From the moment we 3 Canadians laid eyes on Mimi Thorisson‘s book, A Kitchen in France, we began to dream of a trip to Médoc, to the warmth of that wine growing region and Mimi’s rustic kitchen.
She lives in the tiny town of Saint-Yzans and had just started cooking classes in her home. We applied tout de suite, and when she let us know we were in, we screamed with pleasure. We were in!! As avid followers of her blog, Manger, we’d become fascinated by a life turned upside down. Mimi had left Paris for the countryside with her 5 children, her Icelandic photographer husband and lots of dogs in tow. We wondered about the world she had created and whether it would live up to our expectations. As it turned out, those expectations simply couldn’t capture the magic of Mimi.
Of the 3 of us, Karen is the talented cook; Michelle cooks when liberated from her design business. And then there is me, Valerie, the occasional cook who, when looking at Mimi’s blog, tended to scroll past the recipes and stop at the photos, and stare. Hypnotized by the color, the composition and the beauty of that large family surrounded by food and countryside. It was so easy to project onto those pictures a life that seemed beyond the sphere of mere mortals and I quickly imagined myself strolling through orchards, visiting country markets, dressing in simple French frocks with big sun hats and yes, doing some cooking.
The first thing I felt when we arrived was warmth. Mimi had described in her writings a kind of chaos that ensues in her kitchen but she is totally at ease with what’s happening around her, like stirring a pot, with baby Audrey on her hip, while we peeled fava beans for a hearty soup, or shucked oysters. When not prepping, I was taking note of Mimi’s favorite things: fragrant Marco Polo tea from Mariage Frères, Fleur de Sel, duck fat! Basque chili (even on oysters) and lemons. Mimi loves lemons – the juice, the zest often finding their way into dishes.
I found Mimi to be a sensualist – “I like food to be poetic, like a stroll through a park,” – and of all the dishes, the one that captured that sensuality for me was the Peaches and Cherry Papillotes. Thinly sliced peaches, cherries with stems, vanilla paste, all drizzled with red wine syrup, topped with verbena leaves and wrapped, fold after fold, in parchment paper, then baked in the oven. The reward: cutting into the paper and letting loose a heady bouquet of fruit and wine. Then eating, of course.
There was also time for outings – a favorite was a long walk to a spectacular chateau with Mimi, in little ballet shoes, pushing a baby carriage over rough country paths with her dog Plum. We basked in a lovely intimacy with none of the separation between teacher and students. Mimi was with us, talking freely about this time in her life, about the lightness she feels after giving up the city. It’s a choice shared passionately by Mimi’s husband, Oddur. We reveled in his generosity (wine flows oh so freely), great aesthetics (the table settings are all his, as are the stunning photographs) and humor. Oddur loves dogs (he has 12) and the first thing he told us was that some of the males needed to be separated, for territorial reasons. His actual comment was that some were in a “witness protection program!”
If there are reservations about the course it would be for people compulsive about time, who are avid cooks and have an idea that the days would be spent madly cooking. It didn’t work out that way. Our days began slowly with conversation around a long wooden table, and then gradually, rather seamlessly, we were cutting and chopping and a lunch would come together — never at normal lunch times but simply when it was ready. Same with dinner.
Dinner! Magnificent settings, with vegetables rather than flowers decorating the table – often red tomatoes tumbling out of bowls, or plates of huge green artichokes or red radicchio leaves.
With candlelight, music and great conversation, with the children often joining us, we ended our days always late and always very content. We were cooking and eating but when our four days came to an end we also felt part of this beautiful and welcoming family. Could any normal cooking course come close? I don’t think so.
Our guest writer, Valerie Elia, is a former television journalist/anchor living in Toronto, Canada.