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Roger Vergé and la cuisine du soleil

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As you may or may not know, I am back in school this fall. I am 9 weeks into a 40-week French culinary program in Boulder, Colorado. I am going through a particularly rough patch at the moment—trying to figure out if this is the right school for me or if this is the time to reevaluated my situation and look for a school with better facilities and more dedicated, serious students. It has been an exhilarating, challenging, terrifying and frustrating 2 months.

Yesterday I stormed out of class early so completely frustrated with our tiny under-stocked and overcrowded kitchen and my unmotivated classmates. I couldn’t bring myself to go back today. The class has worn me down. I needed to take a day to breathe and get my bearings back.

I spent the day cooking things I wanted to cook: healthy vegetarian food—no clarified butter, heavy cream or “mother sauces”. Nothing deep-fried, shallow-fried, pan-fried, or even sautéed. No flourless chocolate cakes, crème brûlées, Swiss buttercreams, or chocolate ganache. I needed to remember why I like cooking and re-convince myself that I am actually good at it.

This program has shaken me to the core and made me question my culinary abilities. It has also made me ponder my “Francophilia” and frazzled my faith in this young, up-and-coming generation…but those are story for another day…

To compliment my day of healthy cooking and remind myself why I chose to turn my life upside down and attend a French culinary school, I decided to do a little research on one famous French chef: Roger Vergé—the chef who was brave enough to distance himself from the traditional cuisine classique and introduced the world to cuisine du soleil, a variation of Provençal cuisine favoring fresh, local ingredients and unpretentious preparation and presentation.

Vergé explained his nouvelle cuisine as “a lighthearted, healthy and natural way of cooking which combines the products of the earth like a bouquet of wild flowers from the garden.” Also know as cuisine heureuse’, Vergé saw his culinary style as the “antithesis of cooking to impress”. His “happy cooking” transformed French gastronomy, and changed and the way generations of French chefs have approached food and fine dining since.

Born in 1930, Vergé grew up in Commentry in the center of France. Perched on a “small wooden bench”, he learned to cook from his aunt Célestine and was inspired by his father, a blacksmith by day and farmer by night, who “in the evenings…tilled God’s earth and brought his mother flavorful, aromatic vegetable for the table.” At 17, he apprenticed to a local chef at Restaurant le Bourbonnais and then moved on to trained at several Michelin-starred restaurants including Tour d’Argent in Paris. He spent time in Morocco, Algeria and Kenya learning and working in the kitchen of the Mansour de Casablanca and L’Oasis which undoubtedly inspired and informed his cuisine of the sun. Upon returning to France he worked in the restaurants Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo and Le Club de Cavaliere in Le Lavandou where he was exposed to the bright colors and fresh flavors of southern French food.

In 1969, Vergé opened his famous Michelin 3-star restaurant Moulin de Mougins near Cannes. Although French cuisine was still characterized by its heavy use of animal fat —butter, cream, and lard, Vergé’s cuisine of the sun — Mediterranean fare enhanced with vegetable essences and fruit reductions — elevated and celebrated lighter and healthier food, and quickly changed the landscape of French cookery.

He prided himself in serving Provençal dishes highlighted by the flavors of his travels and Moulin de Mougins quickly became one of France’s most well known restaurants. A kind and sincere man, the master chef was eager to share his knowledge with future generations of chefs. “He was one of the few chefs of that era who saw that sharing his skill set would benefit the cooking world as a whole.” To that end, Vergé trained up many of today’s great French chefs including Alain Ducasse, Jacques Maximin, Jacques Chibois, David Bouley and Daniel Boulud. Vergé once said, “the more knowledge we share, the more the cuisine is enriched; we succeed if we make what we love popular.”

By 1974, Moulin de Mougins had won three Michelin stars. A second restaurant, L’Amandier de Mougins, earned another two stars. By the mid-1970s, Vergé held the most number of Michelin stars of any single chef in France. To promote his cooking style, he founded l’École de Cuisine du Soleil Roger Vergé in Mougins. He was the collaborator and head of several other restaurants throughout France and in the US, and he also wrote dozens of cookbooks in both French and English making his ideas and cuisine accessible to home cooks.

Roger Vergé died this past June at his home in Mougins at the age of 85. Thankfully his legacy lives on.

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So…as I contemplate my future journey from home cook to a trained professional cook, and the extreme ups and downs of culinary school, I am encouraged by the wisdom of Caroline Conran in her buoyant preface to the adaptation of Vergé’s Cuisine of the Sun:

“Roger Vergé never lost sight of the fact that cooking should be a pleasure – a celebration of wonderful ingredients, cooked in a simple and practical way that will not overtax the cook and leave her (or him) too exhausted to enjoy the meal.”

