- 04 Oct 2013 -

The Walnut Grove

Nestled amongst luscious farmlands, historic stonewall architectures in the glorious backdrop of the Loire Valley filled with rich culinary history is an absolute gem for anyone who loves to cook, eat and drink well. Totally unassuming with understated elegance lies Walnut Grove in Laval, a historic landmark in arguably the most beloved river of the French.

A quick train journey on the TGV where I transited in Le Mans from Lamballe brought me to Laval. The town is charmingly French, quaint and extremely well kept…the passage of time had been kind to this town despite the last World War which had left its marks. My fellow course mates and I were greeted by the biggest smile and a warm welcome from the lovely Freya who picked us up from the train station. Before we knew it we had left the town center surrounded by the old city walls as we started meandering through the country lanes of Laval. Just before we arrived at the Grove, we found ourselves cradled by endless rows of walnut trees. As my course mates and I passed through the gates of our home for the next 5 days, our eyes sparkled with the curiosity and excitement of a child…we are in for a very special treat.

I was naturally curious of where we will be cooking so I poked my head in the kitchen/classroom before the official start time and others followed… It was well equipped with the amenities of a modern professional kitchen at the ground floor and a spacious dining room with a picturesque view of the pastures on the top. This is housed in a charming 250-year-old farmhouse in keeping with the architectural style of its peers at the time. A stone’s throw from our classroom building is a lovely gite of 2 floors with 4 ensuite bedrooms, restored as one would expect in French country style adorned with simple, elegant décor and modern comforts. There were little reminders like the oak beams and fire place which reminded us of its rustic upbringing.

Maynard and Benedict runs a standard cooking course for 5 days and another advanced course which attracts quite a few semi-professionals. I was under the impression that one’s culinary skillset and food knowledge needs to be fairly up there or else it could be an entertaining experience for my course mates. I stand to be corrected these are not the prerequisites, I was pleasantly surprised to find despite the diversity (nationality, cooking experience, food palette) of the group, we were able to gel and got a lot out of the course given what we learnt from each other. But don’t get me wrong, this is unlike any cooking course I have been in, and I have been to a few (Leith’s in London, Zingerman’s in Michigan, various courses by hotel chefs in Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Bangkok and Bali).

First of all, this is not for the faint hearted amateur chef. When you are not cooking, you are sampling flavors (a more elegant term than eating I suppose) and exchanging notes on restaurants, chefs, good food and wine from your part of the world. Excursions have a focus on local food culture, in keeping with the local pride and joy. One afternoon we visited a historic windmill in Fontaine Coutoir, the owner milled buckwheat flour for sale in Bretagne, apparently it was the last of its kind in the region. The next day we went to a 19 hectares dairy farm which produced its own milk, butter, crème fraiche, buttermilk, wheat, cider and they had a fromagerie on-site which still use generation old recipes to make artisan cheese…. the last establishment of its kind in the Mayenne. For the foodie, this is absolute HEAVEN. To have the opportunity to step back in time to learn about the national pride and joy of the French in the heart of their food epicenter is a once in a lifetime experience.

The cooking is not intensive like you have difficulty following or assimilating the information. It is obvious Maynard and Benedict had put a lot of thought into the structure of the program and what they want us to take away from it. It is full on from 10am – 8pm everyday but they have been doing this for 12 years, the team of 3 has it down to clockworks like a well-oiled machine. They are big on cooking techniques, flavors and presentations, the program is paced at a rhythm which allowed us to build up our confidence naturally as the days progressed. Old sayings were displaced and new tricks of the trade were shared. Fresh ideas drawn from the diversity of the class was encouraged and teamwork was rewarded.

The biggest difference this has from other cooking courses is they do challenge you, they call out your mistakes in your face and they don’t stop until you fix it. They expect your undivided attention and relentless focus on what they are saying (versus note taking) as they want you to take in as much information as you can in the classroom and practical sessions. This takes a bit of getting used to but this is what you paid for after all! One of the first lessons from Maynard was flavoring, he taught us the basics on how to flavor a dish, the layers of taste and how food should “taste”. He gave it to us straight that this is probably the hardest thing to teach, mastery of this art can distinguish a dish/a chef from good to great. Throughout the course he encouraged us to keep tasting, develop our palate and taste profile.

To be honest I don’t find their method of teaching too different from what other “hands on” cooking courses has to offer, but they do have the certain “Je ne sais quoi” which made it that much more special. I believe it is driven by their passion for cooking and their strong belief that all their students can be a good enough cook if they practice and master the techniques they teach and have the confidence to develop their own style of cooking.

I have learnt so much from Maynard and Benedict. I admire their vision and courage in building up this school and program all on their own. I have a burning desire to tell all you cooking enthusiasts and foodies out there about this world-class program. This is truly in a class of its own. I will definitely be back.

Till the next time

; Interview of the Founders of the Walnut Grove