Shortly after their return, I came down for breakfast. Wayne was brewing coffee, while Lydie selected a fresh-baked croissant. Breaking off a piece with her fingers, she asked, as if from off in the distance, “Ow would you like to take coo-king classes in zee Luberon for your birthday present?” It was March. My birthday is in June.
“Why would I want to take cooking classes in the Luberon when you’re right here?”
Lydie is a French cooking teacher of considerable renown as well as a cookbook author. I had already taken numerous courses with her.
Sitting down, coffee pot in hand, Wayne announced, “You WANT to take cooking classes in the Luberon the day after tomorrow.”
La Châtelaine explained, “Zere iz a woman in zee Luberon who geeves classes for only four hundred euros. I need to know ‘ow she doz eet. I em too well-known. Wayne et moi, we have decided you will go and find out. You will be an espion!” (spy)
I know when I’m defeated. Being an expert, she phoned and cooked up quite a story. Her friend from New York was visiting. She wanted to learn French cooking. She had little time. Would one day and night be okay? She would pay en liquide (cash), magic words to the French.
We drove to le petit village in the Luberon, so petit we couldn’t find it. Finally, we arrived at a narrow street with a closed Mairie and a tabac. She asked for the home of Mme. Arlette Vauban.* “Là-bas,” le patron waved, with a vague flourish of his hand. “There” appeared to be nowhere, but we continued until we arrived at a dirt road. A hand-lettered sign said “Vauban.” We drove into the woods. The tyres and chassis of La Châtelaine’s Peugeot 505 were not pleased. We arrived at a tiny house, described in the brochure as a mas. A heavily made-up older woman in a mini-skirt answered the door with a coquettish smile: “Arlette Vauban?” I asked. “Mademoiselle,” she corrected. La Châtelaine quickly left.
We drove to le petit village in the Luberon, so petit we couldn’t find it.
Amongst the group, Arlette introduced Ulrich, a retired engineer from Munich, who had a maison secondaire in the chic town of Uzès. Yuriko, a design student, who’d come for the week from Tokyo and spoke minimal French and English. Joanne, a Californian housewife and school teacher, had signed up for a class with Michelin starred Alain Ducasse, who’d cancelled at the last minute. École Arlette Vauban had been the only school with available places.
Mademoiselle excused herself to the pantry for something she forgot.
We were going on a picnic in the Alpilles. Ulrich’s Mercedes sports coupé had room for three. I was relegated to Arlette and her beige Deux Chevaux with a hole in the floor. We arrived at the mountains and were each given heavy white-plastic sacks. Mademoiselle was in a giggly mood. Her aesthetic surgery was beginning to sag with each laugh. We hiked for over an hour until she selected a clearing which was really a bog. Ulrich suggested another spot might be more suitable for a picnic. Mademoiselle liked this one.
We each found a fallen log or rock and sat down. Arlette removed a white paper plate from her sack and proceeded to peel, while slivers of plates emerged. We were each allotted plastic cutlery and one square apiece from a roll of paper towels. I thought about La Châtelaine’s beautiful antique picnic baskets, Soulaeïdo napkins and tablecloths and Cristofle silverware for her school’s picnics. Mademoiselle routed around in a large bag, pulling out an enormous ovoid shape wrapped in layers of plastic, which she proceeded to unravel. Without warning, a pale football slurched its way out at breakneck speed, landing with a plop on a mound of pine needles, followed by a splurt of orange liquid that in another lifetime might have been geléed. “Terrine de Veau!!!” Arlette shrieked, “essential for a ‘good’ French picnic!” She slid the terrine sportive onto a plastic bag, arranging some orange slices on top. Bread and wine followed. The wine was in a plastic screwtop litre bottle, the same brand favoured by the Nyons marginaux. Plastic sample cups of the variety used for laboratory pipi tests were handed round. Mademoiselle produced a family-sized jar of cocktail onions. Conversation was minimal. For dessert, grapes with insectes were served. With a grande geste Mademoiselle produced a generic-brand supermarket Camembert in a faux-wooden box. “France is known for its cheeses! The best cheeses in the world!”
Mademoiselle was in a giggly mood. We hiked for over an hour until she selected a clearing which was really a bog.
We packed up the remains and continued our hike. During our déjeuner sur l’herbe, Joanne had slyly caught my eye. She slowed down as we climbed, allowing the others to go ahead. Words flew from our mouths. We were gasping, both on the verge of manic hysteria. “You missed the twenty-year-old boyfriend and the go-go club.” Why was I there? I spilled, all and then some. Back at the cars, Ulrich, Yuriko and Joanne piled into the Mercedes. They were going to do some sightseeing on the way back. I feebly waved good-bye.