…and that is the goal of this whole “happy cooking” thing, isn’t it? Good ingredients, good food, good times…enjoying the process and to never forgetting to taste, smell and see that “bouquet of wild flowers from the garden.”

Happy Cooking

Saint Nazaire–La Baule

After 75 clicks, a 5 1/2 hour ride, and the windy crossing of a 4 km suspension bridge spanning the Loire, we arrived in Saint Nazaire at 17 H Thursday evening…

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…and bid adieu to our familiar and friendly bikes…

IMG_2452…called a taxi and sat down with the best beer I’ve ever tasted…

IMG_2456…and arrived in la Baule…

IMG_2459…dipped our toes in the Atlantic…

IMG_2465…and ate some crêpes Saint Jacques a la Bretagne to celebrate our achievement.

582 km (362 miles) in total over 9 days.

So much more to the story, and I’m excited to share it with you when I have more to work with than my iPhone.

Strangely I’m missing my bike and the daily ride, but pleased as punch and looking forward to a few days of chillin’ on the beach, playing cards, and catching up with friends.

Stay tuned for the details…

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Shut down again

Hard lesson learned: NEVER travel without your own computer. I am shutdown and shut out again…😡 No access to the Word docs and blogs I’ve already written… Will try to post a few shorties tomorrow.

Ancenis—Oudon

We took the day off and spent a quiet and relaxing day in Ancenis and Oudon in the Vallée du Hâvre. Both are teeny tiny towns and designated Ville Fleurie (Flowering City), with medieval towers and châteaux. Ancenis—Oudon_France_loire_a_velo.jpgAncenis—Oudon_France_loire_a_velo.jpg If you like French butter and forklifts, Paysan Breton’s beurre moulé doux et demi sel is packaged here, along with Toyota’s industrial equipment. beurre-moule-doux-paysan-breton_4872585_3412290011067 Aside from taking in the view and strolling along the riverbanks or canoeing on the Hâvre, there is not much of anything to do, which is exactly what we needed…plus I even got to cycle in a skirt and straw hat. Ancenis—Oudon_France_loire_a_velo.jpg Ancenis—Oudon_France_loire_a_velo.jpg Ancenis—Oudon_France_loire_a_velo.jpg Ancenis—Oudon_France_loire_a_velo.jpg We are staying at bed and breakfast très charmant with yet another affable hostess. The always-smiling Delphine speaks in rapid, animated French, that somehow is easy to understand. She bakes homemade breads and cakes, tends a beautiful garden and has made us feel at home. Today we have a short (40 km) and scenic ride to Nantes to rendezvous with Nicola and check out the capital city of the Pays de la Loire, Jules Verne’s stomping ground, the castle and tower of the dukes of Brittany, and hopefully the giant marionettes of Royal de Luxe. havre_river_loire_a_velo_france.jpg havre_river_loire_a_velo_france.jpg À tout à l’heure…

Angers—Montjean-sur-Loire—Ancenis

It looks like I am back in business and able to post again from our laptop. I will have to go back and fill in the days I missed, but will catch you up on yesterday’s ride from Angers to Ancenis. Angers_France.jpg By nearly all accounts, it was another fantastic day on the Tour de la Loire. I say nearly all accounts, because we had just hit day seven, and frankly, Superman and I were starting to get a little annoyed with one another. I was still frustrated about the computer not working, and some blogging censorship, and Superman was a bit worn out from doing things the French-way; meaning stopping (a lot) to see the sights and eat good (sometimes expensive) food. I was taking it out on him, and he was losing his patience.

The thing about doing a trip like this, is that even though you are on your own bike, and often in your own head, you still have plenty of time together. You are each other’s only company, except when friends drop in, and your have to be in basic agreement about how you want things to go. Most of the time we are, but sometimes we get a little passive aggressive.

When you have a hot 75+ km cycling day and you start off angry, it takes awhile to regain your optimism…like maybe, 3 hours or so. That’s a long time to sit on your bike and think negative thoughts. Sometimes it is better to have a little distance, say, a half-kilometer or so, between you and your spouse.

As we cycled away from Angers, paradoxically I was not quite ready to let go of my anger (although it’s not pronounced that way in French—it still seemed a bit ironic to me). I wanted to ride away from my cantankerous self, but I needed some time and space to be perturbed. Angers—Montjean-sur-Loire—Ancenis The path out a town starts at the foot of the Angers castle, and winds through the huge Parc du Maine—Angers answer to NYC Central Park. Lush and green and surrounding a large interior lake, the trail should have been perfect. But, it was Sunday late-morning in France, which means everyone in a 10-mile radius was out and about and using the path too.

