We have just returned from France, where Mr Z was participating in Music at Albignac, a series of piano summer schools run by pianist and author Paul Roberts and his partner, arts journalist and fabulous cook, Jenny Gilbert. Mr Z knew them at York University but they had lost touch, only to discover recently that we live in adjacent villages. The only accommodation left for the week of Mr Z’s preferred course was reserved for a volunteer ‘competent’ cook. Friends were appalled when I told them I was thinking of offering my services so that he could attend the course. Why, they asked, would anyone want to volunteer to cook for 30+ people in a strange kitchen with someone they hardly knew in the August heat of the Tarn? They say a change is as good as a rest, and I love a challenge, France, music, cooking and Mr Z. So, our car laden with keyboards and boxes of ground almonds, we set off.
The cooks for the first course share with Jenny the joy of the first shop and organising the professional kitchen. Normally there are three cooks, but for the first three days of this course it was just Jenny and me, and apparently the course numbers were higher than usual. It was still fun, in a weirdly masochistic way. Even steering four piled-high trolleys around one of those enormous French supermarkets on day one was fun. Almost.
We cooks did not have to do breakfast, or morning coffee/afternoon tea: all of which was expertly handled by the younger Roberts and their friends, who were also responsible for service and clearing at meals. They have been spending August doing this since they born, and something of the charm they bring to the week is captured in the video for Ned Robert’s song Red Sun (see link below). Cooks tried to wash up as we prepped, but washing up after meals was done by the truly wonderful caretaker-manager, Pascal. Pascal can fix and find anything and is definitely the man you need for a funeral pyre (see below).
La Bastide d’Albignac is at the foot of a steep, wooded valley in the Tarn. A stone set into the wall above the kitchen bears the date 1915. In the fields at the top white cows munch all day long in the sun, and the verges were packed with inspiration for my wild flower meadow embroideries. Huge clumps of wild fennel, interspersed with smoky blue cornflowers and the more delicate, shorter cow parsley-type flower which looks like lace stitched into the grasses.
What did I learn? The first, albeit predictable, adjustment was the sheer quantities of food required. Tomato and goats cheese tart for lunch sounds simple, until you remember you need to make ten large ones. Take Ottolenghi’s version of mejadrah (left), which is a favourite dish at home for high days and holidays, and a labour of love for six. For thirty four one has to peel, finely slice and weep one’s way through no fewer than twenty six onions before frying them in batches. The love had worn a bit thin by the last batch, although the next lesson learned is that having that number of people appreciate something you have cooked does make you forget your sore eyes and onion-stained fingernails.
It may seem a small thing, but I was pleased to find I could stay relatively calm under pressure in a hot kitchen, even when handling very large pans, a 6-ring professional but temperamental stove, and an oven the size of a domestic fridge with no temperature control and a door the knack for which took two days to acquire. It was not something I could have predicted – rather like not knowing, until it happens, whether you are calm at the scene of an accident.
I learned that cooks need to be flexible. We never planned more than a day in advance. Jenny, who has done this for over twenty years, was inspirational in the relaxed way she would abandon the planned menu du jour if the weather suddenly changed, or her keenly bargained raid on the tail end of a local market threw up boxes of produce which needed to be used up immediately: ripe peaches, long, fiery radishes, tomatoes so ripe the insides squidge out without having to peel them. I think I enjoyed more than anything the way the three of us (we were joined midweek by the very experienced Mary, a professional singer) worked together to juggle recipes and come up with an immediate response to the local produce. We all like to cook with fresh produce in a reasonably ambitious style. It may seem obvious, but there is no more valuable culinary experience than spending time in a kitchen with a good cook, and just as I think I left a few ideas behind, I know I have brought some home…Mary’s courgette and lemon soup, the idea that a delicious frozen smoothie can contain mostly raw cabbage and carrot, Jenny’s extraordinary pork with prune sauce.
There is creativity too in using up leftovers. We baked apricots fresh from the market one morning with a little brown sugar for lunch dessert, and the following day I found myself off-recipe, adding the syrupy leftovers to walnuts, chard and breadcrumbs to make a stuffing for chicken breasts, basting with the juice.
The poaching juice from Jenny’s pears in honey and cardamom transformed a fresh fruit salad for next day’s lunch into something special. Like-minded cooks, we exchanged recipes and ideas, tasted and experimented freely. I have returned home physically exhausted, my recipe book filled with notes and splodges. In my dreams I hunt against the clock for elusive ingredients. The cardamom pod hunting dream was particularly intense. Cooking supper for Mr Z feels like a snap of the fingers – what, ONE chicken breast? Most of all, that very French spirit of terroir, of using whatever the land and season happens to give you that day, led me to spend a couple of hours dealing with the consequences of abandoning our vegetable garden for three weeks in culinary fashion rather than tossing the heap of enormous Swiss Chard leaves and tough runner beans onto the compost heap. Now we have bright green soup from the chard leaves, and two kinds of hummus – one from the chard stalks, and another using up the beans, all tucked away in the winter freezer. I don’t think I will feel daunted by cooking for large numbers again. Mr Zoob was happy, and there is something rather magical about cooking to the constant accompaniment of fine piano playing. The food, wine and spirit of enjoyment combine with the intensity of the music-making to create a life-enhancing eight days for the participants, who travel from all over the world to attend these courses. It was a pleasure to make a contribution and although the cooks sometimes have to sacrifice the concerts as they take place immediately before supper, hearing Paul Roberts play my favourite Debussy prelude Des pas sur la neige was a great privilege. We are already looking forward to going back next year.