Mademoiselle excused herself to the pantry for something she forgot.
The dinner menu was typical of Provence cuisine, Arlette explained, as she passed around printed recipes, which we would be allowed to keep. Zucchini Stew, Caramelized Pears and Pineapple au Gratin, Marzipan Chicken, Pear Charlotte.
Arlette remembered she’d forgotten something in the pantry and vanished.
First, the Charlotte whose ingredients were: 20 supermarket langues de chats (ladies’ fingers) from a box; 1 small can apricot halves; ditto peach slices; generic screwtop blend of alcohol with ¼ Kirsch, skimmed milk, whipped margarine, sugar, gelatin powder and 2 tablespoons of crème fraîche. During the preparation, Arlette made several trips to the pantry. We assembled the concoction in a spring mould, which she shoved into the refrigerator.
The zucchini stew was made with fresh peeled zucchini, instant rice, eggs and skimmed milk, topped with shredded supermarket cheese. I was beginning to feel faint. Arlette was increasingly chatty and coquettish. No one else said a word. On to the Pineapple-Pear Gratin, “a big Pineapple,” which would accompany the Marzipan chicken. Arlette whipped out an electric carving knife. All “good” French kitchens had to have one to cut pineapples. Yuriko had a panicked look to her face. A bag of ground almonds was poured over this with sugar, honey, margarine and a dollop of heavy cream. Ice cream was optional and not forthcoming.
What was essential, we were told, was to always use a “good” chicken. No naughty chickens for her, thought I. Hers came plastic-wrapped in a little yellow Styrofoam tray. “Good” ingredients never needed salt, pepper, herbs or other seasonings. Joanne inquired about the famous Herbes de Provence, the wild rosemary, sage and thyme. “Nice for window boxes,” Arlette explained. Ulrich mentioned garlic. “Only for peasants!!”
Sadly, the bonbon chicken had left the warmth of its oven several hours too soon.
Arlette forgot something in the pantry. I couldn’t resist. “Have you noticed how she always comes back empty-handed?” Ulrich tilted back his head and made the chugging bottle sign with his fingers in front of his mouth. I was becoming giddy.
Back at the chateau, La Châtelaine must be preparing a Blanquette de Veau by now, or perhaps a Daube de Provence. Wayne would be washing an assortment of fresh lettuces for a salad and selecting an exquisite wine from his cave.
Mademoiselle hacked apart the chicken and permitted us to help brown it in sunflower oil. She did not believe in olive oil. “Not worth it.” She mixed a half-pound packet of ground hazelnuts with water until it became a paste to coat the chicken, which was to cook slowly for an hour. It was nearing 9 p.m. I hesitantly asked if I could get a glass of water from the sink. Mademoiselle shot me a look but relented. Another trip to the pantry. Giggly and coquettish that she was, underneath lurked an aura of menace.
The table was set. Real paper napkins! Real plates! Real cutlery! A glass bottle of wine was placed on the table. We would each be permitted one verre; anything more would be added to our bills. Ulrich was instructed to remove the Charlotte from the refrigerator and unmould it. The gelatin did not appear to have taken. La Charlotte flooded the table. Ulrich announced drily, “Ce n’est pas Le Cordon Bleu,” at which point I lost it, as did Joanne. Yuriko summoned what little English she knew to add, “I come all the way from Japan for this!” Arlette was too busy removing the candified chicken from the oven to hear.
Dinner was served. Sadly, the bonbon chicken had left the warmth of its oven several hours too soon. I stuck to the zucchini, frantically moving the rest of the meal around on my plate. Periodically, I would return to Ulrich’s remark and be seized by a fit of uncontrollable giggling which I attempted to turn into coughing.
We were told to adjourn to the living room for a surprise. The lights dimmed, Arlette appeared, make-up re-applied, bearing the rest of the wine. We were to be allowed another glass. The big surprise, however, was the certificates granted to each participant acknowledging graduation from L’école de Cuisine Arlette Vauban. I would not be receiving one. The scrolls were exquisite, beautiful hand calligraphy decorated with delicate and charming watercolours of Provence. Arlette had done them herself. Did she teach art? No, her true calling was cooking.
La Châtelaine arrived as promised at ten the next morning. Was I sure I didn’t want to stay for the rest of the day? The conversation that occurred on the ride home is not printable. She was told, however, the next time she needs a culinary spy, I am officially retired.
*not her real name
(Recipes can be furnished upon special request.)
Patricial Fieldsteel. Photograph – courtesy Penny Averill.