I cycled on sullenly and Superman tried to make things better. I didn’t want thing to be made better. I wanted to be mad for a bit. Harsh words were exchanged and we ended up cycling in silence and at a distance. Angers—Montjean-sur-Loire—Ancenis Angers—Montjean-sur-Loire—Ancenis After a good long hour or two of being mad at my computer, mad at my husband and mad at the French, I decided enough was enough, and I resolved to turn things around and remember that our differences are actually what make us strong as a couple. loire_a_velo_France_cycling.jpg While I am 110-percent, do-it-right-the-first-time-perfectionist, Superman is a 75-percent-and-its-good-enough type of guy. While I speak French softly and thoughtfully, Superman speaks loudly and without fear. While I like to slow down, and taste and explore everything, he likes to compete and go for the goal. He likes a homemade picnic, and I like the gourmet meal. I’ll eat a greasy hotdog, and he’ll eat a healthy veggie burger. I’ll wash my biking shorts daily, and he’ll wait an entire week.

But I love all these things about him, and I love how he supports me with all my quirks. I love that being with him forces me to do things his way sometimes, and that makes me better in quite a lot of ways. I love that we complement each other and that we can compromise. loire_a_velo_France_cycling2.jpg I admit, I do love that guy…now if I could just get him to wash those bike shorts a little more often…

Fontevraud le Restaurant

Fontevraud l'Abbeye

While flipping through my Food & Wine magazine in Colorado, I came across an article entitled The Ten Best New Restaurants in France. Much to my delight, one of the restaurants happened to be situated directly on our planned cycling route. Too good to be true, I knew it was meant to be. I decided to splurge and booked a table for two at Fontevraud le Restaurant, in the Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud not far from Saumur.

Located in the cloister, and one time prison, of Europe’s largest abbey, young chef, Thibaut Ruggeri, (only 34-years-old), and winner of the 2013 Bocuse d’Or (an international gastronomic competition), serves up extremely stunning haute cuisine in an intimate and peaceful setting. The tables surround a courtyard filled with fresh and colorful herbs where the very kind and attentive wait staff trim and pick fresh ingredients for each course.

Fontevraud-Le-Restaurant

No doubt about it, Chef Ruggeri is an artist. Visually his plates are exquisite. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such beautiful and creative plating. Our dinner was like an edible trip to a fine modern art museum. In addition to the freshly picked herbs, the chef uses local ingredients, like honey from the abbey’s bees and mushrooms grown in the limestone caves surrounding the abbey. While not every plate was a homerun on the palate and flavor sometime took a back seat to art, it was an unforgettable evening.

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Fontevraud le Restaurant

Fontevraud le Restaurant

Fontevraud le Restaurant

Fontevraud le Restaurant

Fontevraud le Restaurant

Fontevraud le Restaurant

Fontevraud le Restaurant

Fontevraud le Restaurant

Fontevraud le Restaurant

Fontevraud le Restaurant

Fontevraud le Restaurant

MENU ABEILLES \ 20€

Layers of fresh goat cheese

Chicken with mashed potatoes and lemon

Chocolate and nuts

MENU MENU \ 58€

Including wines in keeping with the meal \83€

A springtime revolution

Pollock, and pots herbs

Chicken from Racan, Swiss chard end goat’s cheese

Goat cheese and basil

A symphony of lemon and black olives

GRAND MENU \ 95€

Including wines in keeping with the meal \ 130€

The Paris mushroom at Fontevraud

Fario trout marinated, pinewood

Poached monkfish with shellfish and striped with squid and squid ink with a braised fennel bulb and a dill and red wine sauce.

A pigeon fillet with almonds and covered with a cognac marzipan, honeyed carrots and giblets with 4 spices.

Cheeses from the length and breadth of the Loire

A little sweetness without butter or cream

A symphony of lemon and black olives

Chinon-Candes-Saint-Martin-Saumur-Fountevraud-l’Abbaye

We’ve had an impossibly slow internet connection on Wednesday and Thursday, and now I’m completely locked out from laptop blogging. Boo! (Working on a solution…) Here are a few pictures of Thursday’s journey from Chinon to Saumur. We only rode 48 km, but it felt like 84. The saddle sores are still settling, but we are happily transitioning into the rhythm of the cycling lifestyle. IMG_1812 chinon_france_biking_velo.jpgchinon_france_biking_velo2.jpg chinon_france_biking_velo3.jpg france_biking_velo_loire_valley.jpg france_biking_velo_loire_valley2.jpg   france_biking_velo_loire_valley3.jpg france_biking_velo_loire_valley4.jpg

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