Salmon Bites
White and Green Asparagus with New Onions
Mackerel Fillets with Fresh Peas, Radishes, and New Garlic
Garden Greens with Hazelnut Vinaigrette; Cheeses
Strawberry Parfait with Fresh Normandy Cream
Written and produced by Stephen Exel
Photographs by Stacey Haines
I'm excited to be in France for an overdue visit. The weather promotes sidewalk strolling, café relaxing, and fashion noting. And for a die-hard foodie, being here is paradise. .
On a Friday night in Paris, I attend a cooking class in the Marais neighborhood with cookbook author Susan Herrmann Loomis, founder of On Rue Tatin cooking school in the Norman town of Louviers.
It's an engaging evening spent with return students and novices eager to learn French techniques, ending with a wonderful meal and an impromptu jazz performance. But it's also an amuse-bouche, a "mouth-teaser" to the intense study of regional French cooking Susan so beautifully teaches. For the full experience, travel to Normandy and visit On Rue Tatin.
There, in the kitchen of her 12th-century home, Susan instructs three- or five-day courses. The house, a former convent, stands in the shadow of the majestic Gothic church Notre Dame de Louviers. Susan and her husband purchased the tumbledown structure when the opportunity to write a cookbook resulted in a move to France. Through the long haul of renovation, they discovered buried tile work, a forgotten wine cellar, and the equally humble and elegant local cuisine.
"On Rue Tatin is a gastro-cultural experience," Susan explains. "You learn about local ingredients and techniques, meet purveyors, and visit markets. Everything we cook is true to the region."
Students gather in the timbered kitchen, anchored on one wall by a stone hearth and on the other by a custom Cometto stove. Gleaming copper pots hang within reach, and a blackboard lists the daily menu. Floor-to-ceiling windows open to a patio and herb garden where, weather permitting (and it often does), informal meals are served. While the kitchen is large and accommodating, classes are kept small to
allow hands-on instruction. Students work in pairs to prepare individual courses.
Susan reviews upcoming recipes and includes tastings of essential ingredients--sampling sea salts to determine their best use, gathering in the garden and nibbling fresh herbs, or identifying qualities of different olive oils. The roster of recipes changes as new produce becomes available.
For a spring class, students took advantage of market offerings to prepare a four-course dinner that included the season's first herbs, just-harvested radishes, white and green asparagus, and tiny strawberries. Hazelnut oil, crème fraîche, and edible blossoms run through the menu, giving it consistency of flavor and variety in usage.
Smoked Salmon Bites, a classic combination of smoked salmon, crème fraîche whipped with chive and lemon juice, and herbs snipped straight from the garden, start the meal. White and Green Asparagus with New Onions follows. "White asparagus is one of the best parts of the French spring," Susan notes. It has a candylike flavor that pairs beautifully with the sherry wine vinegar and hazelnut oil dressing.
Dismiss thoughts of the pungent radish used only to color a dinner salad. Sautéing brings out a sweetness that will convince you otherwise. In the main course--Mackerel with Fresh Peas, Radishes, and New Garlic--the vegetables are tossed with soy-lime vinaigrette and placed atop full-flavored mackerel fillets. Coriander seeds and fresh cilantro season the dish.
"Each meal at On Rue Tatin includes a cheese course served along with the salad, comme dans la campagne--as they do in the country," Susan says.
Dessert, Strawberry Parfait with fresh Normandy Cream, is an elegant, easy-to-prepare treat that takes advantage of the first strawberries of the season--small, sweet, and red to the core. Students learn to macerate the strawberries in syrup and to make an orange-scented sorbet with them, then stack everything up with velvety-smooth crème fraîche. Using champagne flutes is a sophisticated way to serve.
It's difficult to leave the charm of Louviers and On Rue Tatin after a week of cooking and eating under Susan's tutelage. But back home and putting new skills into practice, you'll have everyone exclaiming ooh-la-la!.